Playing Aces or Kings in poker is easy. Anyone can look down at A-A and shove all their chips into the pot with a strong confidence that they have the best hand and will be strongly favored if anyone calls them. On that same note, flopping the nut flush or the nut straight can give you the same confidence. But what will you do the other 95% of the time when you don’t have such a strong hand? Do you fold? Do you call and pray you flop something that will help you? Or do you raise, with a total bluff, hoping to take down the pot from someone with a better hand, but not so good that they are totally confident they hold the winning hand?
Today’s topic is just that. The Art of the Bluff. And believe me, bluffing is definitely an art. Anyone can constantly raise with nothing and win a bunch of pots. Lets be honest, most people hold questionable hands most of the time. However, a constant bluffer will eventually get caught. And when he does, his game will quickly come to an end. As the old saying goes…shoving with nothing works every time but one. And that one time usually costs them either all their chips, or enough of them to make their stack something nobody will fear.
On the other side of the coin, a player that never bluffs usually will not get very far in a game either. Sure, I’ve played tournaments before when every time I look down I’ve got A-A, K-K or A-K, but I can count the number of tournaments that has happened on two fingers. In every other tournament I’ve won I’ve had to resort to bluffing at one point or another to increase my chip stack.
So if you shouldn’t bluff all the time, and you shouldn’t avoid bluffing completely, then somewhere in between there must be a time and place for a well played bluff. This is the thing I want to discuss today.
To begin with, a bluff must tell a story. Limping from the big blind, and then seeing A-A-K on the flop, followed by another A on the turn, all the while checking, means that betting out on the river probably won’t be very convincing. Most big blinds wouldn’t check to a bunch of limpers with a strong hand. Too many things can go wrong once the flop hit’s the table. In fact, if everyone limps around to the big blind, and he is holding Ace-Anything, it is normal for the big blind to raise just to see where he is in the hand, and to eliminate the trash hands out there.
Now, replay the above hand, without knowing what the big blind holds. Three players limp to him, and he raises it three to four times the big blind. He has now established that he has a good hand. The flop comes A-A-K, and he bets out again. If none of the other limpers has an Ace in their hand, then his bet on the flop is consistent with the story he told preflop. Sure, someone with a King would probably call him at that point, but not with a great deal of confidence. Then, when the third Ace hits on the turn, and the big blind bets out again, would you be able to call him holding only a stray King? Not if you believe the story that the big blind has been telling all along.
Another factor that must be included for a good bluff would be to ensure it is consistent with previous play. If you have been recently caught bluffing two hands in a row, then it would not be a very good idea to try it again on the third hand. You’d have a must stronger possibility of pulling off a bluff if you had shown a couple of strong hands in the previous round. People have good memories at the poker table, and they tend to believe that someone getting strong hands wouldn’t have to bluff to win a hand.
A third factor that must be considered when bluffing is position. Position is where you are sitting in relation to the button. The closer you are to the button, the stronger position you have. And of course, if you are the button, you have the best position of all. Its the best because from the flop to the river, you will be last to act. And last to act knows what everyone else is going to do before he has to make a decision.
Of course, any article I write about any poker topic will include position, as it is probably the single most important factor when playing any hand. But with bluffing, it is absolutely critical. Bluffing when you are first to act is just dumb. You have no clue what is out there, and no players have made any moves to indicate the strength of their hand. So you bluff when you are first to act, then the button shoves all in, what will you do? He could have A-A, or he could have 2-7, but you will be forced to fold, and waste those precious chips, because you bluffed out of position.
Now, once you have bluffed preflop, and then again, post flop, are you brave enough to bluff the turn? Are you one of the 1% of poker players brave enough to bluff the river? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone bluff a flop, then the turn, and then totally wimp out on the river. Then the cards are revealed and he finds out his opponent was chasing a flush and missed, but still holds an Ace in his hand and wins the pot. A final bullet fired on the river, when the flush draw missed, would easily have allowed the bluffer to rake in the pot. Remember what I said…your bluff must tell a story. When the bluffer gave up and checked on the river, he told a story alright. And that story was “I’ve been bluffing you all along”.
Another topic about bluffing that is critical is when you get caught bluffing. Most people are devastated when they get caught bluffing. They go in to the tank and completely change their play. Successful poker players know that getting caught bluffing can be a blessing in disguise. As discussed earlier, people have good memories at the poker table. They remember if you’ve shown A-A every time you’ve raised preflop, and they remember when you got caught bluffing with 2-7. Nothing makes me happier than looking down at K-K only a couple of hands after I got caught bluffing. I make the exact same play I made when I was bluffing, and instead of folders, I get two or three callers. Heck, I normally get a reraise at that point. That is one reason why on occasion, and I mean rarely on occasion, I will show a successful bluff. I show a successful bluff about as often as I show I had the nuts when I am not called. I want the other players to always have a question in their mind as to whether I am strong or totally full of bull whenever I enter a pot.
Here are a few other key points to remember about bluffing:
– Never bluff a calling station. It is a waste of time and chips.
– Never bluff a tight player who has opened with a raise in front of you.
– Never bluff in a loose game where several people are seeing the flop. You want to bluff tight players, not loose ones.
– Never bluff a man who just flopped Quad Aces. Ed, I’m talking to you.
The first is an outright bluff. You don’t have anything close to a winning hand, but you don’t think the other person is that strong either, so you bet out hoping they believe you and fold.
The second is called a semi-bluff. The semi-bluff is a critical aspect you need to have in your game. Say you are first to act, holding A-7 of hearts, and there are two hearts on the flop. Now is a perfect time to bet. A player with a medium pair or will be more likely to call your bet than they will be to raise. So by betting out, you put them back on their heals and get them to call, rather than raise. This allows you to see the turn, and hopefully a fifth heart, at your price instead of theirs. Plus, since you bet out before the flush was final, you put a question in the other players mind as to whether you were chasing that flush. If you checked, and then called their bet, then they would have a good idea you were chasing the flush, and they wouldn’t call any further when it hit. By betting out with a semi-bluff on a flush draw, the other player is simply more apt to call your bet when the fifth heart hit’s the board.
So utilize the semi-bluff when you are on a draw, and you will be amazed at the results when your draw actually hits.
As with any play in poker, the bluff should simply be another piece of ammo in your arsenal. And as with any ammo supply, you should use it sparingly. A soldier that goes into battle on full-auto, and fires all his ammo off within minutes of the opening of a battle, will soon find himself in a very precarious situation. If he conserves his ammo, and uses it only when necessary, he extends his ability to fight and eventually win the confrontation. It works the same way in poker. Constant bluffing will result in frequent chip losses. Those lost chips soon add up, and the battle is over. Bluffing in proper position and situation saves ammo, and means you have the chips to fire and do damage when necessary.
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