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How Much Should You Bluff?

by Doug Polk |  Published: Jan 04, 2017

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The Upswing Poker Lab is a poker training course taught by Doug Polk and Ryan Fee. The Lab is updated regularly with in-depth learning modules, theory videos, and a wealth of information to make you a better poker player.

Is there anything more satisfying than bluffing? I love bluffing.

Bluffing is life in poker, but not all players feel the same about bluffing. For some, “bluff” is a narrow term of derision, used to describe opponents who bluff too often or always at the wrong time. And this is understandable – we’ve all seen a ludicrous river bet that was destined to get called. What was he thinking with that bluff?!

It’s true that some players bluff too much. But there are also players who think that their opponents — or they themselves — bluff often, but in reality they do not bluff often enough. And sometimes these players’ bluffs are really nothing of the kind.

Here’s the thing about bluffing… without it, you must have a strong hand to win the pot – the strongest hand, in fact. But how often does that actually happen? Most hands miss the flop, and a very strong hand preflop can become very weak as the hand progresses. In short, without bluffing, poker would not just be boring, it would arguably be unbeatable. Your opponents will be quick to exploit a playing style that is too heavily based on making strong hands; one that is not well-rounded with bluffing when it’s appropriate.

So, how much should you bluff? Let’s start with a general rule:

Bluff more early in the hand, and less on later streets.

The reasoning behind this rule is simple. In terms of equity versus an opponent’s calling range, your ‘bluffing’ range is at its strongest preflop, and that equity diminishes as the hand progresses.

For example, preflop, suited connectors could have 30–40 percent equity against most of the hands your opponent will continue with. Consequently, you can play more of these ‘weaker’ hands relative to the number of strong hands that you would typically raise for value. But as you get closer to the river, your bluffing range will have less and less equity against the hands your opponent will continue with, thus you should be bluffing with them less on later streets.

This reasoning culminates on the river.

First, if, on the river you decide to bet, you must know whether you are doing so as a bluff or for value. Generally, if your hand has any equity against the hands your opponent could call you with, then you should not be bluffing. In other words, if you think your opponent could call with some worse hands, then bluffing on the river is probably a bad play.

Second, if you find yourself bluffing on the river it’s important to account for the pot odds you’ll be giving your opponent.

Suppose you’ve bet $100 into a pot of $100, giving your opponent 2:1 to call (your opponent has to call $100 to win $200). This means that you need to be bluffing one in three times, otherwise your opponent could make a profitable adjustment by over-folding or over-calling. The idea is that the range of hands you bet is profitable because your value-bet to bluff ratio is in exact proportion to the pot odds your opponent is being offered (two value bets for every one bluff). As a result, your play is un-exploitable by your opponent – it does not matter whether your opponent calls or folds.

Obviously, this is all to say very little about which hands, exactly, you might want to bluff with at any particular time. Bluffing requires forethought; it cannot simply be a matter of betting with no equity when it feels right. You should plan every hand from preflop onward, thinking carefully about how the hand could develop, making adjustments on each street.

To take an easy example, suppose you bet a flop of QSpade Suit JDiamond Suit 2Club Suit. Here, you could have a number of hands that are bluffs (or, ‘semibluffs’, if you like), which can improve to value hands on later streets. Backdoor flush draws, straight draws with K-10 or 10-9, or even A-10 are therefore hands that are reasonable to bet as bluffs on this flop. Of course, when they don’t improve, some of these hands will be reasonable bluffs on the turn and river, depending on your opponent’s perceived range.

More often, however, it’s not so easy to decide which hands to bluff with. A flop of, say, KDiamond Suit 7Club Suit 2Spade Suit requires a bit more thought, and perhaps more ambition if you decide to continue with a bluff. Hands like ace-high or backdoor flush draws seem reasonable to bet as bluffs, but have less potential to improve than those mentioned in the previous example, and possibly no showdown value by the river. So, you should proceed carefully, keeping in mind the general rule with which we began (bluff more early on, less on later streets).

One particular scenario that some players struggle with involves checking the flop and then betting the turn. As a rule, if you can have some value hands in a scenario then you should also have some bluffs. But to infer which hands to include as bluffs, you have to consider which hands you would check or bet the flop with, and then bet the turn. For instance, on our KDiamond Suit 7Club Suit 2Spade Suit board, could you have checked back the flop with a king? Or could you have had air on the flop and then bet the turn when your hand didn’t improve? Or perhaps you have a hand like pocket tens, and are now value betting on the turn.

Every scenario is different, but when bluffing is a live option you must do some careful thinking, and apply the general rules about bet sizing and equity we’ve been discussing. Nevertheless, by far the most common mistake players make is submitting to a fear of bluffing. Even when the math is on their side players don’t bluff enough. They don’t put their opponents in tough situations and thus they leave money on the table. Don’t be afraid to bluff! When done properly, bluffing is profitable and part of a well-rounded playing style.

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