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When Not To Bluff

by Bob Ciaffone |  Published: Nov 12, 2014


Bob CiaffoneBluffing is the part of poker that attracts the most attention and interest from those who are not really poker players themselves, but know what a bluff is. For poker aficionados, bluffing, of course, is also of great interest. Running a successful bluff may well be the difference between a mediocre session and a profitable one. Even so, knowing when not to bluff is also important. Many people say, “it pays to advertise,” which has an element of truth. However, many of us believe that bluffing at the right time will not only advertise, but enable you to make money while doing it. So here is when to not bluff.

Do not bluff a player who has a lot of money invested in the pot and only a small amount remaining in his stack. You need to know approximately how many chips each of your opponents have at all times. I am sure just about everyone has been lax at some time and failed to investigate, including me. This does not make a careless action okay. I will also say that you need to be aware of each player who has a live hand. Otherwise, you may wish to bluff Player A, but find out you have another opponent, perhaps one with a short stack that has an easy call. Worse yet, you may move all-in against a player who has considerably fewer chips than you do, but run into someone you did not know was even in the pot who has more chips than you.

On the flop or turn betting rounds, to maximize the chance of a successful bluff, the player you target not only needs to have enough money to call your wager, but should have enough money to worry about having to call a larger subsequent wager. We call the effect of this extra money “leverage,” because the effect of your wager is to add pressure beyond the amount of the wager itself.

The most important factor in deciding whether to bluff will be who your opponent is. A move that is a big favorite to work against Tight Teddy may have little or no chance of success against Caller Carl. We like to label people like Carl as “calling stations.” Find out early who the callers are at your table and try to avoid running a bluff against any one of them.

Habitual callers fall into a number of categories.

Players new to the game are eager to gain information about their opponents. Those with a lot of money want to see what you have and are willing to pay for the info. Others are simply curious as to what you have.

Another frequent caller is the aggressive player who has a lot of moves and a larcenous heart. He plays too many hands, so usually rates to have a weak hand. Thus, he resorts to a steal much of the time. He often treats others as if they are like-minded thieves. In a spot where he would have tried to steal the pot, he thinks you are probably trying to hijack him. So, when you do have nothing, it will usually be best to cut your losses against this suspicious player and not make a play for the pot when you think he probably has a made hand.

Poker is more complicated than using the strategy of simply playing according to whether the opponent usually calls or usually folds when confronted by a possible bluff. What has been happening during the session has a lot to do with whether to bluff. Human nature is for a person who is stuck in the game to want to make a comeback, and one way to win a pot is to bluff. If you are stuck, and have previously been caught bluffing that session, there is a good chance of getting called if you try another bluff. If I am losing, I am less likely to run a bluff.

By the same token, if your opponent is stuck, you are more likely to get called. It is surprising that, when a player is more likely to get called, he would bluff more often, but that is exactly what is likely to occur. A lot of the decisions on whether to bluff and whether to call a possible bluff are highly dependent on how each player is doing in the game.

Most bluffs are made on a hand that the player knows will give him no other way to win the pot. Accordingly, the player will be in the pot on a draw that did not come in. The most common draw at no-limit hold’em is a flush draw, since a flush beats a straight and is also slightly easier to make. (pot-limit Omaha is a much different game, since a 13-way straight draw is commonplace, a 17-way draw is not unusual, and a 20-way straight draw is possible. We are talking only hold’em in this article).

The presence of a two-flush on the flop, especially when the board is not paired, has a strong effect on the betting. A flush draw will often try to fake a strong made hand. If there are one or more cards still to come, a bet by a draw is called a semibluff. The player who bet or raised is hoping the opponent will fold, but has a way to win if called. Most semibluffs are made on the flop, since a draw is much stronger when there are still two cards to come. On the other hand, a strong bet on the turn has some deception to it that makes the wager more believable.

A common bluff is a large bet after all the board cards have been dealt. However, this wager when there was a two-flush on the flop that never came in has quite a good chance of getting called. It is natural for an opponent of the bettor to think, “Why such a big bet now, rather than before the river card, when there was a chance to protect the hand?” The obvious answer is now you are probably bluffing. I would discourage you from making this type of bluff unless you know your opponent quite well and have a good reason to think that a bluff will work in this particular situation.

A good principle to follow when considering a bluff is to show reluctance when you know your opponent likely has a good hand. Yes, it is sometimes possible to make an opponent lay down two aces after the flop––but why try? Especially nowadays, when there are many super-aggressive players who like to put pressure on their opponents right from the start, why pick on a big pair as your target of choice? True, you can, on occasion, make an opponent lay down a good hand, but it is much easier to run a player out who has no hand at all. Percentage-wise, it is much harder to hold a good hand on a given occasion when you are raising preflop several times a round than when you are raising only about once every half-hour or so. Shoot at jeeps, not tanks. ♠

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.