A Guide to the Art of Bluffing
Remember how your parents always told you not to tell lies? Well, they obviously never played poker because lying, or bluffing as we like to call it, is part and parcel of being successful in all forms of the game.
Bluffing plays a pivotal role in poker simply because it is impossible to be always dealt premium hands that improve to even stronger ones once the community cards are in play. Knowing how to bluff, the opponents to bluff against, and having several bluff types in your arsenal can be the difference between being a winning and losing poker player.
Bluffs come in all shapes and sizes but the end goal is always the same: to force your opponent to fold a better hand than yours. This may sound ludicrous on the face of it, but poker is a game played with incomplete information, which makes bluffing possible.
You’re probably bluffing more than you think
You probably make dozens of bluffs every time you sit down and play online poker or pay a visit to your local brick and mortar casino. Have you ever made a continuation bet? That is, raising before the flop and continuing your aggression on the flop, even if those three community cards have not improved your holding? If so, you have just bluffed my friend.
This is the simplest and most common form of bluffing that achieves the goal of getting a better hand to fold. Think of this example, you raise preflop with ace-queen and a player in the blinds calls. The dealer spreads a king-six-three flop of different suits. Your opponent checks. A bluff here, representing the king, will work a high percentage of the time, even if your opponent holds a hand as strong as pocket eights or nines; this is a great result.
Image is everything when bluffing
Your image and your opponents’ understanding of the game play a major role in whether a bluff will be successful or not. If you are a loose player who has gotten out of line at every opportunity, your story will not be believed and you will either be called or raised.
Similarly, if your opponent is not at a skill level where they can understand the story you are trying to tell, there is no point even thinking about bluffing.
For a bluff to work, your opponent need to have the ability to not only consider how strong their hand is, but also be able to flip the hand around and try to put you on a hand. If your opponent only care that they have a flush draw, or a pair of deuces and does not consider your hand strength, they are going to call you regardless, rendering bluffing useless.
An example of bluffing in a major tournament
A perfect example of using image and skill levels to run a successful bluff involves this writer. I once played in a $1,500 tournament in the United Kingdom and was seated on a table with five seasoned professionals with millions of dollars in winnings between them, two of whom had won European Poker Tour titles. I was obviously outclassed and they knew it, but I used my status as a recreational player to my advantage. In the hand of note, there was a raise from Zinman Ziyard (winner of EPT Loutraki) and a three-bet from Swedish star Anton Wigg (winner of EPT Copenhagen). I looked down at ten-seven suited and four-bet, prompting folds from the rest of the table , including both of my stellar opponents.
Four-betting against two elite poker players with nothing but ten-high may seem like a suicidal move, but it worked because I had successfully told a believable story. Bluffing is exactly that, conveying a story to your opponents about the strength of your hand.
The anatomy of a bluff
Forget about my actual hand for a moment and put yourself in the shoes of my opponents, something you need to do when running a bluff. They have seen this player who they both know works in the poker media so is knowledgable about the game, but who is nowhere near a player of their quality play a tight game and who has only shown strong hands so far. Ziyard was three-bet by Wigg, which is nothing out of the ordinary when pros collide. Then when I put in a fourth-bet, both opponents will have had alarm bells ringing because surely a non-professional would only make this play with a super strong holding, probably nothing weaker than pocket kings or even maybe aces.
The players still to act in the hand cannot come along for the ride without holding a ridiculously strong hand because they don’t know how Ziyard or Wigg will act. Plus my own hand looks like a monster as they are more than aware that both Ziyard and Wigg are top players.
Had I been splashing around in pots all tournament and revealing weak hands at showdown, I would have probably have been called or even set all in for my remaining chips. As it happens, I scooped a decent pot while negating the need to try and outplay my better-skilled opponents after the flop.
To recap. Bluffing is like telling a story. That story has to be believable in order for your bluff to work. Create a story based on your image, your opponents’ image and their overall ability and you will be bluffing like a professional in next to no time.