Poker Essays

Bluffing in No-Limit Holdem cash games

From Card Academy May 2007

Before trying to implement the tactics described in this section about bluffing in poker, it is important to understand that some of the more advanced bluffing strategies do not suit every player, or every poker strategy. While bluffing and deception is a quintessential component of every successful poker strategy, especially in No-limit Holdem, excessive bluffing can get even the best of players into sticky situations where they obviously would prefer not to be.

Bluffing in poker is extremely difficult to master, because there is no hard and fast rule defining when, where or how much to bluff. Hopefully these guidelines will give you the necessary resources to find a bluffing strategy that suits your style of play. In order to succeed, the skill of bluffing requires all of the general fundamentals of poker, including having good knowledge of your opponents at the table, knowing the correct time to bluff, as well as having the courage to put your money into the pot with nothing. The beauty of bluffing is that it gives you the ability to take down pots that you would otherwise have lost. Normally in a session where you would have come out negative because of a cold deck or the inability to hit any flops, you may end up square or even slightly ahead because of your bluffing prowess. Now if that doesn't make you satisfied, not much else will!

Mathematical Example of Bluffing
Stripping things down to the bare minimum, I have described a situation here that illustrates the basic concept of bluffing with its mathematical explanation. In this example, you are at the river with one other player and you are last to act after he checks to you. Not concerned with the rest of the play, assume there are 100 dollars in the pot and you are quite certain that your opponent has the best hand if you were to check it down. Here is where things get difficult, when determining how much to bet so that your opponent will not call. There is always a chance your opponent will call, or even raise you. He may be trying to set a trap, or checking down with a marginal hand that he doesn't want to bet with, but is happy to call with. All of these factors have to come into consideration when determining your bluff. So with 100 dollars in the pot, if you think that a 25 dollar bet will make your opponent fold a quarter of the time, then it is a correct bet. We can see that this is the case if we play out the hand 4 times, of which three out of four times you are called and lose 75 dollars as a result of bluffing. However on the one time that he folds, you pick up the 100 dollar pot. After it all pans out, you come out 25 dollars ahead.

From this we can see how the bluff only has to work some of the time in order to justify it as a winning play. Many players often mistakenly believe that money they put into the pot previously is still their money when calculating the odds. This is simply not the case. If you had checked the river in the previous example all four times, you would have lost the 100 dollars in the pot each time anyway, but by betting at least you have a chance of taking down the pot! However, let's pursue this further. How do you determine the exact percentage chance that a player will fold to a certain bet? It is nigh on impossible to make this decision spot on. So why not make a bet that you believe will make your opponent fold 95% of the time? After all, this is No-Limit Holdem and not Limit, so you should use this to your advantage. This leads onto the next section.

How much should I bluff?
There is no definitive answer to this question, but when bluffing it is advisable NOT to err on the side of caution. You should not show any weakness in your bet and you surely don't want to price your opponent into the pot. If you only bet one third of the pot, then your opponent only has to be correct one in three times to make the call profitable. So if he thinks there is a two in three chance that you are bluffing, then he should call you. Most decent players will be able to distinguish a bluffer from a non-bluffer and hence this decision would not be a difficult one for them. If you think about it, a 66% chance that someone is bluffing is fairly high. Generally I would suggest a bet that is closer to pot sized, after all, this is the kind of bet you would make if you actually had a hand. This bet also puts a lot more pressure on the other player to make the correct decision.

There are two sides of the coin for this argument, because sometimes a smaller sized bluff can sometimes be deceiving. On occasion if you make a bet that is about a third to a half of the pot, this may look like you are begging for a call. This play should only be used against more advanced players who will think about your play and what it suggests. There are also situations where you are forced to bluff because you have nothing and you cannot possibly win the pot without betting, but you really have no idea if your opponents will fold to or call your bet. What you do here genuinely defines whether you are a risk taking, aggressive player, or a safer, tight player. Mathematically, because you are so unsure, it would be wrong to place a large bet in this situation. However, I still recommend a bet that is at least two-thirds of the pot size. Otherwise you are better off checking and hoping for the best.

Who to target?
Keeping an eye on how each opponent on your table plays is essential for all types of poker strategies and the same goes for bluffing. Your strategy should change accordingly when pitted against different types of players. First and foremost, do not attempt elaborate bluffs on very weak players, especially calling stations! The more advanced the bluff, the more advanced the player that is required for the play to work. When facing tight or timid, players, you should immediately realize that these players will often release their hands when forced to call a substantial bet. So it should hit you straight away that these players are far more susceptible to bluffs. It is also important to acknowledge that if a tight player calls your bet, more often than not they will have a hand and further bluffs may be futile. On the other hand, when up against more loose, aggressive players, bluffing too often pre-flop or on the flop against these players may not be the smartest play, because more often than not you will be called. It is more reasonable to let these players do the bluffing against you and use this to your advantage. Well timed re-raises, even without a hand, against these types of players will probably make you more money in the long run than trying to steal their blinds off them. Attempting to bluff a bluffer is somewhat more advanced however, as you need to be fairly sure your opponent is bluffing and it contains a significantly higher risk.

There are more than four types of players however, and sometimes a timid player who never bets may always call you down, or an aggressive pre-flop player may give up his hand easily if he doesn't improve on the flop. So keep an eye out and adapt your strategy accordingly. When all is said and done, look for players that tend to fold easily post-flop, these are the best targets for bluffing.

How often should I bluff?
Players that bluff some of the time and not all of the time, or hardly at all, are generally the better players in the game. It is always important in poker not to become predictable and the same goes for bluffing. However bluffing too much is significantly worse than not bluffing at all. So if you find yourself falling into this pattern, be sure to pull in the reins! If the players at your table realize that you are bluffing most of the time, your bluffs will become ineffective and you will get called down more often than not. You will also be susceptible to being set-up and often players in early positions will wait for you to bet and check-raise you. It is much better to bluff less often if you cannot find yourself a happy medium, because if your opponents are of the opinion that you do not bluff at all, then when you do bluff, at least your bluff
will demand respect. The obvious downside to this is that when you do make a hand, you will get paid off much less often. The optimum strategy is to keep them guessing and the keys to doing this are to keep your betting consistent whether you are bluffing or not and not to bluff too often, nor too infrequently, but to keep a happy medium. When your opponents are forced to guess whether or not you are bluffing, inevitably they will be wrong some of the time. You will find that when you are on song, the decision will be in your favour more often than not.

Keep track of betting patterns
As most play is conducted online nowadays, the best way to read a player is by keeping track of the way your opponent bets, but this also applies to live games. The thing to look for when you want to bluff a player out of a pot is a bet that signifies weakness, or is out of the ordinary. Again this is considered an advanced strategy, because you are raising a player believing that he has a weak or no hand at all, and the risk is fairly high. Be careful though, because some players like to use a weak bet to induce a bluff and you may be playing straight into their hands!

Next... Best Times to Bluff

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