Bluffs in Tournament Play
Tournaments change every facet of the game, and the ability to bluff is no different. In a cash game you'll be able to reload if you run a failed bluff, but this just isn't an option when you are in a tournament. Once the chips are gone, they are gone, so you'll need to be exceptionally careful. Now, this isn't to say that you shouldn't be running bluffs from time to time, but you will most certainly need to be picking your spots with extreme care.
As backwards as it might sound, the later stages of a tournament will usually be the best time to attempt a bluff. It doesn't seem like this would make sense, but this is when you are most likely to procure a lot of folds. As a tournament runs deeper and deeper, players tend to become more scared. As a result of this, you'll be able to take advantage of other players' weakness by firing out well timed bluffs in an attempt to take down big pots. Picking your spot is always important when running a bluff, but its importance is even more magnified when you are playing a tournament.
Bluffs in Early Stages
The early stages of a tournament are the worst time to attempt a bluff. Bluffs shouldn't be confused with continuation bets, however, as these will be perfectly acceptable from the very first hand that you play. When discussing bluffs, you should be thinking about those big pots where you are going to risk a significant amount of chips for a sizable pot. A continuation bet is different because it will mean that you are wagering a small amount of chips for a moderately sized pot. The risk reward in a continuation bet is weighted such that you have little on the line, whereas in bluffs you can very easily put yourself in a difficult position should you happen to lose the pot.
The reason that bluffing in early stages doesn't make sense is because your absolute best outcome is a 50% or increase in stack size, since a 100% increase means that you were likely called. Since even an early double up is going to mean next to nothing later on, it doesn't make sense to put yourself in this amount of danger. You can't win the tournament in the early stages, so there's no point in playing as if you can.
Bluffs in Middle Stages
In the middle stages of a tournament, the value of a bluff will begin to rise. Where there was once little value to be had, there's now more worth fighting for. This isn't to say that you should be risking your life at this point in an event, however. The middle stages are where you'll either start to fall behind the pack or when you'll start to pull away. The end of the spectrum that you happen to be on will play into whether or not you are in prime position for running any bluffs.
If you are starting to lag behind the field as the blinds start to steadily increase, bluffing is something that you should put on the back burner. Instead of trying to accumulate chips with risky plays, the better move is to look for spots where you can most effectively double up. If you are low on chips, you are probably going to be scared money. Bluffs should be made when you have the power to push people around, but a short stack is living on its last legs.
The times where you have compiled a big stack of chips are the situations where you should be attempting bluffs, and especially in the middle stages. Some players will still be in early stage mode and will be playing passively, making it a perfect opportunity for you to throw around your weight. As good as making some bluffs can be for your chip stack, you'll still need to be careful that you don't needlessly drain your tournament life away. Don't take any big risks quite yet; simply stick to making plays in hands with the highest chances of success.
Bluffs in Late Stages
The late stages of a tournament are going to be full of adrenaline and extreme emotional swings. You could be riding high one second and on the brink of being knocked out the next. If you make a bluff at this time, expect those emotions to be even more amplified. A bluff late in a tournament could define whether you barely cash or make it to the final table.
As a short stack, you shouldn't even be considering making a bluff as the tournament nears its final stages. Instead you should be looking for the best double up opportunities that are available. There's no value in putting your life on the line in an attempt to double up when you could be doing the same with a decent hand. Any good bluff requires that you are intimidating your opponent, and a small stack will have a tough time accomplishing this. Even if you have a big stack, bluffs aren't to be messed around with. One failed bluff when the blinds are high could very easily spell disaster.
If you are going to try and outplay your opponents when you are in the middle of a deep run, you need to be aware of the risk involved. Don't take big shots at tight players who only get involved with the nuts. Don't bluff on a board where your opponent is very likely to be slow playing the nuts. This is all very obvious advice, but many players will get suckered into the idea of winning a big pot with nothing at all. While the chance of increasing your stack by a good margin is enticing, it's also exceedingly dangerous. Use your big stack as a weapon to push around weaker players in the late stages of a tournament, but don't use it as a means of self-destruction.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
Related Poker Articles