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Head Games: To Bluff or Not to Bluff? That is the Question

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Aug 21, 2013

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The Pros: Jonathan Little, Andy Frankenberger, Darryll Fish, and Todd Brunson

Craig Tapscott: What are some major mistakes that less experienced players make when attempting a bluff?

Jonathan Little: In order to run a successful bluff, you have to make your opponent think you have a reasonably strong hand that beats whatever they have. You generally do not want to try to represent the nuts because the nuts is difficult to make. Instead, you generally want to try to represent a decently strong hand like top pair or two pair. This usually involves making medium-sized bets that appear like they are hoping to be called. Less experienced players tend to throw out big bets at random times, hoping to win the pot. 

Andy Frankenberger: One common mistake that less experienced players make when attempting a bluff is that they don’t tell a consistent story. The best bluffs are bluffs which tell a consistent story across multiple streets. For example, a player raises under-the-gun (UTG) with KClub Suit QClub Suit. The flop comes A-5-9 rainbow. A player can continuation-bet (c-bet) at this board as a bluff, and fire another barrel on a 4-x turn because the hand that the player is representing (a big ace) makes sense. If the river is a deuce, a smart player will stop firing/bluffing because now the story of strength doesn’t make sense, since a trey is unlikely to be in the range of an UTG raiser. A savvy opponent is very likely, therefore, to see through a big river bet. An amateur player might decide it’s a great river to fire a big bet, since it’s a scary board, not realizing a smart opponent will put the pieces together and figure out that it’s very unlikely the early raiser had a trey in his UTG opening range. Bottom line: the best bluffs are ones which make sense not only on the street where the bluff takes place, but also in context of the ones that came before it.

Darryll Fish: The biggest mistake I see less experienced players make in regards to bluffing is that they often attempt to bluff in spots where they can’t get much credibility. Basically, the story they’re telling in the hand doesn’t add up. A common example of this would be check-calling two streets on a board like J-10-3-4 with a flush draw, then leading out when the river is an offsuit six. Most players would check again with a made hand, hoping to induce a bluff from a missed draw; thus making it hard to credibly represent a strong hand. In this case, you will almost always get called by anything good, and often get bluff raised otherwise. Another common error is in bet sizing. Nobody wants to fold a good hand getting 5-to-1 on the river. You have to be willing to commit to your play, and sometimes this means risking a lot of chips to make it work!

Todd Brunson: Bluffing is definitely situational, that’s why it can be so hard to teach. The continuation bet and bluffing when you’re last to act are no longer any kind of secret. In fact, even half-ass amateurs are very familiar with these plays. This doesn’t mean these plays should be abandoned; you just need to know when they are most likely to succeed.

Craig Tapscott: Could you please name a few of the situations/player types/board textures you look for when attempting to pull off a big bluff?

Jonathan Little: Each player has specific spots where bluffing works well against them. For example, some players never fold on boards like 9-8-7-6-2 if they have one pair, because they view those at excellent bluffing situations and some will fold there every time unless they have a straight. Some players fold hands like K-Q every time on K-7-6-3-2 if you fire three streets, assuming you either have A-K or better, and some never fold because they assume top pair, second kicker is a good hand. Bluffing is not as simple as “bet on this board because it is scary.” You have to figure out what each opponent views as scary and go from there. 

Andy Frankenberger: The casual player who watches poker on TV would probably think that bluffs — big bluffs — are a much bigger part of the game than they really are. Poker that we see on TV often shows big bluffs because they are fun and interesting to watch. They don’t show the 99 percent of the other hands played that lead up to a successful bluff. Generally speaking, I would recommend a person has the best chance at winning a tournament by playing big pots with big hands, not by making lots of big bluffs. A big bluff is best attempted only when you have a good feel for the player you’re bluffing, and, of equal importance, a good feel for how he perceives you. Is your opponent a solid, thinking player? If you’ve been playing tight all day, you’re likely to get credit for having a real hand versus a thinking player, but a non-thinking player may not have been paying close enough attention to give you credit for a tight image.

Another simple rule of thumb I like to think about is something that sounds obvious but is worth stating nonetheless: all else being equal, the more chips a player has, the more likely you are to get called. The less significant the call is to the player, the more likely he is to let his curiosity get the better of him and call you down. Another less obvious phenomenon I’ve noticed is that when players have recently chipped up, they play with less attachment to their newly won chips — not a great time to try to bluff them.

Darryll Fish: Generally speaking, you want to bluff when you don’t expect to win a showdown, but you can credibly represent a variety of value hands. This has a lot to do with the board texture and your line of betting. The best time to make a big bluff is when you think your opponent has a wide range of hands, and can’t call a big bet with most of them. For example, if you fire three barrels on a board like 9-8-6-J-A where a flush draw missed, there are a lot of draws or pair plus draw type of hands that will call down trying to improve, but fold to a big bullet on the end. Bluffing is very player-dependent, though, and some people really hate to fold. It’s all about knowing the players at your table, and taking advantage of their bad habits.

Todd Brunson: How many players saw the flop? Is the flop heavily textured? How aggressive are the players still in the pot? Do they like to check-raise? Are they calling stations? These are the questions you should be asking yourself. If you raise and get three or more callers and the board comes heavily coordinated, for example, JClub Suit 10Spade Suit 5Club Suit; a c-bet when you whiff is basically flushing money down the toilet. You are going to be called the vast majority of the time, if not raised. Not only are you usually going to lose the money you bet most of the time, you will sometimes lose the pot you might have won with a free card. Say you raise and get three callers, including the big blind, and get that same flop. The big blind flopped top-two and is trying to check-raise you. If you outsmart him and also check, you might catch up with a miracle card on the turn that allows you to bust him. Say you hold A-K and a queen comes. Or you hold pocket threes and spike a three on the turn. Don’t shut yourself out needlessly. The flip side to this coin is when you raise and get one or two callers. I’m probably going to make a c-bet regardless of the flop.

Even with three callers and a broken flop such as J-6-2 rainbow, I’d probably fire at it at least once, if not twice. Once you get four or more callers it gets tough so I’ll usually check, even if I do partially hit the flop. I’m not saying I’ll check/fold, just not give my opponents a chance to blow me out of the hand. Here’s an example; I raise with A-J suited and get four or five callers. Now I get a pretty good flop: J-10-4 rainbow. Most players will make a c-bet here, I usually won’t. I have top pair/top kicker and there’s no flush draw possible, so that’s good. However, my opponents may have out-flopped me by hitting a set or top-two (J-10 is one of the most common hands people play). Or they may have had me beat all along with pocket kings or queens. Or they might have an open-ender with two over cards (K-Q) which makes them a little less than even money against me. My point is, even though the flop looks pretty good, I don’t really want to put all my money in there with this type of hand. And if you bet the flop versus four or more players, that’s what you are likely going to have to do. ♠