What is Bluffing?

“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.

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)

What is the Purpose of Bluffing?

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.

The Different Types of Bluffs

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.

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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 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.
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Semi-Bluff

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.
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Stone Cold 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.
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Opportunistic Bluff

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.

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: Say there’s 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: Few things provoke a reaction at the poker table like a paired board. A low-paired board can be an optimal time to bluff because the other cards are either still in the deck or could have been discarded already.

 

Optimal Bluffing Frequency

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)

Example

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. 

An Advanced Bluff Example

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.

Bluffing in poker with a 7 and 2

The Semi-Bluff

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.

  • Fold Equity: If you believe that your opponent has a weak hand and will likely fold if you are aggressive, then a semi-bluff can be a great move.
  • Backdoor Equity: Backdoor is a term used in poker when players need two more 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 pretty unlikely, it can be a good move to make a semi-bluff and try to back your opponent into making a move.
  • Chance to Hit Your Draw: You should also consider 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 a highly 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. 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.

Opponent Folding Frequency

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.

How to Read Poker Bluffs

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.

  • Eye Movements: One classic way to spot 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, a player who looks disinterested could have a very strong hand and is attempting to throw you off the scent.
  • Body Language: Body language is often 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 keeps touching their face could be bluffing. More competent players will incorporate these into their general play, so be careful to avoid getting 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, 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 make 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. A player taking a longer or shorter amount of time than usual can also 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. Still, instead of just basking in the glory of your own intuition, take notes and learn about the kind of person you’re playing against.

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.

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’s essential 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 to improve in the future.
  • Don’t Tilt: It’s crucial that you don’t tilt when you fail with a bluff. As we have already mentioned, learn from your mistakes but don’t react badly to them. Of course, this can be extremely difficult in the moment, especially if your loss has been a big one. If you need to take a break from the table, do so. Just make sure you don’t let it affect your overall game or shift your mentality too harshly.
  • Know When to Quit: Perhaps the most critical 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 walking away from the table or taking a little break between rounds to cool off, it’s important to know when to quit and not allow your failed bluffs to get to you. In the end, an emotional poker player will always be a poor player. Remember that bluffing is all part of the game and that sometimes, it won’t go your way. Don’t take it personally.

Reading the Situation

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.

  1. The Number of Players

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    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.

  2. The Table Stakes

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    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.

  3. Your Table Image

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    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.

  4. Opponents Image

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    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.

  5. Poker Tells

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    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.

  6. Stack Sizes

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    One of the first things you need to consider is the effective stack sizes in play. Your opponent needs to have enough chips behind for you to put them to an actual decision. If you’re making a bluff and they only have ⅕ pot in their stack, they’re likely not going to fold, so why bother trying to bluff?
    A good rule of thumb is that the deeper the stacks, the better the conditions for bluffing. Suppose you and your opponent are both deep-stacked at a table. In this case, you have the opportunity to apply tremendous leverage to their stack. However, if you want to do that, you need to be comfortable making big bets as a bluff.
  7. What’s the Board Like?

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    Another thing to consider is the board texture. You should always think about whose range performs better on each board, as this indicates how often you should be betting. For example, if the board heavily favors your opponent, you should be making fewer bluffs, as it’s more likely they have a hand that can call you down.
    Similarly, if the board is perceived to be very strong for your range, you should increase your bluffing frequency. This is because your opponent will struggle to defend enough hands against your bet and will often end up over-folding.
  8. Am I Making the Right Size Bet?

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    When bluffing, you should target a specific portion of your opponent’s range that you want them to fold. It’s no good just putting out a bet and hoping they fold; you should be thinking about precisely what hands you want them to fold.
    Picking a  bet sizing becomes much easier when you select a size that you think will make a specific part of your opponent’s range fold. For example, if you’re targeting a weak portion of their range, you can keep the bet small, but if you want them to fold a strong part of their range, you should increase the size of your bet.
  9. Am I Getting In too Deep? Is it a Trap?

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    Sometimes we start down the road of a bluff, but it becomes clear by the turn or river that we’re unlikely to get our opponent to fold. So it’s crucial to analyze your opponent’s range on every street and always consider the possibility that they may be trapping with a strong hand.
    Too many people think that once they’ve started a bluff, they must follow through and finish it. That’s absolutely not true. In these situations, the best thing you can do is abandon your bluff and live to fight another day. As soon as you don’t think you’re going to get your opponent to fold enough of the time, stop bluffing and conserve your chips.

Common Bluffing Mistakes

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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 be one of the best times to do it, as you 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.
  3. Bluffing With Multiple in the Hand: Calling a bluff can be trickier if multiple players are in the hand. This is because there is a higher chance someone will be able to make a great hand. Bluffing is much more effective when fewer players are left in the game.
  4. Bluffing When Low on Chips: Most moves in poker are a risk, but a bluff can carry a hefty price tag if it goes wrong. If you are low on chips, playing a more passive game and attempting to build your stack is probably better. Also, bluffs are supposed to be an intimidating, aggressive tactic, and no one will back down from a small stack.
  5. 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

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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