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Mind Over Poker - A Matter of Tolerance

by David Apostolico |  Published: Nov 26, 2010


I received an e-mail recently from a reader asking if I could provide him with any tips for bluffing. By way of background, he stated that he was having a hard time pulling off bluffs. That was the extent of the e-mail — two sentences. Of course, it was virtually impossible for me to offer any specific advice with so little to go on. Poker is an extremely situational and nuanced game. Bluffing is just one aspect of the game, and it’s not nearly as big a part of the game as novices believe it to be.

Inexperienced players are often overly cynical and call too often, not believing that their opponents have the goods. When it comes time to bluff, those same inexperienced players will pick an extremely obvious time or provide such a glaring tell that they might as well just throw in a chip that says, “I’m bluffing.” Bluffing takes thought, foresight, and setup, and oftentimes the ability to follow through. Knowing when an opponent is vulnerable is the first step, but knowing how to manipulate that opponent is tricky and not easy to define.

This column is by no means meant to be a guide to bluffing. For those looking for a detailed work on the subject, I would refer you to Matt Lessinger’s excellent treatise The Book of Bluffs. However, the e-mail I received did get me thinking about whether or not there is some universal advice that I can offer on the subject — and the answer is yes.

We all fall somewhere on the sliding scale of risk tolerance. We each have our own unique comfort level, and even that specific level may vary depending on the situation and stakes at hand. If you are going to attempt a bluff, you need to have a very acute self-realization of what your risk tolerance will be. Are you going to fire one bullet, or two, or three? How much are you willing to risk? If you are unsuccessful, where will that leave you and how will you react to that?

For example, let’s say that you are the chip leader in a tournament as you are approaching the money. It will make a big difference in whether you try to bluff a small stack, a medium stack, or another large stack. Let’s say that you have a great read on a fairly large stack and think you can bluff him off a pot, so you raise his turn bet from late position. He calls. The river is a blank, and he now fires out a big bet that smells of a steal. What do you do? You know that you can’t win unless you chase him out. You feel confident that an all-in raise will accomplish your objective. I am purposely not mentioning cards here, because I want to focus on risk tolerance and forethought. The bigger question here is, are you prepared to go from chip leader to desperate short stack?

That question should have been asked before you made your move on the turn. While bluffing is very situational and nuanced, the one universal truth is that you will never be successful at it if you don’t fully comprehend and accept your own comfort level of risk before you get involved. Maybe you are perfectly comfortable with raising all in on the river in the above example. Or, maybe you are perfectly comfortable with folding, recognizing that your one shot at a steal on the turn didn’t work. But if you are going to fold on the river and be upset at yourself for wasting chips on the turn, you shouldn’t have made the move in the first place. Your risk tolerance couldn’t afford it, and it could affect your future play. ♠

David Apostolico is the author of several poker-strategy books, including Tournament Poker and The Art of War, and Compete, Play, Win: Finding Your Best Competitive Self. You can contact him at