When people think of bluffing, they think of someone holding absolutely nothing and making a big bet to make their opponent fold a monster hand. While that’s all well and good, wouldn’t you rather bluff with a chance of making the best hand? If so, read on to learn everything you need to know about semi-bluffing and learn how to implement it when learning how to play poker.
What is Semi-Bluffing?
Semi-bluffing is making a bluff with a hand that has the possibility to improve to the best hand by the river. The most common forms of semi-bluffs are straight draws and flush draws, but hands like two overcards to top pair can also be considered a semi-bluff as if you make a pair, you likely have the best hand. A semi-bluff is different from a pure bluff, as a pure bluff is a bluff made with a hand that has no chance of improving to the best hand by the river.
A semi-bluff can only be made on the flop or the turn; by the river there are no more cards to come, so it’s impossible to bluff with a hand that could improve. Also, preflop bluffs aren’t considered semi-bluffs due to the uncertainty of which hand is considered “best– i.e., which is better, Kd6s or JcTc?
Benefits of Semi-Bluffing
You might think that betting without a made hand is too risky and that if you semi-bluff and don’t make your hand then you’ve wasted money when you could have played passively instead. While this is a legitimate point, and the reason we don’t semi-bluff with 100% frequency, there are plenty of benefits to semi-bluffing.
Backup plan if caught
The great thing about semi-bluffing is that you give yourself two chances to win the pot: you can either take it down if your bluff works and if it doesn’t, you have an opportunity to make the best hand by the river. It’s like having a backup plan for your bluffs; if it doesn’t work, then there’s an escape route you can take by making the best hand.
By choosing semi-bluffs as your hands to bluff with, you’re increasing the number of times you win the pot. The more times you’re able to win the pot, the more money you’re going to make playing poker.
Say you’re on the turn and semi-bluffing with a flush draw; you think your opponent will fold around 35% of the time to your bet, plus about 20% of the time you’ll make your hand on the river, meaning you’ll win the pot around 55% of the time. Compare this to if you were pure bluffing the turn with a hand like 72o; you’ll only win the pot the 35% of the time your opponent folds. There is a big difference in the expected value between these hands due to the extra 20% you win of the pot after a bet and a call, plus a potential river bet.
Build a pot for a strong hand
One of the benefits of semi-bluffing with a strong draw is that the pot has been bloated for the times you do make your hand, allowing you to make a large bet on the turn/river. Conversely, if you were to play all of your draws passively and never bet with them, the pots will be much smaller by the time you make them.
In poker, pots grow exponentially due to there being at least two amounts of money going in on each street–a bet and a call. Let’s look at an example of two pots, one where the flop and turn are played aggressively and one where they’re played passively:
In the first example, we get to the flop, and the pot is $100. Player A makes a pot-sized bet, and Player B calls. The pot on the turn is now $300. Player A makes another pot-sized bet, and Player B calls. We get to the river, and the pot is now $900. Player A makes a final pot-sized bet, and Player B calls, meaning we have a total pot size of $1800.
In the second example, we get to the flop, and the pot is $100. Player A checks the flop, and Player B checks behind. On the turn, the pot is still $100. Player A checks again, and Player B checks behind again. The pot is still $100 on the river. Player A makes a pot-size bet of $100, and Player B calls, meaning we have a total pot size of $300.
We can see that during the first hand, the pot was 9x bigger after a flop and turn bet compared to the second hand, where the pot hadn’t grown at all. This allowed Player A in the first pot to make a 9x bigger river bet and win a pot of $1800 compared to a pot of $300.
While you are risking more money when you semi-bluff, the payoffs can be there if you make your hand.
It gives you the confidence to bluff
Bluffing can be a hard thing for players to do sometimes. Knowing that if you get called you automatically lose all the money you’ve invested is a scary prospect, and as such, people are sometimes hesitant to pull the trigger. However, when you semi-bluff, some of these fears are alleviated as you’ve got a chance of making the best hand by the river.
Depending on your draw, you may win by the river as often as half the time. Knowing that you have plenty of outs against your opponent’s range makes it far easier to bluff. People underestimate the effect of confidence on the poker table; if you don’t feel confident in your plays, it can be easy to take the passive route and not be as aggressive as you should be.
Aggression is a vital part of poker, and having the confidence to be as aggressive as you need to be is essential.
It gives you the initiative in the hand
By semi-bluffing, you’re giving yourself two ways to win the pot: your opponent can fold, or you can make the best hand by the river. If you passively play the hand, you’re relying on two things to win the hand: your opponent giving you the correct price to draw and that you make your hand by the river. Both of these are unreliable, so by semi-bluffing you take matters into your own hands and give yourself another way to win the pot.
When Should You Semi-Bluff
Picking the right hands to semi-bluff is an integral part of semi-bluffing well. If you look through your whole range on a board, you’re likely to have a lot of draws, so it can be hard to know which ones you should pick when deciding to semi-bluff. That being said, a semi-bluff is always better than a pure bluff, so even if a hand isn’t a perfect semi-bluff, you should still pick it over a pure bluff.
When you’re picking a hand to semi-bluff, the more equity you have, the better it is. The simple reason is that the more equity you have, the greater the chances are that you’ll win the hand if you’re called. While we want our opponents to fold when we’re semi-bluffing, it’s never a guarantee, so having as much equity as possible in case we’re called means that we win the hand a higher percentage of the time overall.
The hands that make the best semi-bluffs are hands like flush draws and open-ended straight draws–ideally, both an open-ended straight draw and a flush draw, where you’d have nearly half the deck as outs! If you think your opponent doesn’t have a hand stronger than top pair, then having two overcards to go with your draw increases the number of outs you have to make the best hand. For example, having AsKs on a board of Ts7c3s is ideal; if your opponent has JT, you can hit a spade, an ace, or a king to improve to the best hand. However, if you hit your pair instead of your flush, you must be aware that your opponent may have made two pair with that card.
How to Spot a Semi-Bluff
Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to know when our opponent is semi-bluffing; if we could see their hand, then poker would become a much easier game! Instead, look for betting patterns to see if you can find a difference between when they’re betting as a bluff and when they’re betting for value. Some players are more inclined to bet smaller when they’re bluffing and bigger when they’re value betting, but not everyone will be as easy to read as that.
Another thing you can do is look at the board texture. For example, some boards allow for a lot of semi-bluffs, such as 7d9sJs, as there are plenty of straight draws on this board as well as a flush draw. When you compare that to a board like 5c5s8d, where there are only a couple of straight draws, it’s far more likely that your opponent has a semi-bluff on the first board than on the second board.
Depending on the players at your table, you can make certain strategy adjustments when semi-bluffing to ensure that you’re making the most +EV decision possible.
Don’t Bet if Your Opponent Won’t Fold
If your opponent is a calling station that never folds anything, then don’t semi-bluff! Bluffing into these people, even as a semi-bluff, is just lighting money on fire. Although we’re betting with a chance to win the hand, we’re still bluffing and need our opponent to fold a good amount of the time for it to be a profitable bet. The only exception to this will be if we have a mega-draw, such as an open-ended straight draw and a flush draw. With these hands, we likely have an equity advantage on our opponent’s range when they play so wide, so it almost becomes a value bet.
Semi-Bluff Wider On Boards Good For Your Range
Boards where you have a range advantage over your opponent are great candidates to semi-bluff. Not only does your opponent have fewer good hands that they can call with, but they’ll also be aware that you have a lot of good hands in your range that you can bet for value. This will make them more hesitant to call with the medium/weak hands in their range, meaning our bluff will work more often.
When you’re the preflop aggressor, look for boards with a lot of high cards like AK8, AKQ, or KJ7. On these flops, you have many more of the very strong hands in your range than your opponent, as they won’t have AA/KK/QQ/AK/AQ/etc. Inversely, if you’re the preflop caller, you’ll want to target the lower boards like 753, 865, or 547, as you’re likely to have more of the two-pair and straight combinations than your opponent (depending on what position they raised from preflop).
Target Weak/Passive Players
Weak or passive players are the perfect target to bluff as they don’t like putting in a lot of money without a very strong hand. This means that if you make a big enough semi-bluff, you can bully these players off of weak/medium strength hands with little difficulty.
On top of that, if you do get called, you know that they’re going to have a strong range, meaning that if you make your hand by the river, you can bet for value and expect to get called down often. However, this also means that if you don’t make your hand, you should give up on your bluff unless a real scare card comes, as we don’t expect our opponent to fold when they have a strong range.
It’s a live $1/$2 cash game, and we’re on the BTN with JsTs. We raise to $6, the SB folds, and the BB calls. The BB has been playing every hand and will not fold if they get a piece of the flop. The flop comes Qs7s5d; our opponent checks, we bet $8, and our opponent calls. The turn comes the 2h; our opponent checks again, we bet $20, and our opponent calls. The river is the 2c, our opponent checks, and we decide to give up with our missed flush draw and check back. Our opponent turns over 5c3c and takes the pot. Was this a good semi-bluff?
While the hand is a good candidate for it (no showdown value and a good draw), our choice of opponent is terrible! We’ve already seen them call people down if they have any piece of the flop, so why did we think it would be different against our bet? While we had outs to improve, we weren’t going to improve often enough to make this a profitable bet. Against this opponent, we should have tried to keep the pot small while we didn’t have a hand and start betting once we made it. Doing this would eliminate all risk in playing the hand and allow us to maximize our profit.
It’s an online $0.50/$1 cash game, and we’re in the SB with QcJc. Our opponent raises to $2.50 from the CO, the BTN folds, we 3bet to $10, the BB folds, and our opponent calls. The flop comes AcKd5s; we bet $7.50, and our opponent calls. The turn comes the 8d; we bet $28, and our opponent calls. The river is the 4h; we shove for $55.50, and our opponent calls and shows 5c5h to take the pot. Was this a good semi-bluff?
Yes, it was! This board is much better for our range than our opponent’s, so we can apply maximum pressure with a semi-bluff. While we don’t have the strongest draw in the world, our hand has blockers to AQ and AJ that our opponent would likely call down with, so overall this makes the hand an excellent candidate to semi-bluff, given the situation. Sometimes in poker, you’re just going to run into a strong hand–it doesn’t mean that you made the wrong decision; you got unlucky, just as we did in this hand.
It’s a live $1/$2 cash game, and we’re in the HJ with 7s8s. We raise to $6, and our opponent calls from the SB; everyone else folds. We’ve noticed that our opponent doesn’t get to showdown very often, but when they do, they have a very strong hand. The flop comes Td9c2s; our opponent checks, we bet $8, and our opponent calls. The turn comes the 3d; our opponent checks, we bet $20, and our opponent calls. The river comes the 6h; our opponent checks, we bet $60, and our opponent calls and shows Th9h; we win with our straight. Was this a good semi-bluff?
We need to split this hand into the flop action and turn action to decide whether or not this was a good semi-bluff. On the flop, we can say for certain that it is a solid semi-bluff as we have a good hand candidate for it, and we’ve noticed that our opponent is likely a weaker player, so we can expect our bluff to work more often than not. However, once we’ve been called on the flop, we should realize that they have a stronger than average range that is unlikely to fold to a bet on the turn, especially on such a blank turn card. In this situation, the better play would be to check back the turn and hope that we hit our draw, and if we don’t, we can get away much cheaper. We may have got lucky by building the pot for when we hit the river, but most of the time, we won’t make the best hand, and that turn bet will cost us in the long run.
In a $5/$10 cash game, you raise from the CO with 9s8s to $30, and your opponent in the BB calls. The flop comes As7s3c; your opponent checks, and you bet $25. Your opponent calls, and the turn comes the 6h. Your opponent checks again, you bet $155, and your opponent folds.
Here we have the classic semi-bluff. On the flop, we have 9-high, but we also have a flush draw, giving us decent equity against our opponent’s range. We bet to try and get them to fold a pair or even a hand like Q/K high, which is beating us at showdown, but our opponent calls. The turn gives us even more equity as we now have an open-ended straight draw. We apply maximum pressure with a big turn bet, and we get our opponent to fold.
Semi-bluffing is the ideal way to bluff–we put pressure on our opponents and get them to fold the best hand, but if they do call, we have outs to improve. When picking your semi-bluffs, try to pick the ones that have the most equity against your opponent’s range, and try to target the weaker opponents who are more likely to fold to your bets. This way, you can maximize the money you make from your semi-bluffs!