Do you believe only the stronger hands win every round of poker? No, right. If you have been playing poker for a while, you would have witnessed that there are rounds where people win even with supposedly average or weak hands. How does that happen? It is mainly because of the way in which certain players on the table react when they see some other players go aggressive by bluffing in poker. Yes, you are reading it right. We are emphasizing on the important of making bluffs in poker.
So, what exactly, is a bluff? A bluff is a poker play made by a player when he/she has a weak hand and still goes ahead with a ‘bet’ or ‘raise’, to get the other players to fold by making them believe that he / she has a strong hand.
One of the key strategies that is discussed for most poker game variants is to analyze the style of play of the opponents on the poker table. If you are not doing it, be rest assured that some other players on the table are already doing it. And that is how they manage to win at times with average or weak hands, knowing that you and few other players will fold if you don’t have a strong hand and see someone else go aggressive.
At the same time, a key strategy to become a poker pro is to avoid too many bluffs. It is about finding the right mix. Please remember, timing is everything when it comes to bluffing in poker. If you wish to be a solid poker player, you cannot go overboard with bluff strategy, and you cannot ignore it completely. Why? Let us consider the reasons below:
If you are someone who bluffs a lot, your opponents will sooner or later understand this and start challenging you. Also, when you bluff a lot with not so strong hands, there will be rounds where some other player with comparatively stronger hands will win, even when you have contributed a lot of chips (amount) to the pot. So, excessive bluffing can reduce your chips stack considerably and leave you with fewer chips when you actually need more to ‘raise’ or ‘bet’ on strong hands.
If you are someone who doesn’t know how to bluff in poker, you cannot ignore it completely. Because it will make you a one-dimensional player who places a ‘bet’ or ‘raise’ only when you have a strong hand. This will be easily identified by other smart opponents on the table, and they will start folding their hands as soon as they witness you entering into a bet. This will result in you winning fewer chips even with your strong hands.
One thing is clear – you need to master the art of bluffing if you desire to become a champion poker player. In order to master this art, you need to know about how to bluff, and you should be able to decide whether to bluff or not in a particular round.
How to Decide Whether to Bluff or Not?
As discussed above, we are not talking about making bluffs every time you get an average or a weak hand. You need to identify the right time and make your bluff. So, how can you do that? By considering the top parameters that are highlighted below:
During poker tournaments, it is the other players on the table who determine whether your bluff poker will be successful or not. For instance, if you bluff and others around you fold, your bluff will be a success. However, if you bluff, and another player calls your bluff, it won’t be a success. So, in order to ensure that whenever you make a bluff, it is a success, you need to understand the behaviour of your opponents. You need to be sure in your mind that the opponent is going to fall for your bluff. And this confidence will come only if you know your opponents well, after having studied their various poker moves earlier.
It is critical to identify the right opponents against whom you can bluff. Ideally, you should try and use bluffs one-on-one, instead of trying to bluff against multiple players (which is riskier). When you are head-to-head with just one player left for that round, it becomes easier to decide whether to bluff or not.
In such a scenario, you need to avoid going ahead with bluffs if the player is:
Someone who doesn’t analyze opponents and will call only on the basis of his hand. Such opponents cannot be trusted.
Someone who calls a lot, irrespective of which player is left on the table.
Someone who has been going aggressive in few earlier rounds despite not managing to win much.
Someone who has a large chips stack and won’t mind losing a few chips by calling your bluff.
Remember, you don’t want to take your chance against bad players of poker. In fact, you have a better chance against good players who show standard signs and are more likely to ‘bet’ or ‘raise’ selectively. Such players would have studied you already and if you haven’t bluffed before in that game, they will find it difficult to identify your initial couple of bluffs – which is the right time to win against such opponents with your bluffs.
2.Your Table Image
You need to understand how you are being perceived by other players on the poker table – going by your play so far. If you are seen as a tight player who bets mostly with strong hands, your bluff has a good chance of succeeding because people expect you to play tight (and a bluff is something they won’t be able to catch easily).
However, if you are seen as a loose player who takes chances with not so great hands, your bluff has very less chance of succeeding. In fact, opponents will fancy calling your bluffs more often. So, you need to work hard on forming the right table image that will help you to get a few wins through your bluff poker plays.
3.Your Usage of Bluffs
You need to be very selective in the usage of bluffs. If you try and bluff continuously, you are likely to be called sooner or later as people start taking you as a player who is betting on most hands. So, it would make sense to use bluffs sparingly in between your good (high value) hands. This balance is very critical if you intend to win more with your bluffs!
4.Your Hand’s Strength
You have a greater chance of succeeding if you bluff on a hand that has a backup plan. What does it mean? It means that your hand may not be good initially, but has a chance of developing into something decent as the round progresses. This is where even if someone calls your bluff, there is a chance that your hand proves to be better and helps you to win. This kind of a bluff with a backup plan is known as a ‘semi-bluff’, and we shall study them in detail later.
This is not possible if you are making a ‘pure bluff’, where your hand has literally no chance to win if the opponent calls, and the only chance for it to win is if the opponent folds. Such a bluff is very risky!
Ideally, you would have the advantage to see the reaction of your opponent before your turn if you are at a late position. It will be easy from this position to determine whether your bluff can succeed or not. Having said that, it may also be useful at times to bluff from an early position, especially if you are being perceived as a tight player. When you bluff from an early position, your smart opponents who have known that bluffs are generally made from late positions, will find it difficult to catch your bluff.
So, based on your position, you can try out bluffs from both the late and early positions – and keep your opponents guessing!
6.Your Betting History for the Hand
You need to be very smart with the actions that you take at various stages right from pre-flop to flop, to the turn, to the river, and so on. There will be clever poker players who will remember every action of yours, so you need not take you each round action in isolation (especially when you are trying out bluff poker). If you are bluffing, you need to build up the story so that good players can’t catch your bluff and you stand a greater chance of winning.
Effective Tips for Bluffing in Poker
Remember, poker is not a game of certainties and more so when you are implementing bluff poker strategies. You may not succeed with all your bluffs, and you may not fail with all of them. However, your aim should be to consistently improve the success rate of your bluffs. Some tips to enhance the success rate of your poker bluffs are as discussed under:
Mix of Balanced Strategies and Exploiting the Opponent’s Tendencies
You should always approach a game of poker by being equipped with few solid strategies (based on the game variant) that enhance your chances of winning the game. This is the bare minimum that every poker player needs to do in his / her bid to become a poker pro. However, you need to give equal importance to making your plays as per the behaviour and tendencies of other players on the table. Especially when small stakes are involved, you need to focus significantly on attacking the those exploitative tendencies of the opponents.
Re-assessing Your Hands at Every Street for Bluff Poker
Consider that you did a bluff ‘raise’ at the ‘turn’ with your hands. It does not necessarily mean that when the ‘river’ stage arrives, you have to mandatorily go ahead with all your bluffs. You need to evaluate the situation and re-assess the hands in your range at every street, before deciding which ones to go ahead with for your bluff, by taking into consideration the bet size as well as the count of value hands in your range.
Using Hand-reading Skills on Your Opponents
It is one thing to know your hand strength and hiding it from your opponents, but, it is an altogether different thing to understand the strength of hands of your opponents. Once you are able to hand-read your opponents like a poker expert, you will be in a better position to know whether your bluff will succeed or fail. You need to practise and develop your hand-reading skills regularly to become an expert at the same over a period of time.
Maintain Consistency with Your Bet Sizes
A common mistake made by many poker players is to suddenly change their bet size while trying out bluffs. For example, many players place the minimum possible bet with a bluff, with the aim of losing less if their bluff gets caught. But, by doing so, what they do is give a signal to the opponents that probably you do not have a strong hand. Instead, in such situations, you need to think as if you really had a strong hand and place the bet accordingly. This way the bet size would remain the same or similar – irrespective of whether you are playing with a high value hand or bluffing. This will make it really difficult for opponents to catch your bluff.
Best Poker Bluff and Semi Bluff
Earlier in this page, we touched upon the concept of having a backup while bluffing, which we termed as ‘semi-bluff’. This is not a pure bluff, but a bluff bet where you currently may not have a good hand, but, you are betting on your hand turning into a strong hand for the later stage (by the time the last card is dealt).
If you are planning to play bluff poker, then, it is always better to make a semi-bluff instead of a pure bluff – because of the simple reason that it gives you a chance to actually win the hand at the final stages on the basis of the hand strength. Of course, it gives you the basic benefits of bluffing – where the chances of the opponent folding up will give you the win.
When should you opt for semi-bluff?
While the standard rules we discussed above while considering whether to bluff or not apply here as well, there are some specific things you need to consider before you can decide to do this. In fact, most of the players fail to successfully implement semi-bluff, by betting when they should actually be checking, or by checking when they should actually be betting.
So, you need to focus on identifying when to check and when to bet. And a good way of doing this is as per the below formula:
Profitability = % Pot Equity + Fold Equity
You are more likely to win by going ahead with your draw by having more pot equity. If you have more pot equity, you need not be bothered about your opponent folding up (fold equity). The more likely your opponent is to fold (because of him/her being very conservative), the less pot equity you need.
Of course, you need to continue to consider the other parameters such as your opponents, your table image, your position, etc. before deciding whether to go ahead with a semi-bluff or not. You will benefit the most from this, when the pot is large and when your opponents fold. That is the most beneficial situation for your semi-bluff to be successful. If your initial hands are open ended straight draws or flush draws, you can think of going ahead with semi-bluff. These hands have little value upfront, but have the potential to become a strong hand when the right card hits.
On the other hand, if the pot is small and if there are players who like to spend their chips by calling continuously, then, it does not make sense to spend your chips and time in playing semi-bluff.
Having known these details about semi-bluff, is it the best poker bluff? Well, it may or may not be. If you check out the type of poker played by some of the greats of this game, almost all of them used bluffs at the most opportune times. Some of these best bluffs were witnessed when:
A poker pro took advantage of his position and betting line to bluff against multiple opponents and make his bet look like a high value hand.
A poker pro took advantage of his position as well as the fact that he was deep-stacked to create relentless pressure on the out-of-position opponents and ultimately made them to fold.
Many of these best poker bluffs involved things which are done rarely by players and which may not necessarily hand you a win on most occasions. That is what makes them the best bluffs – the least likelihood of them occurring!
You will be in a position to pull off some of the best poker bluffs if you manage to become an expert bluff catcher yourself. Once you master the art of catching bluffs of other poker players, you can succeed more in pulling off some bluffs of your own!
Things to Look Out for While Catching a Bluff
While studying your opponents, you simply have to understand the strength of their hand, and you will know whether they are playing on the real value of the hand or bluffing. Few things to watch out for a while catching a bluff as an expert bluff catcher are as described below:
Check out those eye movements
After every card is dealt, do keep a track on the eye movements of other players on the table. These will reveal a lot about the strength of their hand. For example:
A hand is more likely to be a weak hand if the player continues to watch the flop even after it has been dealt. A hand is more likely to be a strong hand, if the player views his / her own chips stack immediately after a community card is dealt face-up (thereby indicating that he/she is getting ready for a bet). You will witness few such common eye movements between various players who bluff, or do not bluff at all (and go ahead purely on the basis of their hand strength).
Spot the Tension & Nervousness
It is common to see players massage their neck, get their shoulders up, and look a bit stiff whenever they are trying out a bluff. Similarly, a hard swallow by a player once someone else bets might indicate that the player is nervous as he/she has played out a bluff. Very few players can hide their stiffness or tension/nervousness, and it is here that you have to be vigilant in spotting such tension. Players who place bets with strong hands are normally relaxed, talk freely and hardly show any stiffness.
However, there may be cases where you might feel that the player is nervous, but, he/she in fact could be excited. An ideal example of such a case is when a player keeps shaking his / her hands while placing a bet. The popular assumption is that such shaking of hands is a sign of nervousness (in case of a bluff), but you will also witness such an action by players who are excited with their strong hand. So, you can even associate such confusing actions with particular players after spending some game time with them on the poker table.
Spot their Betting Style
The manner in which a poker player places the bet can also reveal the strength of the hand possessed. For example, when a player continuously looks at the next player (whose turn is due) after he/she places the bet, there is a good likelihood that the player is hoping for the others to fold since he/she has put a bluff.
Many players who have real value hand try to bet with small value to go slow and encourage other players with weaker hands to bet and build the pot size. On the other hand, many of the same players will place a higher value bet while they are bluffing as their intent is to intimidate others and get them to fold. If you can spot this tendency amongst players on your table, you would be easily able to spot the bluffs.
Get Information on Hand History
Many a time you may have doubt on a player trying to bluff, but you are not confident to risking a bet to try and catch that bluff. Imagine such a player wins in the next round due to his / her position by getting you and others to fold up. In a live poker tournament or cash game, you will not be able to know the real value of that player’s hand. However, in online poker, you can try and get historical information about the hand with the hand history re-player feature (especially for the hole cards).
Spot those Who Cannot Bluff
You are likely to come across poker players (especially beginners or those who have lost a lot through bluffs earlier) who refrain from using bluffs throughout. You can spot such players to be those who could be found with nuts at the showdown. Spot the tendency of such players, and if you are betting against them (with nuts), you need to place a bet only against high value hand as doing a ‘check’ is unlikely to make such players bluff with you. You will realize that such players only bet when they have strong hands, so you can make them fold easily with your bluffs, while you are saved from the task of identifying their bluffs. However, be wary of certain players who show this tendency of not being in favour of bluffs and will suddenly pull out a couple of bluffs when you least expect them to. It is here that you need to be vigilant and spot the difference in their behaviour, eye movements, hand movements, etc. (as discussed in above points)
Spot their Behaviour after a Bluff is Caught
Different players will behave differently after their bluff is caught. While certain players might on the aggressive mode and try few more bluffs in a short span of time, others might tighten their game in order to recover the losses. In either case, you need not lose sight of their tendencies and be ready to spot the change in their style of play. You do not want to lose the advantage of such players having less confidence in playing their next bluff (if they happen to) since their earlier bluff was caught.
The points discussed above will help you to become an expert bluff catcher and go a long way in adjusting your game to play the bluffs effectively so that you can win more money.
You may love it, or you may hate it, but you just cannot ignore poker bluff. If you wish to become a poker pro player, you will have to include this bluff aspect of the game in your poker skill set. The best way to learn about the right timing and understanding player’s behaviour to bluffs, you have to start practising few poker games where you try out bluffs. So, what are you waiting for? Download the poker app and start playing poker game variants – try to implement the poker bluff strategy discussed here.