Picking your spots: When to bluff in poker

by Casey Coughlan on December 8, 2010

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If you want to become a good poker player, you need to understand the ins and outs of bluffing. There will be times when you are playing poker and you just aren’t getting any good cards. This is when a bluffing can turn things around for you.

But before you start bluffing, you need to understand that there is an art to it. Here is how bluffing works:

Semi-bluffing

A semi-bluff is a bluff in which you hope that the other players at the table will fold. But even if they decide to call, there is still the possibility that you can still have a good hand. In other words, semi-bluffing is used when you have a good drawing hand. A drawing hand means that you have four suits to a flush or an open-ended straight draw.

Say you are dealt J-10. You call the big blind and see a flop. The flop comes out 8-9-3. You can catch a 7 or a Q and complete your straight. But, it’s possible that another player already has a middle pair (8s).

In order to get them to fold, you would want to represent a good hand and make a good sized bet (about half the pot). The benefit of this bet, or semi-bluff, is that even if your opponent calls with top pair or middle pair, if you catch your straight, the chances are you will have the best hand.

From here, you can either check or bet, depending upon what you think your opponent has and what you think your opponent guesses that you have. You might want to check the turn and then hope your opponent bets and re-raise them on the river. On the other hand, you may want to bet after you catch your straight because your opponent could be chasing a higher straight.

Semi-bluffing can also work if you have four to a flush after the flop. A good strategy is to make a bet that is about 1/2 to 3/4 of the pot, which shows that you have caught the top pair after the flop.

For example, say the flop comes to a 2 ♠ 5 ♥ and 8 ♥, and you have A ♥ and a 6 ♥ as your hole cards. You will have a made hand (the hand you are hoping to catch), if you get your flush. But by making a large bet after the flop, you are “telling” other players that you already have a good hand, and that they should fold. With this bet you can force opponents who have a smaller flush draw into the pot, which will lead to a bigger payout for you.

Based on your bet after the flop, if you hit your flush on the turn or the river, your opponent may not believe you and you can get more chips from them with a check-raise or a re-raise.

Slow Playing

Like the semi-bluff, slow playing has a big risk-to-reward ratio. Slow playing is another form of bluffing in which you represent a weaker hand, usually by simply calling bets, in order to set up a big bet or a re-raise on the river.

For example, say you are in first position (you have the dealer chip) and your hole cards are a 7-2, unsuited (statistically, the worse starting hand). Say you call the big blind and the flop comes 7-7-2. You have a full house and the odds are, you’ll end up win the pot.

At the same time, the other players probably don’t think you’ve played with bad cards. You already have a made hand, so “check” your option and hope that the other players come out firing. Since you are the last to act you may want to make a small bet on the turn to spur some action. Because of your small raise, they may “sense” that you have a weak hand (maybe a pair of 2s) and make a bet. This is your chance to raise, either on the turn or the river.

Slow playing can also get you into trouble though, especially online where there is a higher percentage of big hands. It can also get you into trouble if there are flush or straight possibilities on the board.

Picking up small pots

Bluffing can be really useful to pick up smaller pots in tournament play. The ideal time to make a bluff is when there are three or less (including you) players to a flop, especially if the other two players are in the big blind and small blind.

Just for a second, imagine that the three of you limp in, and the flop shows a couple of face cards, A-K-9. If the other players check in front of you, they probably have weak hands and missed the flop. This is a good time for you to make a medium-sized bet and try to win the pot.

Another common strategy in picking up small pots is when the board shows a pair on the flop. For example, the flop comes out Q-Q-7, unsuited. It’s unlikely that the other players have a Q or 7, especially if they are in the blinds and have checked the flop. This is a great time to bluff and pick up the pot.

But if you are called however, be careful because someone could be slow playing.

Bullying with big chip stacks

If you are the chip leader in a tournament or have a big stack of chips in a cash game, this is the perfect time to throw your weight around, especially if you have a significant advantage over the next highest stack.

Bullying players with shorter chip stacks allows you to increase the odds that you’ll have more chips if you get down to heads-up during the tournament.

The best strategy to grow your chip lead is by raising pre-flop. Because of their smaller stacks, most players will throw away hands that they might have called with earlier in the game.

By raising pre-flop, you are putting a lot of pressure on the short stack players and forcing them into a decision they don’t want to make. If you do this enough, not only will you pick up a good number of small pots, but you’ll get these players to throw away hands that they want to call with. Those players will be afraid of a re-raise and the fact that they cannot afford to call.

Conclusion

Although bluffing seems simple, there is an art to it. If you stick by the rules mentioned above, you’ll increase your odds of winning. If you just bluff whenever you feel like it, you’ll start depleting your bankroll.

It took me a while to figure out the art of bluff, the best way you can learn is by practicing during games.

So what do you think? Did this blog post help you understand how bluffing works?

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason December 8, 2010 at 9:31 AM

Neil, great read.
Picking up the small pots- I’m a big fan of situational betting which is essentially bluffing because it really doesn’t matter what cards you have. I think this is a huge one that pro’s do very well, novices completely miss and regulars are all to regular about it, ie. you can pick up their patterns and use it against them. To do well in tournaments, picking up small pots is essential, as the cards will go south for a while and you need a way to survive. thanks for the article.

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Neil Patel December 8, 2010 at 9:43 AM

I am with you, it’s a great way to survive and it is one of the biggest mistakes that newbies make.

By the way, thanks for reading Online Poker Lowdown. :)

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KGB March 16, 2011 at 1:49 PM

Yah, you pretty much nailed it here; and like Jason said, the real trick is learning how to keep from slipping into any kind of pattern that better players can pick up on and use against you.

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Mike Kam March 29, 2011 at 12:19 PM

Good point Jason. You will always find noobies fall into the pattern of continuation betting their preflop bet and all it takes is 1 re-reraise to knock them out of the hand.

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