Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2009) in Poker Player newspaper.
You can finish the sentence “Poker is about…” with a lot of words and still be on solid ground theoretically. Poker is about money. Poker is about patience. And, as Doyle Brunson has said, poker is about people.
Fine. But, unless you have a strong objection, right now poker needs to be about bluffing, because that’s today’s word. So, here’s today’s self-interview…
Question 1: Is there a mathematical solution to how often you should bluff in poker?
Sure, but it gets very complicated, because there are so many combinations of possible poker hands, and each must be equated to the size of the pot, the size of the bet (which is variable in no-limit games), and calculations about what hands you and your opponents will end up with if there’s a showdown. Lots of other stuff, too.
It’s easiest to compute for simple situations when you assume that both you and your opponent are playing a perfect strategy.
Question 2: Do you pay attention to that mathematical solution?
None whatsoever. I don’t expect my opponents to play perfectly, so I can do much better than a game theory strategy targeted at flawless foes. Of course, you could design a game theory strategy to incorporate imperfect foes, but the formula would be ever-changing and impractical.
So, I just go into a poker game knowing approximately what I should do mathematically and make sweeping adjustments in accordance with how my opponents play. I take their tells into consideration, as well as their present states of mind. That means I don’t need to randomize my bluffing, because I’m always either saying yes to a bluff or no based on whether I believe that action has an expectation of profit.
Question 3: Which poker players are most profitable to bluff?
Before you do anything else, ask yourself if you know something about the player you’re targeting for a bluff. If the opponent is a stranger or you have no idea about his playing habits, you seldom should bluff. I could almost say never, instead of seldom, but you might find situational opportunities or see powerful tells that cry out for a bluff. In the absence of that, though, don’t try to bluff an unknown player.
How come? It’s because an unknown player should be assumed to have average tendencies until it’s proven otherwise. And average tendencies mean calling too frequently. There, I’ve said it: Average opponents call too often. In fact, it’s their biggest fault. So, if they call too often, that means that usually bluffing is unprofitable.
Players who are profitable to bluff are rare. But there are some who obviously play too tight, and you should bluff them regularly. And there are some no-limit players who don’t seem to adequately consider the size of a bet when folding. Against them, try bluffing for half the size of the pot. They’ll be almost as likely to fold as if you had bet twice the size of the pot, so you can take a shot for much less risk.
Especially good targets for bluffs are players who just sat down in the game. They’ve often resolved to play good poker. So for the first few hands, at least, they won’t be as likely to call as they will later, when their discipline dissolves.
Oddly, one of the very best bluffs is against a frequent bluffer who bets. You should often raise if you have garbage. You’ll be surprised how often doing this will snare the pot.
Similarly, you should often bluff when you’ve missed your hand on the river and think your opponent probably has missed, also. You might be tempted to check and hope to win these pots half the time in a showdown. But a simple bet can win the whole pot without a showdown. Often that’s the better choice.
Question 4: Okay, so which poker players are least profitable to bluff?
Don’t try to bluff players who call too often. That seems obvious, but it’s shocking how many otherwise skillful players avoid this simple rule. Before you put those chips in the pot on a bluff, ask yourself the simple question, “Is this opponent a frequent caller?” If you answer yes, don’t bluff.
You usually can’t make money trying to bluff a player who’s losing heavily. Even if that player might normally be more conservative, expect him to be shell shocked and call almost automatically in desperation now. You’re bluffs won’t succeed often enough to be profitable overall.
And don’t bluff after a frequent bluffer has checked into you. Remember, by checking, that player is indicating he’s less likely to have a weak hand, because he usually would have bet it. And a weak hand vs. weak hand victory (something unlikely now) is often where a bluff attempt wins the pot. What remains after the check is a high percentage of calling or raising hands – not a very promising situation to attempt a bluff.
Question 5: Can you win at poker by never bluffing?
Yes. In fact, most players lose money for their lifetimes on their bluffs. So, they’d probably be better off by never bluffing. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t occasionally bluff. It just means you need to be pretty sure you’re doing it at the right times. — MC
Next self-interview: Mike Caro poker word is Shuffle
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