Bluff Poker

“To bluff is to play poker,” a wise man once said. Bluffing is an extremely important 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 in understanding when the best times to do it are. In many poker games, it can make all the difference between victory and defeat, and vital for fully understanding how to play poker. 

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. 

Bad poker gamble or unlucky hand concept with player going all in with 2 and 7 (two and seven) offsuit also called unsuited, considered the worst hand in poker preflop (before the flop is revealed)

Things To Consider

The temptation to bluff can be powerful in poker. The feeling of pulling off a successful bluff is, hands down, one of the greatest rushes the game has to offer. That being said, an experienced player understands the risks involved and knows when and where to pull the trigger. So tread carefully, dear friends! One should not attempt a bluff blindly–there are several factors to be considered before trying to pull off a bluff: 

The Number of Players

The number of players on a table should significantly impact your decision to bluff. Making a bluff with many players in the hand can be a risky move as there is a much higher chance of being called down by a better hand.  

The Table Stakes

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

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. 

Opponents Image

Likewise, the way you perceive your opponents is essential. Be careful not to get caught up with false perceptions; the most intelligent players will understand the value of giving off a different impression in these 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 when playing a weaker opponent. 

Poker Tells

Whether you like it or not, you will have a tell. If you can work out what your tells are, you will be able to use them to your advantage. Of course, in most cases, tells are a subconscious action, so our opponents may even spot them before we do.

The Optimal Times 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: 

Pre-Flop

Making an early bluff in a game can be surprisingly beneficial as it can help you collect the blinds. This can be done if you are playing against tight players who are not likely to be too aggressive. You can typically judge this when playing in a late position at the table. 

Post-Flop

When there is a rainbow flop, no pairs, no high cards, and the hand is checked to you in late position. This is the perfect opportunity to bluff as other players are more likely to fold, given the current lay of the land. 

Paired Board

Fewer things will provoke a reaction at the poker table like a paired board. A low-paired board can be an optimal time to bluff. Getting a paired board later in the game on the flop or turn can be a great time to bluff because the other cards are either still in the deck or could have been discarded already. 

Optimal Poker Bluff Frequency

We bluff in poker to ensure we get paid some of the time when we’re 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 have a strong hand too. If we start bluffing, our opponent becomes incentivized to call, and therefore our bets with strong hands get paid. However, if we go too far the other way and start bluffing too often, 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 so that our opponent becomes indifferent between calling and folding. That is, the expected value of calling and folding for our opponent becomes the same. We want to reach this equilibrium because it’s close to 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 either calling too often or folding too often, both of which make us money.

The equation for calculating the optimal bluffing frequency is as follows, where 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 that easier to understand.

We’re on the river in a hand, and we decide we want to use a full pot bet sizing of $100. However, before we bet, we want to figure out how often we should be bluffing. 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 then 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 of those questions, the hand is better played as a check.

4 Different Types of Bluffs

There are four kinds of bluff a player can make 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 lend itself to one of these being more appropriate than the others. Let’s take a look at what they are.

C-Bet Bluff

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 we say you’ll flop a draw another 10% of the time, that’s 60% of hands that your opponent will likely fold when facing a bet. Your exact hand doesn’t necessarily matter when making a cbet bluff; the thing you should pay the most attention to is the board texture. On dry textures such as A83r, or K22r, you can cbet profitably with almost 100% of your hands, but on wet boards like 7s6s9c, or JcTd7h, you should pick hands that have some interaction with the board. 

Semi-Bluff

A semi-bluff is the bluff that you should try to make most often out of the four on our list. This bluff is made with a hand that is currently weak but has the chance to improve on later streets. 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. 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.

Stone-Cold Bluff

This is what most people think of when they think of bluffing in poker. A stone-cold bluff is a bluff 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. 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.

Opportunistic Bluff

Finally, we have an opportunistic bluff. This kind of bluff often comes up in multiway pots and is a bluff 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 is going to call if they bet. 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.

The Semi-Bluff

Female player waiting for others bets at casino poker table, gambling addiction

Arguably the most important 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 is 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 because it can allow you to improve on an okay land later, 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.

Fold Equity

If you believe that your opponent has a weak hand and that they will likely fold if you are aggressive, then a semi-bluff can be a great move to make.

Backdoor Equity

Backdoor is a term used in poker when players need an additional two cards to make a hand. For example, if we hold three out of five flush cards with the turn and the river remaining. In this instance, while backdoor draws are actually quite unlikely, it can be a good move to chance a semi-bluff and try to back your opponent into making a move.

Chance to Hit Your Draw

You should also take into account your chances of hitting your draw. A semi-bluff hand can be very strong in terms of outs, and as such, using it at the right time can be an extremely effective way of getting your opponent to fold.

Position

Your position at the table is always going to have an impact on the decisions that you make. When you are in position, you have more control over your options and you can judge your opponent’s moves first.

Building Your Stack

Semi-bluffing can be an effective way of building your stack early on. If you are in a deep stack game or tournament, this can be particularly useful early doors if executed correctly.

Basic Math for Bluffing in Poker

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. We can use an equation to figure out the theoretical breakeven point of our bluff, which we can then use to determine whether or not our bluff will be profitable. Let’s take a look at it.

Breakeven % = Risk / (Risk + Reward)

It’s a pretty easy formula to remember, so as long as you learn it well, you should be able to remember it 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 that has no showdown value and have decided that we should bluff $50 into a $100 pot. However, before we bluff, we want to figure out whether or not our half-pot size bet would be profitable.

Breakeven % = $50 / ($50 + $100)
Breakeven % = $50 / $150
Breakeven % = 33%

In this example, if our opponent folds exactly 33% of the time, our bluff breaks even. So, before we bet, we need to 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.

Opponent Folding Frequency

Knowing how often our opponent folds is key to calculating the profitability of our bluffs. While it’s intuitive to know that the more our opponent folds, the better our bluffs do, and vice versa, 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 can take information such as their 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. If we don’t know how often our opponent will fold to our bet, we have no way of knowing whether or not they’ll be profitable.

How to Read Poker Bluffs

Being able to bluff is an incredibly useful skill, but it is also very useful to know when other people are bluffing. Being able to call an opponent’s bluff can be a literal game-changer and it is 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 a lot more analysis of playing styles, while the former can be determined by physical movements and reactions.

Eye Movements

One of the classic ways of spotting a bluff in poker is through somebody’s eye movements. Some players have clear tells that can be read through their eyes. For example, a player who looks at you and then looks away quickly could be bluffing, as well as a player who keeps constantly checking their hand. On the opposite side of this, a player who looks disinterested could potentially have a very strong hand and is attempting to throw you off the scent.

Body Language

Body language is often highlighted as the key to spotting a bluff. Keeping an eye on the way a player holds themselves, especially their hands, can be an indication of the way they are playing. A player who appears slightly uncomfortable or who keeps touching their face could be bluffing. Smarter players will incorporate these into their general play so be careful not to get caught out by them. Of course, some players have mastered the art of hiding their tells, but others will always give their intentions away.

Betting Tendencies

If you do not know the opposition player well, then spotting differences in their body language can be tricky. This is where learning their betting tendencies can come in very useful. The way a player places their bets can be a telling sign. For example, players who made a big gesture when they place their chips are often trying to appear bolder than they are. The size and timing of bets can be key. If a player takes a lot longer or less time than normal then this can be an indication. Likewise, if they go all-in on a bet and it seems uncharacteristic then you should be wary.

When You Call Someone’s Bluff

Catching a player in a bluff can be a great moment in a game, but instead of just basking in the glory of your own intuition, it is important to take notes and learn about the kind of person you are playing against.

In online poker, you will have the ability to analyze the hand that the player was bluffing with. This will tell you everything you need to know about their approach to bluffing. Are they an experienced player or are they just taking their chances? The latter option means they are probably quite inexperienced and could be quite easy to catch in the future. Some players may be over-bluffing. All of this information will be incredibly valuable in helping you understand the kind of person you are up against.

Another key element is going to be their reaction. If the player tilts following a bluff, then you can adjust your gameplay strategy to suit this. It is important to remain logical, especially in the face of a more emotional player that you will be able to defeat.

When Someone Calls Your Bluff

female player checking how much winning at casino poker game. perfect day

Learn from the bluff

While we would all love to be successful every time we bluff, there is a strong chance that this will not be the case. While losses can be damaging in poker, it is important to see them as an opportunity to learn. Was your decision to bluff a bad one? Did you have a good enough range to bluff with in the first place? Analyze what went wrong and be sure to improve in the future.

Don’t Tilt

It is absolutely essential that you do not tilt when you have failed with a bluff. As we have already mentioned, be sure to learn from your mistakes but do not react badly to them. Of course, at the moment, this can be extremely difficult, especially if your loss has been a big one. If you need to take a break from the table, then do so. Just make sure that you don’t let it affect your overall game or shift your mentality too harshly.

Know When to Quit

Of course, perhaps the most important skill in poker is the ability to remain calm and logical. Understanding your limitations and not reacting negatively if a bluff fails is essential. Whether that is to walk away from the table or take a little break between rounds to cool off, it is important to know when to quit and not allow your failed bluffs to get to you. An emotional poker player is always going to be a poor one in the end. Remember that bluffing is all part of the game, and that sometimes, it won’t go your way. Don’t take it personally.

Common Bluffing Mistakes

Bluffing can be an incredibly useful weapon to have in your armory, but it can also be very damaging if you misfire. You should always approach bluffing with caution and avoid these common mistakes.

Bluffing From an Early Position

Do not attempt to bluff if you are in an early or middle position at the table. There are still a lot of players to make a move on the hand, and your intention is to get everybody else to fold. This is much more difficult when you are going early.

Not Bluffing in Later Rounds

Many players tend to be a little more apprehensive about bluffing in the later rounds of a game. This can actually be one of the best times to do it, as you can may have the chance to force a player to fold by pricing him out of the game. Bluffing later in the game can be much more effective physiologically if you can get it right.

Bluffing With Multiple in the Hand

If there are multiple players in the hand, calling a bluff can be much trickier. This is because there is a higher chance someone will be able to make a great hand. Bluffing is much more effective when there are few players left in the game or at smaller tables.

Bluffing When Low on Chips

Most moves in poker are a risk, but a bluff can be a pretty hefty one if it goes wrong. If you are low on chips, it is probably better to play a more passive game and attempt to build your stack. As well as this, bluffs are supposed to be an intimidating, aggressive mood, and no one is going to back down from a small stack.

Calling

A big mistake many new players make is calling when they are bluffing. If you are going to bluff, then you have to commit to it, otherwise, there is no way your opponent is going to buy into it.

Conclusion

Bluffing is one of the fundamentals to success in poker. Mastering the art of the bluff can make you an extremely difficult player to play against. On the flip side of this, being a poor bluffer can also lead to some costly mistakes. It is also an incredibly useful skill to learn how to read other bluffs and become an expert at catching them out.  Practice makes perfect though, so be sure to take on board all of the advice we have provided and attempt to incorporate it into your gameplay.

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