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“To bluff is to play poker,” a wise man once said. Bluffing is an essential skill to master when learning how to play poker. It is the art of convincing your opponent that you have a better hand than them, even though the opposite is true.
While a bluff can be performed at any time in a poker game, the true skill is understanding the best times to do it. In many poker games, bluffing can make all the difference between victory and defeat.
In this guide, we break down the fundamentals of bluffing, including how and when to bluff, how to spot someone’s else bluff, and how to respond to a bluff.
If any of you have tried bluffing before, you’ll know that it can be a scary thing to do. You’re betting with a hand you know can’t win, and if you’re called, you lose your hard-earned money. So why do we bluff?
If we never bluffed, our opponents would have no incentive to call when we have a value hand. Think about it; if we only bet when we’ve got the nuts or close to it, why would our opponent call without a very strong hand themselves? At that point, the game would devolve into a competition of who will be dealt the strongest hand.
By including bluffs in our range, we’re forcing our opponents to call more frequently, increasing the value we get from our strong hands. However, that doesn’t mean we should bluff randomly without any thought; a good player will be able to profit from their value hands and their bluffs. This is why we should carefully consider the types of hands we’re using to bluff, as some types of bluffs are more profitable than others.
A player can make four kinds of bluffs at the poker table: a c-bet bluff, a semi-bluff, a stone-cold bluff, and an opportunistic bluff. While some of these definitions may overlap, the situation you’re in will make one of these more appropriate than the others. So let’s take a look at what they are.
This is the most common bluff you’ll see in poker. After raising preflop, most players will make a c-bet on the flop, regardless of whether or not they have a hand.
The truth is, it’s hard to hit the flop, so a c-bet bluff will work very often, especially on people who don’t know how wide they should be defending. You only flop a pair around 30% of the time in Texas Hold’em, so even if you flop a draw another 10% of the time, your opponent will likely fold 60% of hands when facing a bet.
Your exact hand doesn’t necessarily matter when making a c-bet bluff; the thing you should pay the most attention to is the board texture. On dry textures such as A83r, or K22r, you can c-bet profitably with almost 100% of your hands; on wet boards like 7s6s9c, or JcTd7h, you should pick hands that have some interaction with the board.
Out of the four on our list, the semi-bluff is the bluff you should use most often. This bluff is made with a hand that is currently weak but has the chance to improve on later streets.
These bluffs are the best to use as you have two ways to win: make your opponent fold with your bluff or make the best hand by the river.
Draws like flush and straight draws are common examples of semi-bluffs, but a hand with two overcards can also be considered a semi-bluff.
This is what most people imagine when they think of bluffing in poker.
A stone-cold bluff is made when a player has absolutely nothing and little to no way to improve their hand. These bluffs are the riskiest ones to make because if you get called, there’s no way for you to win the hand. Therefore, stone-cold bluffs should be used sparingly and only when you believe your opponent has a weak range.
If your range is filled with too many stone-cold bluffs, you will be bluffing too often, and your opponent will have an easier time calling against you.
Finally, we have an opportunistic bluff. This kind of bluff often comes up in multiway pots and is made when no other players in the hand have shown any interest in the pot.
In multiway situations where no one has anything, you’ll commonly see the hand checked down, as people think that surely someone will call if they bet.
However, the reality is that most of the time, people don’t have anything to call with, and you can take down a nice pot with an opportunistic bluff. In these situations, the hand you have doesn’t matter; rather, the interest shown by your opponents should be the driving factor behind your decision to bluff.
There are many occasions to bluff during a game of poker, but specific opportunities are going to prove to be more fruitful than others:
We bluff in poker to ensure we get paid when making a value bet. If we only bet when we have a strong hand, our opponent has no reason to call and will only call if they also have a strong hand.
If we start bluffing, our opponent becomes incentivized to call, and therefore our bets with strong hands get paid. However, suppose we go too far the other way and start bluffing too often. In that case, the money we lose from our unsuccessful bluffs will outweigh the money we make from our value hands.
If we’re playing optimally, we need to balance the number of value hands and the number of bluffs in our range based on our bet size. We do this so our opponent becomes indifferent between calling and folding, and the expected value of calling and folding for our opponent becomes the same.
We want to reach this equilibrium because it’s nearly impossible for our opponent to know if we’re bluffing enough and then to call at the right frequencies to break even. This will lead to our opponents calling too often or folding too often, both of which make us money.
The equation for calculating the optimal bluffing frequency is as follows. F is the optimal bluffing frequency, X is the size of the bet, and Y is the size of the pot.
F = X/(2X + Y)
Let’s use a real-life example to make this easier to understand.
We’re in a hand on the river and decide to use a full pot bet-sizing of $100. However, before we bet, we want to figure out how often we should be bluffing. So let’s use the equation to figure it out.
F = $100/($200 + $100)
F = $100/$300
F = 33%
We calculate that we need to be bluffing 33% of the time, so the other 66% of our betting range on the river should be value hands.
At the table, we would look at how our hand stacks up in our range. Is it good enough to be in the value betting range? If not, is it bad enough to be in the bluffing range? If the answer is no to both questions, the optimal move is to check.
It’s a live $1/$2 cash game, and it folds to you on the BTN with Ts9s. You raise to $6, the SB folds, and the BB calls. You’ve noticed that the big blind is a conservative player and will often fold if they don’t connect with the flop. The flop comes Qs7s5d, the big blind checks, you bet $8, and our opponent folds.
This is a great example of a semi-bluff that uses a hand with a lot of equity against an opponent who’s likely folding too much. Bluffing is by far the most +EV strategy in this situation, as we can get our opponent to fold out a lot of better hands, plus we have some backup equity if we’re called. Some players may want to check back the flop in case their opponent raises, but bluffing is definitely the most profitable play.
Bluffs like these aren’t spectacular; you’re not going to win the praise of others at the table by betting a flush draw into a tight player. Still, you need to be picking up pots like this if you want to be a profitable player.
Arguably the most crucial bluff you should use at the poker table is the semi-bluff. As we mentioned above, a semi-bluff is where you bet with your current hand in the hope that it will improve in the future. It’s a clever tactic to use when your hand has a current low showdown value, but there is a chance it will improve later in the game.
It can be an incredibly useful tactic as it allows you to improve your hand, and it can take away a potentially strong hand from your opponent before there is the chance of any equity realized. Let’s take a look at the best times to use it.
While it’s all well and good to know how often we should be bluffing, it’s all for naught if our bluffs aren’t profitable. After all, profitability is the aim of the game in poker, so it’s good to know whether or not our bets are profitable.
To help us, we have an equation to figure out the theoretical breakeven point of our bluff. With it, we can determine whether or not our bluff will be profitable. So let’s take a look at it.
Breakeven % = Risk / (Risk + Reward)
It’s a pretty easy formula to remember and one you should be able to recall at the tables. If you’re still having trouble with it, let’s plug in some numbers to see how it would work in real life.
We’re on the river with a hand with no showdown value and have decided to bluff $50 into a $100 pot. However, before we bluff, we want to determine whether our half-pot size bet would be profitable.
Breakeven % = $50 / ($50 + $100)
Breakeven % = $50 / $150
Breakeven % = 33%
In this example, if our opponent folds precisely 33% of the time, our bluff breaks even. So, before we bet, we must decide whether our opponent is likely to fold more or less often than 33%. If they fold more often, we have a profitable bluff, and we should make it, but if they fold less often, our bluff will not be profitable, and we should save our money.
Knowing how often our opponent folds is key to calculating the profitability of our bluffs. Obviously, the more our opponent folds, the better our bluffs do, and vice versa, but putting a number on it allows us to ground our decision in math.
While it’s nearly impossible to come up with an exact percentage of hands our opponent folds, we should use our hand-reading abilities to come up with a reasonable range that our opponent can have in each situation.
Once we have a solid idea of our opponent’s range, we take information like player tendencies, stack size, and the board texture to decide what parts of that range they call with. From there, we will have a decent estimation of how much of their range they’ll call with, which we can use as the basis of our profitability calculations.
We need to know how often our opponent will fold to our bet to know whether or not they’ll be profitable.
Being able to bluff is a useful skill, but it’s also advantageous to know when other people are bluffing. Calling an opponent’s bluff can be a literal game-changer and a skill worth mastering. Of course, there will be key differences between calling a bluff in real-life games and online. The latter will involve more play-style analysis, while the former can be determined by physical movements and reactions.
In online poker, you can analyze the hand that the player was bluffing with. This will tell you everything you need to know about their approach to bluffing. For example, are they an experienced player, or are they just taking their chances?
The latter option means they are probably relatively inexperienced and could be quite easy to catch in the future. Some players may be over-bluffing. All this information will be crucial in helping you understand the kind of person you are against.
Another key element is going to be their reaction. If the player tilts following a bluff, you can adjust your gameplay strategy to suit this. It is essential to remain logical, especially in the face of a more emotional player that you will be able to defeat.
Now that we know the different types of bluffs we can make, it’s important to understand the right situations to bluff. If you start firing off with every hand that doesn’t have showdown value, you will be way over bluffing, and your opponents can call you down more profitably. You need to consider each situation before you make a bluff. Sometimes the circumstances aren’t suitable to bluff, and that’s ok!
It’s better to check and save your chips when you think you’re in a bad bluffing scenario rather than blasting off and hoping for the best. Let’s look at the things you need to consider before making your bluff.
The number of players on a table should significantly impact your decision to bluff. Making a bluff with too many players in the hand can be risky as there is a much higher chance of being called down by a better hand.
The stakes in the game will also be a pivotal element in pulling off a successful bluff. As a general rule, players are much happier to call when lower stakes are involved. Conversely, bluffing is often much more effective when the stakes are higher.
Your table image is how other players in the game perceive you. This can be key to pulling off a successful bluff. If, for example, players have built an image of you as someone who likes to play an incredibly passive game, you may be able to use this to your advantage with a bluff. If you already know your opponents, this can be a handy element.
Likewise, the way you perceive your opponents is essential. Be careful to avoid getting caught up with false perceptions; the most intelligent players will understand the value of giving off a different impression in certain situations. Most cerebral players will be challenging and know how to give off another image. You can learn a lot about players by watching them throughout the game, especially weaker opponents.
Whether you like it or not, you will have a tell. If you can work out what your tells are, you can use them to your advantage. But, of course, in most cases, tells are a subconscious action, so our opponents may spot them before we do.
Bluffing can be an incredibly useful weapon in your arsenal, but it can also be very damaging if you misfire. Therefore, you should always approach bluffing with caution and avoid these common mistakes.
Mastering the art of the bluff can make you a tough player to play against. Conversely, being a poor bluffer can lead to costly mistakes. Learning to read other bluffs and becoming an expert at bluff-catching is also crucial. Practice makes perfect, so be sure to take our advice and try to incorporate it into your gameplay. Happy bluffing!
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To make a semi-bluff, all you need to do is bet with a hand that has outs to become the best hand. For example, if you have an open-ended straight draw on the flop and you make a bet, you’ve made a semi-bluff.
It’s almost impossible to know when an opponent is semi-bluffing – if we knew what our opponents had, it would be a very easy game! However, they’re more likely to be semi-bluffing on boards with a lot of draws, such as JsTs8c.
You should make a semi-bluff when you have a hand that has little showdown value and when you think your opponent may be weak.
A semi-bluff is a type of bluff that’s made when your hand has a chance of improving. For example, when a player bets with a flush draw, they are semi-bluffing.
Semi-bluffing is necessary because bluffing is necessary. We bluff in poker to make sure our opponents call us when we have a strong hand, and semi-bluffs are the best bluffs we can make, as they give us the chance to make the best hand by the river.
The frequency at which you should bluff the flop should depend heavily on the board texture and how it interacts with your range. On boards that are good for your range, you should bluff often, but on boards that are better for your opponent’s range, you should bluff less frequently.
Of course! In fact, most players who win big tournaments bluff very infrequently. Especially when you are first starting your poker journey, focus on basic strategy and other mathematical principles before you go ‘all in’ on a hand you shouldn’t.
To bluff in poker, all you need to do is to bet when you don’t have a strong hand – it’s that simple!
To call a bluff in poker, all you need to do is to call when your opponent doesn’t have a strong hand. To figure out when they’re weak, look for tells they might be giving away, or use your hand reading skills to see if their range is weak.
It all depends. Typically, a more beginner player should bluff much less than a more experienced player. With that being said, if you are starting to see your game improve and you are beginning to play with better players, changing up your betting/bluffing frequency is a good strategy.
Bluffing is an essential part of poker. If you never bluffed, then people would have no incentive to call you when you have a good hand and would always fold when you bet. Therefore, bluffing is required to make money in poker.
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