Bluffing in Poker
Bluffing can be very rewarding with good instincts. Bluff at the wrong pot and in a no limit game, it can cost you dear. At the same time, you will never be successful unless bluffing is part of your game. The key is understanding the right pots in which to bluff. Poker is a great game for many reasons, but one of my favorites is that you can win a huge pot with the worst cards possible. It is a bit of a cliche, but "its not what you hold in your hand, but what your opponent thinks you hold that counts".
The concept of bluffing in poker is to give the appearance that you hold a better hand than you actually do. To do so successfully you need to play and bet in a manner that suggests that you hold a big hand (without being too obvious that your stealing). There are techniques to doing this well. Experienced players use every trick in the book to get into the mind set of their opponent. With practice, you can be doing this too. To pull of the successful bluff, you will need to bet into a pot with a hand that would likely not win at showdown, and get your opponents to fold.
As with anything, there are good times to do things and times not to. It is important to work on this so that you aren't throwing your money at pots that either offer little reward or aren't conducive to pulling it of. Whilst getting caught on a big bluff doesn't do your table image any good, there are ways that you can use your table image to manipulate how players play against you.
Times when bluffing is a bad idea
This is an important one - limit your bluffing when playing against either low limit players or bad players playing at the higher stakes. They are not skilled enough to know that they are beat and often they will not pick up on any reverse tells or the fact that you haven't played a hand for an hour. Low skilled players are renowned for calling almost anything in the hope of catching a big hand so make sure against these players you get in with the best hand and let them call your raises. A player of less skill really isn't paying that much attention to either the game or the players around him and will continue calling like he/she normally does.
Don't bluff at pots when you are in early position. There are potentially nine players behind you and chances are you will get called (which isn't what you want when bluffing in poker). Similarly, don't bluff at a pot if there are more than three players in the pot. It is much easier to bluff one of two people out of a pot, any more and you significantly increase your changes of getting called. As you aren't holding a good hand, this isn't good. A common mistake that players make is bluffing at a pot with three, four or more players in the pot as they see the pot size warranting the play. Now sometimes it is worth a stab, particularly if other players seem to be checking it down. If you do decide to make a play for the pot and get called, tread carefully before firing a second bullet. If you don't have enough outs to warrant the play, you could have to fire a bullet on the turn and river, which would potentially be expensive . You may get away with it now and again, but you are taking more risks than you need to.
The best advice i can give you is NOT to bluff too often. If you continually bet into pots trying to bluff players, you will start to get more calls and will find it more difficult to bluff - this doesn't help your game, particularly in tournament play, in which you need to keep building your stack. A bluff is meant to be believable, so the more you bluff the less believable it appears. Additionally, make a bluff when there is something worth stealing. I see players all too often making continued bluffs at small pots in which they risk significantly more money than is in the pot. Risk vs reward. Be selective where you bluff and bluff when it makes sense to do it. If there is not enough money in the pot there is no need to bluff at it. Winning a pot just for the sake of winning does nothing for your winnings. The way i like to look at it is that there will be times in any game when it pays to have a tight image. When the pot is big and everyone seems to have missed. Keep this in mind - think long term survival and not short term gain.
Limit your bluffing in games where you are playing a very loose table. If you have any number of calling stations at the table, you want to play with good starting hands and let your opponents call with worse hands. Some people have way too much money and not enough sense. Take time to figure out your table before you start to to throw your weight around. Work out which players you want to target. Who are the weak players at the table?
Bluffing as soon as you sit down to a table can also lead players to give you less respect, as you will just come across as a bully. Play good solid poker and earn the respect of the players. Build your image and then let your image work for you. Once they have your respect it will be easier to bluff them out of a pot as they will see you as a good player. When you sit down at the table, the won't know who you are or whether you are tight or loose (unless they have notes on you).
When you should Bluff at a pot
Ok, enough of telling you what not to do, let's move to the interesting stuff! When we should be bluffing.
Bluff a pot where the board (see board cards) indicates that someone could have a big hand and there are only one or two in the hand. If there is no potential on the board and you try to represent a big hand, you are far more likely to get called. For instance, a potential straight on the board and no-one has bet - take a stab at the pot and try to represent that you have hit the straight, assuming that there is enough money in the pot. Remember, the amount you bet needs to reinforce the play you are trying to get your opponent to believe. It is also much better to bluff at pots when you have cards that you can catch (outs). This is know as a semi-bluff, as you are bluffing, however you could still hit a winning card.
Bluff against tight players. These players are very selective in the hands they get involved with. These players will tend to stick to premium poker hands and will often look for a reason to fold. Give them one. They will fold way more than they will call, so keep the pressure up.
You also want to bet out when the opponent's betting pattern suggests the opponent may have a marginal hand. You may pick up that the betting pattern suggests your opponent may have a drawing hand or has likely missed the board. This isn't something you will know without paying attention to your players range. Once you have figured out that your opponent only really gets involved with face cards, and the board is low - this is perfect for a bluff. Making a play against players that you have information on will increase your chances of pulling of a successful bluff. Taking notes on players will give you an insight into how someone plays (that you would otherwise have forgotten). Learn as much as you can, take player notes, mark players - document their betting patterns, their behaviors, any potential weaknesses - their strengths. It's all information that can be used next time you run into them. Most online poker rooms allow you take notes, at the very least.
If you have been caught with your hand in the cookie jar, which will happen often, you will be more likely to get called next time you bluff a pot. Use this to your advantage, especially when you actually have a hand the second time. Making it look like a bluff will help induce one of your opponents to play back at you, simply as no players like to be bluffed too much! It regularly happens that soon after you get caught bluffing you hit a big hand (sometimes the next hand). Put in the same size bet that you bet and try to make it look like you are tilting. Make your plays work for you.
I mentioned playing position early in the article - you should be trying to pick up the blinds when you are in late position, especially when all players have thrown away their cards and there are one or two players left in the hand. Picking up cheap pots is an essential part of the game, for the reason as you are not risking much, and are increasing your stack. You have a much better chance of stealing from late position as there are less players to play behind you.
The Stone Cold Bluff
The 'pure bluff' or 'stone cold bluff' is a bet into a pot where there are no cards that could come to improve your hand. For a pure bluff to be successful, all other players need to fold their cards. This type of play is often used effectively when there is a substantial pot size and there is reason to believe that the bet will make everyone fold (if your opponents are not strong enough to call). The pot odds for a bluff is the ratio of the size of bluff to the pot. This play will be profitable in the long run when the probability of being called by an opponent is lower than the pot odds (see guide on calculating pot odds).
The Semi Bluff
The 'semi bluff' is more commonly used in the earlier betting rounds when a player has the chance of improving their hand. For instance, a player might hold a flush draw, post flop. Lets assume that the player holds 8-9 Diamonds and the flop reads 3d - 4d - 10h. It is more than likely that anyone with a 10 would bet into this pot. With this hand, you would only need one more diamond to make the flush and he may try to represent that he holds a 10 and bet aggressively into the pot. The bet would be known as a semi bluff as there is a chance to improve. Remember, it is still a bluff, as it is only a drawing hand. Semi bluffing provides more security as even if you are called, you could catch one of your outs to win the pot at showdown.
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