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Bluffing 101

by Gavin Griffin |  Published: Mar 21, 2012


Gavin GriffinI made my first televised tournament final table in 2004. I was 22 years old and playing with some of the biggest names in poker. I got the chip lead late on day one in a huge pot with one of my idols at the time, T.J. Cloutier. I busted Johnny Chan and Phil Hellmuth. It was the second World Series event I ever played and I won it. I was too young to realize the crazy amount of pressure in the situation and that probably helped me to pull off one of the more interesting bluffs I’ve ever made.

It was three-handed between me, Garry Bush, and Gabe Thaler. The blinds were 8,000-16,000 with no ante because we were playing pot-limit hold‘em. I had a pretty significant chip lead and was in the big blind with 7-5 offsuit. Gabe Thaler limped on the button and Garry called in the small blind. I checked and we saw a flop of 6-4-4 rainbow. Garry led for 16K and I called with my open-ended straight draw. Gabe made it 56,000. After some thinking, Garry folded. I immediately realized the power of my situation. My plan changed from seeing a cheap turn to winning the pot right now.

I didn’t think Gabe would really have a 4 in his hand too often, and, if he doesn’t have a 4, I knew that he would have a pretty tough time calling, so I made it 135,000 more. This would essentially put Gabe all-in. He thought about it for a while and folded what I later learned was A-6.

Bluffing is sexy in big bet hold‘em, but not so much so in limit hold‘em. As a result, you often hear people say things like “you can’t bluff in limit, people will call with anything.” It’s true, people will call you down with worse hands in limit poker than they will in no-limit or pot-limit and they should because they are getting a better price on their call. They don’t have to be right as often when they are calling getting 10-to-1 or more as opposed to 2.5 or 3-to-1. The flip side of that is also true though.

Your bluff doesn’t have to be successful anywhere near as often to show a profit. If your opponent folds 10 percent of the time getting 10-to-1 when you’re bluffing, you make money in the long run. Your bluffs cost less and profit a huge amount when they work. I’ve played some interesting hands lately that illustrate some of the principles of bluffing. Let’s look at them.

This hand is from an $8-$16 game with a kill to $12-$24. The cutoff is the kill blind and he checks his option. SB calls and I call in the BB with T-6 offsuit. The flop is 9-8-3 rainbow. SB checks, I bet with a gutshot and an overcard. The cutoff calls and small blind folds. Turn is a king, completing the rainbow, I bet, and he calls. River is another King and the action is the same, I bet and he calls. He has A-3.

I think we both played the hand well. First, let’s analyze his call. Looking at only the river action, my opponent is getting 5.5-1 on his call and if my river betting range is J-T, Q-T, T-7, T-6, all nines, 9-8, and the better eights like A-8, K-8, Q-8, J-8, and T-8 I’m about a 2-1 favorite to have a better hand than his. Clearly his call is correct when we look at just the river.

I played my hand how I did because I had quite a bit of equity against two blinds on the flop and still had some on the turn along with fold equity. On the river, I put my opponent on bad eights, threes, sometimes pairs like 5-5 and 4-4, along with J-T, Q-T, Q-J, and T-7. I think he would have raised preflop with pairs of sixes or higher and on the flop with a nine. I don’t expect him to ever fold eights and rarely 5-5 or 4-4.

Sometimes he folds a three, especially in a kill pot. Some players tend to think that people bluff less on the river in kill pots because it costs them more. I’m going to go into this in more depth in a future column that deals exclusively with playing in kill pots, but it should never be a factor in your own decision making. Feel free, however, to exploit others’ mistakes as a result of the temporary increase in stakes. Getting back to the current hand, the main portion of my opponent’s range that I wanted to fold out was J-T, Q-T, Q-J, and T-7. These hands could certainly get to the river in this fashion and almost nobody is calling with them in these games. This chunk of his range is where I gain most of my equity in this bluff. Unfortunately, the board runout was poor and my opponent played his hand well.

Another hand came up in the $8-$16 game where my opponent tried to bluff me in a less graceful manner. Five off the button, four off the button, and the hijack call. I raise in the cutoff with AHeart Suit QHeart Suit. The BB and everyone else calls. Q-6-3 rainbow, everyone checks to me and I bet. Everyone calls. The turn is the 2Diamond Suit, putting a second diamond on board. Everyone checks to me and I bet again. One of the blinds and one of the limpers calls. The river is another deuce. They both check, I bet, and now the blind check raises. The other person folds and I call. He shows T-3 offsuit.

My opponent has made a valiant effort, but a misguided one. He recognized that not too many people check-raise bluff the river in low limit hold‘em and attempted to exploit that. However, he didn’t realize that in order for a bluff to work, your story has to make sense. He expects me to believe that he’s waited to the river to raise with a set of sixes or threes in a five-way pot? Or that he turned a straight and didn’t raise to charge flush draws the maximum? Or that he has Q-2, 6-2, or 3-2 and didn’t raise the turn? None of the hands he is representing pass the plausibility test. I’m also getting 13.5-1 on my call which makes it trivially easy considering I have top-pair/top-kicker.

Perhaps people think that it’s impossible to bluff in limit poker because these are the only situations in which they try it. The real truth is that bluffing isn’t much different in limit and no-limit. It’s important to have a good grasp on what your opponent’s range is and what your perceived range is so you can decide what portion of that range he will fold. Then, you must decide whether the pot is laying you the right price to attempt this bluff. In other words, will your bluff show a profit? Finally, and most importantly, the story you have told with your actions throughout the hand must make sense to your opponent. ♠

Gavin Griffin was the first poker player to capture a World Series of Poker, European Poker Tour and World Poker Tour title and has amassed nearly $5 million in lifetime tournament winnings. Griffin is sponsored by You can follow him on Twitter @NHGG