Old and profitable wisdom about bluffing

This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.

All around us, everywhere in poker, survive those ancient adages. Like what?

Well, like: “Don’t count your chips while you’re sitting at the table.” That one even made its way into Kenny Rogers’ song, The Gambler.

“You gotta know when to hold ’em; you gotta know when to fold ’em.” Same song. Frankly, Kenny, we need to talk about this.

Motivation

As an advocate of poker integrity, I sometimes worry about foes who know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em. But, hey, I understand what you meant, brother.

Getting back to not counting your chips, let’s all chant this out loud together: “Don’t count your chips while you’re sitting at the table.” Harmless motivation, right?

And all you head football coaches out there, go paste that message on your refrigerator where you won’t forget. Put it right beside the one that says, “Never check the scoreboard until after fourth quarter.”

The poker scoreboard

What? Oh, you think it makes sense to check that football scoreboard? Me too. And I think it makes sense to count your chips at the table.

It gives me an idea whether I’m winning or losing. Besides, Kenny, if you don’t count your chips at the table, you might get disoriented and not get to count ’em at all “when the dealing’s done” — if you know what I mean, guy.

Sometimes, I adjust my strategy according to my chip count. If I’m winning more than a little, I figure players are intimidated and will fall victim to marginally aggressive bets and raises.

Inspired

The more I’m losing, the more likely I am to be restrictive in my hand selection. That’s because then opponents are not intimidated, but, rather, inspired; and they will tend to play better and less predictably against me. When that happens, I often cancel those borderline bets that win money when I have my opponents under my spell.

The more I’m losing, the fewer borderline plays I make. The more I’m winning, the more borderline plays I make.

So, yeah, I count my chips. But this gets worse, Kenny. I often count everyone else’s chips while they’re sitting at the table. It’s a hard habit to break, but I’m trying. Keep singing.

Whom can you bluff?

There’s another poker adage I know you’ve heard: “You can’t bluff a bluffer.” Familiar, huh?

And folks will argue about this one. Some think it makes sense, and some think you really can bluff a bluffer.

Those who think it makes sense contend that bluffers believe others act the same way they do, so every bet is suspect. Those who think it doesn’t make sense contend that frequent bluffers are easy victims of bluffs. The reasoning is that bluffers envision that their opponents are more timid than they actually are. Bluffers think opponents are afraid to call and afraid to bluff. This attitude makes them less likely to call, according to the argument.

Monuments

What’s the truth here? Well, the truth is monumental — as is every truth I share with you, the way I see it. And this truth is doubly monumental. I guess that means we need to erect two monuments.

If you haven’t been abiding by what I’m about to tell you, you’re bankroll is about to bulge.

If you’re a break-even player now, and you haven’t been applying what follows, then… poof! … you’re suddenly a winner. If you were a marginal winner who hasn’t been applying my advice, then… poof! … you’re a big winner now. If you’re a small loser who hasn’t been abiding by the following advice, then… poof! … I just made you a winner. If you’re a huge loser who hasn’t been using the advice that follows, then… poof! … get a job.

Secret to handling bluffers

Okay, we’re ready. The adage is right. You usually should not bluff a bluffer. How come? Listen, here’s how come:

Let’s say it’s just you and your opponent on the final bet. You have a very weak hand that will almost surely lose in a showdown; and you have no clear idea what the opponent is holding. He goes first; he checks.

This is the time, right now, that you must ask yourself one of the most profitable questions in poker: Is my opponent a frequent bluffer? Ask, because if he is, my friends, you must abandon all thoughts of bluffing. Here’s why.

Just to make it simple, we’ll say there were 10 possible hands your opponent could hold. Of these 10, two are very strong, which he would have bet, and three are very weak, which he would have bluffed with. Assuming, for the simplicity of this example, that he would never check-raise or bet the marginal hands, we can see that he would bet with legitimate strength twice, but would bluff three times. The other five times he would check.

Always call

It’s easy to see that, faced with a bet, you should always call with any hand strong enough to beat a bluff, because for every five bets, three of them — on average — your opponent will be bluffing. Fine. But in this case, your opponent didn’t bet; and you don’t hold a hand strong enough to guarantee a win against a bluff.

So, the question is, after your opponent checks, should you try to win the pot by bluffing. Using the same example, the answer is no. You must never try to bluff.

Because this opponent always bluffs, given the opportunity, all that remains after his check are hands he’ll feel comfortable calling with. Don’t make the mistake of thinking there are still 10 hands he could hold, two great, three terrible, and five in-between. You should figure that once the player checks, he holds a reasonably strong hand.

Lose

If he’s like most frequent bluffers, having abandoned his opportunity to bluff, he now intends to call. That means, if you bluff, you will lose.

This type of player cannot be holding a worse hand, simply because he would have bluffed with it. In this extreme example, you will get called and you will lose every time you try to bluff.

The strange thing is, this “extreme” example isn’t very extreme. This is precisely what happens in real poker, in real games, against real opponents. Opponents who bluff too much should generally not be bet into after they check. Just check along and limit your loss.

Reversing position

But what if you’re first to act, instead of last? It turns out that you usually should still be reluctant to bet into a frequent bluffer for a very simple reason. This player bluffs too often. That’s his weakness.

This means when he bets into you, you must usually call. If you have a strong enough hand, you should check and call if he bet, allowing him to destroy himself with too much bluffing.

But you don’t have a strong enough hand. You have a hopeless hand, and you’re first to act. My advice? Check. Just give up on the pot, unless you think your opponent is unusually likely to throw away his hand right now.

Gain

But what can you possibly gain by checking? You’ll lose the pot, sure. But you might accomplish something that is quite valuable to your long-range success. You might let his bluff succeed!

Think about it. We’re talking about you holding a totally hopeless hand here, one that can’t win in a showdown.

Let’s say that you figure it’s borderline at best whether a bluff is worthwhile. Given that definition, a bluff theoretically is worth nothing to you in the long-run. You’ll win a few times, you’ll lose many times, and overall you’ll show no profit.

Tactic that gains

Well, if you gain nothing long-term by bluffing, then wouldn’t you prefer a tactic that gains something? Good choice.

This is where you can take advantage of your opponent and pad your purse or your wallet. Since you know he bluffs too often, you’re going to be calling him every chance you get with reasonable hands. That means he might wise up and stop over-bluffing.

You don’t want that to happen. So, the best way to condition him to continue his bad habit is to reward him. We can do this for free, simply by checking and letting him have the pot. Why for free? It’s because we already estimated that bluffing would not be profitable and was break-even at best.

“Don’t bluff a bluffer” is excellent advice, but not for the reasons usually stated.

Some old poker adages are true; some aren’t. But all point to profit when examined logically. — MC

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Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.

2 thoughts on “Old and profitable wisdom about bluffing”

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  1. Haha!

    While my own grandfather won a car (a Lexus) by bluffing, my own experiences have been mixed. I’ve found that about 80% of people will fall for it, but there’s always someone who will call you and you’ll lose.

    That said, 80% odds are pretty good :D I remember bluffing with nothing more than a 2 of hearts and an 8 of spades with no cards on the table to make even a pair…I did get called on that as my opponent had pocket aces, but hey, it was worth a try and makes for a good memory and a lesson learned!

    Nice article and thanks for this.

  2. Great advice Mike! We have a guy at our home games that bluffs every chance he gets and trying to “out-bluff” him is near impossible. Using your advice in this article ive just checked and let him do all the betting for me when i have a strong hand. And of course, it is good to let him win a few pots as well.

    Most of my opponents chips come to me from him in the long run like he’s a middle man. Hopefully he does not find this article and wise up to what I’m doing at our Saturday night games.

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