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Bluffing With The Best Hand

by Bob Ciaffone |  Published: Feb 05, 2014


Bob CiaffoneIs overbetting your hand a poker error? Let me give you a concrete situation to look at before you answer this question. A player in middle position opens for a raise with an amount that triples the big blind. You have a pair of black nines in the cutoff seat and call. The button calls, and the blinds fold, so three of you are left in the pot. The flop comes QHeart Suit 8Heart Suit 3Club Suit and the preflop raiser checks. What do you do and why? Here is how I analyze this situation.

The preflop raiser did not get an attractive flop for slow playing, since there is a two-flush on the board plus an assortment of gutshot straight-draws. He probably has either two overcards or a pocket pair such as jacks or tens. The button could have a wide assortment of hands, since he had excellent position for his call. But he is unlikely to call a flop bet without at least either a queen for top pair or a couple of hearts for a flush draw. I seem to have a reasonable chance to win the pot with a bet. There is a good chance that a pocket pair smaller than queens will decide to fold, whether he has a better hand than mine or not. How should this type of bet be described?

Betting pocket nines here is clearly not a bluff, when you have a strong enough hand to be somewhere around even money to have the best hand. Since the literature has chosen to describe a semibluff as betting a drawing hand in a manner to look like a made hand, that is also a term that is an incorrect description here. You do not hold a “draw” when only two cards in the deck improve your hand. You are not looking to get called, even though you might be ahead, because you have a fragile holding that cannot take much heat. Surely you are not value betting, hoping for a call by a worse hand. So what are you actually doing?

I would say that you are simply overstating the value of your hand. You may or may not be in front here, so you bet and hope that the opponents will fold. You do not know where you stand when you bet, and do not even know exactly where you stand if you get called (though surely you are a bit worried). You would be very pleased if the opponents put you on a hand such as A-Q or K-Q and folded, but you still might win the pot even if you do not improve. For example, a passive player might call you on a draw, miss on the turn, miss on the river, and surrender. Also possible if a blank hits on the turn is that you fire a big bet (which is now described better as a bluff than any other term), and win the pot at that point.

It is hands like this, where you bet with a hand that might be the best but are far from sure, that make strategy for the game of poker more blurry than many writers pretend. I have read some obviously incorrect statements like, “all bets are either for value thinking you have the best hand or bluffs thinking you do not have the best hand.” Poker is not such a simple game as this. The most frequent type of bet that I make is one that is trying to get the other player to fold, whether or not I have the best hand. If he raises, I’m gone. If he calls, I may still win the pot. The point is you do not want to leave the money out in the middle to rot. You need to bet in order to stop an opponent from drawing out, and you need to bet to stop an opponent from stealing from you. The old days of several people all checking every round, letting the best hand win the pot at the end, appear to be gone forever.

Since you are going to prefer a bet most of the time, it is worth discussing how much to bet in these situations. Let’s look at the layout described earlier, where you hold pocket nines on a flop of QHeart Suit 8Heart Suit 3Club Suit. I do not want to commit too much money on such a weak hand as second pair. On the other hand, I do not want to appear so weak that someone will try to bully me. I also do not want to be called by A-K, J-J, or 10-10, so I want to commit enough money to give those hands a chance to fold. Note that I not only have A-K beat, but also that A-K is going to be getting the wrong price to call any decent-sized wager by me. However, I want A-K to fold here, especially if the player with position on me holds it. The reason is simple; I am reluctant to bet again because my hand is so weak, so I am vulnerable.

If there were a $100 pot when the flop came down, my betting range would likely be $50-to-$75 here. Anyone with a four-flush is likely to call, but I do not want anyone putting me on a draw. Remember, my goal is to get all opponents to fold, not just the ones that have me beat.

Let’s change the flop to AHeart Suit 8Heart Suit 3Club Suit (substituting an ace for the queen). I may still have a go at betting my nines, but it is now riskier, for two reasons. My opponents are much more likely to be holding an ace, as compared to a queen. Also, they are more prone to slow play a hand that has an ace, since there is no overcard to fear. They often would slow play a flop like this if there were no two-flush on the board. So even though there is less chance that I will get played with on a rainbow board, the absence of a four-flush is not a whole lot more safe to bet, just marginally so.

Even though I am not eager to fire a second barrel if I get called on my flop bet, I may bet again on the turn. If I do so, I would not be making a small bet. Remember, I want my opponent out of the pot regardless of his hand. If he has a made hand, I am now on a bluff, as I could have hardly gotten called by a worse made hand against a normal player. If he has a draw, I want to lay him a bad price. So my bet size on the turn if a blank card came is likely to be in the 70 percent-to-90 percent range. Yes, I know that you are supposed to have a strong hand when you commit a lot of money to the pot, but I am done with this hand if called on the turn. I would check/fold the river. ♠

Bob Ciaffone’s new poker book, No-limit Holdem Poker, is now available. This is Bob’s fifth book on poker strategy. It can be ordered from Bob for $25 by emailing him at Free shipping in the lower 48 states to Card Player readers. All books autographed. Bob Ciaffone is available for poker lessons.