Bluff Catching in Live Poker
Picking off a bluff is one of the most exciting things that a player can do in poker. On the flip side, calling a bet when you are wrong about a bluff is incredibly frustrating. These extreme highs and lows are an illustration of how poker works as a whole. In live poker, you'll have much more of an opportunity to accurately assess the strength of your opponent. Instead of only playing the odds, you'll be able to use all kinds of tells and other contextual information that you just wouldn't have access to with poker online. This doesn't necessarily mean that you should be calling a lot more bets that you think might be bluffs, but it means that you'll be able to make more informed decisions.
Bluff catching seems to be a chronic condition in live poker. There are some players who live for the thrill of winning a big pot with a small hand. Though there's no denying that it's a rush to win a big pot with a small hand, but it's hardly going to compensate for all of the money lost when you are wrong. The key to bluff catching is to make sure you aren't bluffing into players who love to bluff catch while also making sure that you aren't doing it yourself. If you fall victim to bluff catching as either the bettor or the caller, you are going to lose an awful lot of money in the long run. The goal of this article is to teach you when it's right to bluff catch and when it isn't.
Defining a Good Situation
The first thing that you should understand about calling bluffs is that you need to be overly certain of your reads. You might not be sure where you stand from time to time, but you are still likely working with some room for error. When it comes to bluff catching, however, you should have a very strong feeling for where you are at in the hand. If you are calling someone down with top pair, you could win against a value bet or a bluff. When you call someone down with bottom pair, you win against a bluff only. Once you have a sound read in place, the next step is to determine whether your call makes sense.
Just because you have a good read on someone doesn't necessarily mean that you should call their bet. The numbers still need to add up so that they create a profitable situation for you. For example, if a player bets five times the size of the pot on the river in a relatively small hand, what is the use in calling? Yes, you might be correct and give yourself a chance to win their river bet, but the risk is just too much. Even when you feel all but certain about a read, there are still going to be times where you end up being wrong.
Putting the Story Together
Piecing together the puzzle is what will allow you to make precise reads that end up winning hands. You need to be able to trace yourself back to the pre-flop action all the way to where you are now. Did your opponent play the hand like they were strong? Were they acting a bit too strong to where it seemed contrived? Does a bluff make more sense than a big hand given the action? These are the types of questions that you need to be asking yourself.
One of the most typical bluff catching scenarios will arise when a player open raises pre-flop and then continues to bet out on each street. What will happen is that there will be one player who calls the flop, whether to re-evaluate on the turn or because they truly think they are ahead. The turn is then dealt, the raiser fires again, and the caller now thinks the pot is large enough to where it's worth fighting for. As players we subconsciously trick ourselves into thinking that things will certainly get better.
In this case, we would be holding out hope for a check on the river, even though the prior action doesn't make it seem like this is a likely outcome at all. The river bet then comes and you still have the same lowly hand that you had on the flop. At this point you are either way behind or you can beat the other player's bluff. This is a tough spot to be in, and it's best prevented by not allowing yourself to get sucked into the "bluff vortex" in the first place. What do you do on this river? Well, the answer is tough, and this is one of the primary reasons why you shouldn't rely on bluff catching to win pots.
The next most common bluff catching spot is created by some later action. What is meant by this is that a hand might play relatively slow before it suddenly picks up in action around the turn. When more money is going into the pot, players will decide that their once insignificant hands are now worth playing all the way to the river. It's something that you'll notice over and over again: players that are uninterested in their hand or their opponent's hand itself, but are at the same time quite intrigued by the money that can potentially be won. If you were going to bet and then check the river with a mediocre hand, but end up getting check raised on the turn, you will find yourself in a very tricky position.
On one hand you weren't expecting this aggression which might lead you to believe that your hand is ahead. On the other hand, there's a good chance that you are going to face even more aggression on the river, which means that you'll need to put even more money on the line. And plus, more aggression on the river should be what you want if you call a turn check raise as a bluff catcher. Think about it, if your opponent check raised the turn and checked the river, there's a much better chance that they have a good hand than that they were bluffing. Though some players will give up in that situation, many won't.
You need to always keep the long term repercussions of bluff catching in mind. It will seem very easy to string yourself along in a hand by calling a flop bet, and before you know it you are calling a river shove. You can help to prevent these situations by tightening up. Live poker is the best arena in which to play very straightforward poker (at least at the lower to mid limits). By trying to catch bluffs on a repeated basis, you are making the game much more challenging and risky than is really necessary.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
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