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Bluff Catching At $1-$2

by Ed Miller |  Published: Aug 29, 2018

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One of my core bits of advice to small stakes no-limit players is to not pay off on the turn and river. This advice works generally because most players at these levels don’t bluff as often as they should. And if players aren’t bluffing often enough, the right adjustment is never to call with hands that can only beat a bluff.

In general, I find this advice actually works more reliably at $2-$5 in most places than at $1-$2. The reason is $2-$5 players tend to know a bit more about poker strategy and try to play more “solid.” This solid strategy you see at $2-$5 translates to a predictable lack of bluffing, so you can employ the “don’t pay them off” counterstrategy more indiscriminately.

While $1-$2 is surely softer on average than $2-$5 overall, you do see more variety of styles at the level in my experience. You get players who really know little about poker strategy, so they haven’t learned how to be “solid” yet.

Mostly that means that they end up playing way too many hands preflop and get way too much money in after the flop with bad hands way too often. As I said, it’s soft.

But they do have one thing going for them. Often, they’re a bit less predictable. And less predictable opponents means less predictable counterstrategies. You can’t just sit back and use the same old rules of thumb and expect to maximize your time spent at the table. You have to think on your feet a bit.

What To Look For

I would still say that the general rule at $1-$2 should be to not pay people off. Optimal bluffing frequencies are pretty high, and most players, even those that do bluff, will fall short. On the river, for example, if the pot is $100 and your opponent bets $100, the optimal bluffing frequency is 33 percent. Most $1-$2 players simply won’t be bluffing 33 percent of the time in most situations if they bet pot on the river.

So don’t bluff catch those.

But the math starts to get stickier for bets less than pot-sized. If someone bets half pot, for instance, the optimal bluffing frequency is 25 percent. Combine that with some players’ erratic strategies and lack of understanding of hand reading and board textures, and you can bluff catch profitably sometimes.

The first thing to look for is a player who seems to be splashing around. The more “solid” the player appears to be on earlier streets—tighter preflop play, folding flops, and so on—the less likely they are to be bluffing on the river.

Obviously tight play early in hands isn’t mutually exclusive with bluffing optimally on the river, but a player with those characteristics will be better overall and more likely playing at a higher stakes level.

I would tend not to try to bluff catch at $1-$2 against anyone who seems to be trying to play solid in any real way. You’re looking for the splashy types.

Ideally the second player profiling step would be once you’ve found a splashy type to look specifically at the player’s behavior on the big betting rounds of the turn and river. Calling big bets is not what you’re looking for. But if you see the player make one or more big bets or raises on the turn and river, that’s some evidence that they might be bluffing. Or they might have made a few big hands. Obviously, you never know for sure. But seeing a few big, uncalled turn and river bets from the player is another bit of information.

When To Bluff Catch

Let’s say you’ve found a player at your table that fits the description and might be bluffing enough to bluff catch. The best spots to do so are when your opponent’s bet doesn’t make sense given the general action of the hand.

This is easier to explain using a negative example. Say the flop comes JHeart Suit 6Club Suit 2Heart Suit and you bet K-K and he calls. The turn is the 5Diamond Suit and you bet and he calls. The river is the 9Heart Suit and he bets.

Probably don’t bluff-catch here. He’s obviously representing the flush and honestly, it’s pretty likely that’s what he has. What else did he call the turn with except for a jack or a hand that beats you like 6-5?

This is oversimplified logic of course. He could have called with second pair or ace-high or whatever and now be turning it into a bluff on the flush card.

But say he goes all-in for more than pot on the river. He’d have to be bluffing more than 33 percent of the time to justify calling. I think you’ll find even with your splashy opponents that they won’t be bluffing in this particular situation that often. They’ll just have the flush and be hoping that you’ll be suspicious and call.

It’s much better to call when the action doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, or when the hand they’re representing is less likely in general. This is especially true when a big draw bricks. For example, let’s say you have KDiamond Suit QDiamond Suit and the flop comes QHeart Suit 8Spade Suit 6Spade Suit. You bet the flop and he calls.

The turn is the JClub Suit. He bets half pot and you call.

The river is the 4Club Suit. He bets half pot again. You probably want to call against the splashy guy here.

The hands he’s representing are kind of unclear. He could have Q-J or J-8.

He could have flopped a set or two pair and played it half-slow, or made a set on the jack turn (though you may be able to rule that out from the preflop play). Or he could have 7-5. Maybe suited maybe not depending on splashiness.

But he could also have a hand like 10-8 or 9-8 or any spade draw that bricked. Or maybe he just decided to “play this hand aggressive” on the turn with any sort of weak garbage. That’s the kind of thinking the splashy $1-$2 players get into.

The more the hands you can think of are possible but not extremely obvious, in my experience the more success you will have trying to bluff-catch the erratic $1-$2 players. Their hand-reading skills tend not to be good enough to reliably “represent” hands in spots. They’ll more flip a coin in their head about whether they’re going to bluff in the hand or not. The more obvious the hand is, the likely it is that’s what they have. The less obvious it is the more likely it is that they’re just being weird.

Final Thoughts

Games at the lowest levels tend to be very soft, but the common complaint “They play so bad you never know what they have,” has some truth to it. Don’t be afraid to make some big calls against these types of players. Especially when you choose your spots wisely. ♠

Ed MillerEd’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website edmillerpoker.com. You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site redchippoker.com.