Texas Holdem - How Bluffing Works
All winning Texas holdem players bluff. But most losing Texas holdem players bluff too. The difference between the winners and the losers is knowing when to do it.
You'll find there are different types of bluffs and to be a long term winning player you need to know each type and understand when and how to use them for maximum profit.
A straight bluff is when your only chance of winning the hand is if your opponent or opponents fold. This often happens when you miss a draw or your opponent hits a better hand on their draw.
When your opponent hits a better hand by hitting their draw it's almost impossible to bluff them out of the hand. It's not always easy to see when they hit a draw, but the more you study them and how they play the more likely you'll be to put them on a hand.
In the hands where you miss your draw you need to try to determine if your opponent can predict that you missed your draw by the board cards and the way you've been playing and you need to figure out how strong their hand is.
For a straight bluff to work your opponent needs to be convinced your hand is better than theirs and if they know what they're doing you need to make sure they're not getting the correct pot odds to call even if they think they'll lose most of the time.
If this all sounds complicated, that's because it is complicated. This is why it's so hard to run successful straight bluffs.
You're drawing to an open end straight but don't complete your straight. You've been betting aggressively and the board doesn't show anything that looks too dangerous. You bet on the river because the only way you can win is if your opponent folds. This bluff has a decent chance of success because it's almost impossible for your opponent to put you on a straight draw. You've also been betting aggressively making it look like you have a strong hand from the start.
The flop has two cards of the same suit and you're drawing to a flush. Your opponent bets and you call on the flop and the turn. On the river you don't complete your flush and your opponent bets. If you call you lose so you have to either fold or raise. It's almost impossible to get your opponent to fold in this situation because you played the hand in a weak manner and it looks obvious that you were drawing to the flush and missed.
A semi bluff is when you have a hand that may or may not be good, but you also have a draw to a better hand.
You see the flop with the ace and queen of clubs and the flop has two clubs and the ace of diamonds. This gives you the top pair and a draw to the flush. You want to play this hand aggressively, even if another player is also playing aggressively.
Semi bluffs don't have to be as clear cut as this example. You may pair your queen with four to a flush or have two pair with a board that shows a possible flush.
Most of your bluffs should be semi bluffs where you have a chance to win even when you get called.
When You Should
The short answer is you should bluff any time a bluff offers the best positive expectation situation. This means that if a bluff makes more money than any other option in the long run, or loses less than any other option, you should do it.
You're in a hand where you missed your draw and the pot has $100 in it and you're first to act against a single opponent. If you check and your opponent checks you lose the hand. If you check and your opponent bets you'll either have to fold or raise. If you bet your opponent can call or raise, in which you lose, or they can fold.
In this example your only two real options are check and fold to a raise, or bet. Checking means you have no chance to win so the only real question is if you bet will it be profitable in the long run. Here's how you determine this:
If you bet $20 how often does your opponent have to fold to show a long term profit?
Let's look at what happens if you do this 100 times:
- Betting $20 100 times means you put a total of $2,000 in the pot.
- When you win you get back your $20 plus the $100 in the pot.
- So you simply divide the $2,000 investment by the $120 you get back to see what the break-even point is.
- You have to make your opponent fold 16.67% of the time to break even.
- So if they fold 17 out of 100 times, or more, you've made a profitable play.
You can determine the percentages using different size bets to find the one that gives you the best chance to win.
Once you know the answer to how many times they have to fold, the only thing you need to figure out is if they'll fold this many times or not. In the example above, the odds are high that your opponent will fold at least one out of every five times, or 20%, so you should make the bet.
You also need to recognize these numbers when you're on the other side of the picture. If you think it's possible your opponent is bluffing you need to use the same type of calculations to determine if a call is profitable in the long run.
When You Shouldn't
On the other side of the discussion, when you shouldn't bluff is determined much the same way as when you should. If it's not going to be profitable in the long run you shouldn't bluff.
We've already mentioned one situation where it's probably not profitable to make a bluff. When you miss a flush draw it's often obvious that you're bluffing. But you can use this same mentality to extract extra money when you have two pair or a set and it looks like you missed a flush. When you bet in this situation you'll almost always get called.
Use the same calculations you learned about in the last section and combine the numbers with your knowledge of your opponent and what has happened during the current hand. Try to determine what your opponent holds and try to figure out what they think you have.
The bad news is there isn't a magic number or percentage of times you should be bluffing. Proper bluffs depend on too many variables that constantly change to be able to pinpoint a set percentage of hands.
But the good news is you can probably improve your bluffing game immediately by doing one simple thing. Start tracking how often you bluff now and start bluffing half of the times you're bluffing now.
The reasons most players bluff too much is it's exciting to try to fool your opponent and when you watch poker on television you see a bunch of bluffs. The poker shows cut out most of the boring hands and because bluffs are exciting they get shown more often than many other types of hands.
Your other option is to stop bluffing entirely for the next several playing sessions and then just start using semi bluffs from time to time. Then slowly start using a real bluff no more than once per playing session.
Almost every long term losing Texas holdem player bluffs too often. Even some of the better players bluff a little bit too often, but they're good enough in other parts of their game they can cover up some of their faults.
The bottom line is if you want to start improving your results you should immediately stop bluffing so much.
Bad Players and Good Players
One complaint that you'll hear often is about when a player makes what they think is a great bluff but a player calls them and they start whining about how they can't bluff a bad player. They say this like they'd rather be playing against great players.
It's silly to want to play against better players. The way you make money playing holdem is by playing against players who aren't as good as you.
Many poor players are hard to bluff because they call almost any bet. But good players recognize this and stop bluffing against the poor payers. Instead, bet your good hands against the poor players because they're more likely to pay you off.
Making bluffs work is as much about understanding the psychology of poker and poker players and using it to your advantage as anything else.
Years ago I was playing a no limit cash game and one of the players was a hot shot kid who thought he was God's gift to poker players. He was convinced he was the best player in the room and that he could outplay anyone and everyone.
We got involved in a heads up pot where I raised before the flop, bet on the flop, and bet on the turn. I started the hand with suited connectors and flopped a straight draw. I played the hand aggressively but didn't complete the straight. The raise and bets I made before the river were normal size.
I knew that the only way I win the hand is by betting the correct amount to get him to fold. Many players mistakenly think they need to bet a lot to make their opponent fold. This is true in some situations, but this guy thought he was so good that he could lay down a hand in any situation proving he could read you and your hand.
So in this situation a move all in would look like a bluff and probably get called. So I took a long time to act, trying to look like I was determining the perfect bet size to get him to call, making it look like I was trying to extract the last little bit of profit from him, and I made a very small bet.
The pot odds he was getting were so good that a good player would never lay the hand down. But he wasn't a good player, he just thought he was. He thought a good player could lay down a hand for a small bet and it made him look smart, but his ego forced him to make a bad play.
He folded and I won the pot.
This is a perfect example of trying to understand your opponents and how they think and figuring out a way to use it against them. He could have called and I wouldn't be writing about the experience here, but until he actually became a player that was almost as good as he thought he was, he'll continue making mistakes like the one we just went over.
You can learn a few lessons from this example:
- Always consider the pot odds when deciding whether to fold or call
- Always try to conceal how good or bad you really are at the poker table
- Don't make yourself a target at the poker table
- Learn as much about your opponents as possible
Bluffing is exciting and can be addicting. Just remember to make sure a bluff is the most profitable long term play before you try it.
Always try to learn as much as possible about your opponents so you can find the best times and situations to run a bluff. Everything you learn about your opponents can mean more profit in the long run.
And don't forget to cut your bluffing in half starting today. It's almost guaranteed to increase your profits, and you might find that you need to cut it in half again to increase your winnings even more.