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Bluffing Means Telling a Story

by Matt Lessinger |  Published: Oct 03, 2012


Matt LessingerWhen I wrote The Book of Bluffs in 2005, most players were not bluffing enough. That’s really not an opinion – it was a mathematical fact. The players who were dominating live games and tournaments were the ones who realized that fact and took maximum advantage of it.

Over time, bluffing frequency has come much closer to optimal, even in low and middle-limit games. But my general feeling is that players are grasping the math of it faster than they are improving their technique.

In other words, we all know that if there is $100 in the pot and you make a $50 river bluff, it needs to work at least 1-in-3 times in order to be a profitable play. More players are now making that bluff attempt rather than checking and giving up, realizing that in the long run it is typically profitable.

But what players are not doing often enough is increasing their chances of success by bluffing well. Anyone can bluff. All you have to do is put your chips into the pot without a hand. However, the art of bluffing requires doing it in the right way and at the right time, and I’m not sure whether that technique has improved much in recent years.

I think a lot of that has to do with online multitabling, which tends to encourage robotic actions. For example, I’ve faced plenty of online opponents who bet half the pot just about every time they make a bet. It’s unimaginative, but understandable. It makes it hard for their opponents to get a read on them, plus it takes away the need to decide how much to bet each time.

On the downside, it means their opponents will often stumble onto the correct play randomly, which is why I’m not a fan of it. If you bet the same amount every time, your opponents will often call just because they really don’t know what you have, and in our $50 river bluff scenario, they have to be right only 1-in-4 times. If you frequently bluff, you are not setting yourself up for long-term success. Since your opponents aren’t sure what you have, you have successfully confused them. The problem is that confusion leads to curiosity, which leads to being called, which leads to failed bluffs. Instead, you need to mislead your opponents, by taking actions specifically aimed at getting the desired laydown. That is the true goal of bluffing.

If you’re playing live, your focus is on only one table, so you have no excuse for robotic play. You must make an effort to shape your play around your opponents. Go after the ones you think are most susceptible to being bluffed. And when you do, have your actions tell a story that convinces them that you are strong.

You don’t have to tell a complicated story. You just have to sell your hand better than betting half-pot the whole way through. Instead of letting your opponent guess whether you have a hand or not, purposely mislead him into feeling confident that you have one. Again, that doesn’t mean betting and raising at every opportunity. Against most opponents, your story has to be more subtle and convincing than that.
As an example, I’d like to recount one of my all-time favorite “tell a story” bluffs. It was simple, but elegant, and it was pulled off in the $3,000 pot-limit hold’em event at the 2004 WSOP by Gavin Griffin, now a fellow Card Player columnist.
The final table was down to three-handed. Blinds were 8,000-16,000. Gabe Thaler had about 275,000 and the button, and he limped with A-6 offsuit. Gary Bush, also with about 275,000, limped in the small blind with 6-5 offsuit. Gavin Griffin, with about 400,000, checked his option in the big blind with 7-5 offsuit.

The flop came 6-4-4 rainbow. Bush led out for 16,000 with top pair. Griffin flat-called with his open-ended straight draw. Thaler then raised 60,000 more with top-pair/top-kicker. Bush got out of the way. Griffin paused briefly, then raised 135,000 more.

Thaler’s reaction betrayed his surprise. He leaned forward with a wide-eyed stare and started talking out loud: “You bet right out into me like a champion, huh? I mean, you have to have a four, don’t you? You just absolutely have to have a four. I mean, you’re not gonna raise me with a six. You don’t have two sevens or you would’ve raised [preflop]…” Meanwhile Griffin stayed quiet, with his hand covering his face from Thaler.

Thaler eventually gave a shrug, looked back at his cards one last time, and tossed them in, seemingly without any doubt that he was doing the right thing. That hand gave Griffin a 2-to-1 chip lead over each opponent. A short time later he eliminated each of them and won the bracelet.

Griffin avoided the mistake many players would have made by not raising on the flop. First, it would not have been believable that he had a big hand. Why would he want to immediately raise out Thaler if he had a monster? He might have gotten credit for having a six with a decent kicker, but he would never have gotten credit for having trip fours. Second, he almost certainly would have found himself all-in against Thaler, an excellent player, who would probably have read the situation correctly and three-bet Griffin, possibly putting him to the test for his entire stack.

Instead, Griffin told a much more believable story. By flat-calling Bush’s flop bet and then three-betting from out of position against Thaler, he made a completely convincing case for having trip fours. So much so that not only did he get a fold from a world-class player, he had that player talking to himself in the process.
Wait, I can hear you now, dying to point out that it was a semibluff. So even if Thaler called or reraised all-in, Griffin still had a number of outs to win. All of that is true, but when you need to rely on hitting your hand to win, then, as a bluff, your play failed. If you don’t get called, you can never lose. A semibluff is, first and foremost, a bluff. The primary goal is to get your opponent out, and that’s what Griffin did.

And he did it by telling a convincing story. ♠

Matt Lessinger is the author of The Book of Bluffs: How to Bluff and Win at Poker, available everywhere. You can find Matt’s other articles at