Bluffing in poker
When should you bluff in poker? How much should you bluff? Read on, and watch Paul Phua’s video
Bluffing is such an important part of poker, it’s even in the name of the game. As you will discover in our article about the origins of poker, one of its possible ancestors is the German card game “pockspiel”, which translates as “bluff game”!
The best way to win at poker, of course, is simply to have the best hand. But sadly we can’t always rely on that! Maybe we were drawing to a flush which didn’t hit; or maybe we started off well but it becomes obvious that your opponent has the stronger hand. There is already a lot of money in the pot. Do we just fold on the river, smile and say “well done”? Or do we bluff – and try to recapture all that money despite having the worst hand?
How likely are they to fold to your bluff?
The first question to ask yourself when deciding whether to bluff the river is, how likely is your opponent to fold? There are several factors to consider: what cards have come that might believably give you a better hand; how strong a hand your opponent is likely to hold; whether he is cautious or risk-taking by nature. But the biggest factor is your own “table image”, in other words what your opponents think of you.
Paul Phua says in this video that when he started playing poker, he never bluffed. After a few years of playing poker with very aggressive players such as Tom Dwan, he realised the value of well-timed bluffs, and began bluffing occasionally.
Paul Phua found that when he did bluff, his opponents would almost always fold! He had spent so many years never bluffing that regular players could not imagine he was bluffing now.
But if Paul Phua were to take this too far, and bluff every river, his table image would soon change. People would realise he had become a bluffer, and start calling him much more often. So be aware of your table image: if you have been playing very tight, it is much easier to get away with bluffing.
How much should you bet on a bluff?
The second big question is, how much should you bluff? Paul Phua says in this video that amateurs often make the mistake of betting too much. Very often, if a player is going to call, he will call whether you bet two thirds of the pot or the whole pot. In fact, betting too much may even look more like a bluff, and be called more often!
Think of it this way: when you are bluffing, you want to bet the least that they will fold to; when you have the strongest hand, you want to bet the most they will call.
Now let’s work out when it is profitable to bet. In the video, Paul Phua gives the example of a $500 pot on the river. Let’s say you know you have the worst hand, and will lose it all if you don’t bet. You estimate that if you bet a reasonable amount, say $300, they will fold 50% of the time. Is that a bluff worth making?
Half the time he folds to your bluff, and you win a $500 pot that otherwise you would have lost. Half the time he calls, and you lose $300 that you might otherwise have saved. So you see, in this situation, where you think he will call 50% of the time, it makes sense to bluff!
How every bluff tells a story
There is one more crucial element in the successful bluff: your bluff has to tell a convincing “story”. Let’s say the board reads K-Q-8-7 of different suits, and a 3 comes on the river. You’ve been passively calling until now, hoping you’ll hit a straight with your J-10, and now choose to bluff rather than fold. What’s your story here? In other words, what cards are you “representing” or claiming to have?
The 3 does not complete any obvious draws. It would only help you if you held K-3 for two pair, or pocket 3s for a set. But if you’ve been playing tight until now, can your opponent believe you’ve called both pre-flop and right up to the river with such weak hands? He may deduce you are bluffing with a failed draw. The late, great Stu Ungar once called a huge pot with 10-high, because he deduced his opponent was bluffing with a failed straight draw!
Now let’s imagine instead that this 3 on the river is a spade, and that there were two spades on the flop. Betting here is a much more convincing story. You were on a draw – a straight draw! So when the flush draw completes, your bet will be very convincing.
Always remember that an experienced poker player will think right back through every street, including pre-flop, before deciding whether to call a river bet. If there is anything along the way that makes the hand you are now representing unlikely, they are liable to call you even if your table image is tight
Further reading about bluffs and semi-bluffs
So far we have been talking only about bluffing on the river. Another kind of bluff is the “semi-bluff”: this is when you raise on a street prior to the river with a hand that is not yet a strong hand, but has the potential to be if the right cards come. For more information about this, see the Paul Phua Poker articles on “raising in poker” and “how to play a flush draw”.
Please read our video script here on Bluffing in Poker.