Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2012) in Poker Player newspaper.
In poker, bluffing can be glamorous. It can build bankrolls. Or it can be a costly mistake. Today’s word just happens to be “bluff,” and here’s my self-interview about it.
Question 1: Do you need to bluff in order to beat poker games?
Not usually. Most of the value of bluffing isn’t related to betting hopeless hands and winning pots when others fold. Most of the value is due to the fact that opponents believe you might be betting hopeless hands.
So, they call, suspecting a bluff. If you never bluff and they always call with hands weaker than yours, you always win. Clearly, there’s an advantage to making opponents think you’re bluffing when you’re not.
Of course, that strategy usually won’t work against astute opponents in the real world of big-money poker. Sophisticated opponents are observant and will eventually figure out that you never bluff. So, you might have to bluff occasionally, just to change their minds.
Still, you’ll win money against them by betting and being called too frequently while they’re figuring you out. And after that initial period, you should bluff occasionally, but not often.
The concept behind this advice is that most opponents call too often. They came to the poker room today hoping to be in action and make calls. They weren’t rooting for themselves to stay out of action and fold. So, they’ll call whenever they’re suspicious. And you can make them suspicious without bluffing often, just by your image and your mannerisms. That’s a topic we’ve talked about previously and one we’ll skip today.
Question 2: Why do most bluffs lose money?
It’s because opponents call too readily. Simply, most opponents call more often than they should. And that, in itself, makes bluffing a challenge.
In fact, most bluffs are unprofitable. And all bluff attempts averaged together, throughout the history of the universe, have lost money.
Question 3: Do most professionals win money bluffing?
Not in limit games. In no-limit, some do. But the question is, do most pro poker players win money, on average, when they bluff.
I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing not. I’m guessing they stretch bluffing to the limit, beyond the clearly profitable opportunities. In doing so, they delve into the dangerous jungle of wrong-time, wrong-opponent bluffs.
Why do I say that “I’m guessing”? It’s because I don’t know for sure. Nobody does. First, you’d have to define who’s a pro and who isn’t. Then you’d need access to all their poker-hand history. And even that wouldn’t give you the answer, because you need to know what opponents hold.
Question 4: Huh? Why would you need to know what opponents hold?
It centers on a great poker illusion.
I remember long ago, a friend who played poker seriously showed me a carefully documented notebook in which he had recorded all his bluff attempts. He wrote down the cost of the bluff if he lost and the amount of the pot gained if he won.
But his methodology was flawed. That’s because when the bluff “succeeded,” he couldn’t be sure whether he would have won without bluffing! Some of the time that a bluff attempt ends up with you taking the pot, your opponent held a terrible hand, too. That’s why he folded. Those happenings skew the recorded results. So, keeping track might convince you that your bluffs are profitable, when they aren’t.
Question 5: What times should you avoid bluffing?
You should almost never bluff against loose opponents. By definition, they call too often.
If there are more than two opponents, forget it. Pots with four or more players (you and three others) are generally unprofitable for bluffing. Why? It’s because the mathematics of calling dictate that the more opponents you bet into, the less willing an opponent should be to call. You’re taking a greater risk, so they should increase their calling standards accordingly. But they don’t. As a result of this common miscalculation among opponents in four-handed and greater pots, bluffing is primarily a losing proposition.
And don’t forget that tells matter, too. Don’t bluff into opponents who are looking away or seem uninterested. They’re often trying to make you feel safe about betting, because they hold powerful hands.
Question 6: When should you bluff?
You should bluff selectively. Despite the fact that most opponents call too much, a few don’t call enough and can be bluffed. It’s up to you to watch games carefully and figure out which is which.
You can also bluff against opponents who think they’re too smart to be conned. This happens when you’ve been winning extra calls from weak opponents through table talk. Intelligent opponents may observe this and think they’re above the norm and too clever to be talked into calling. So, if you beg for a call, they often fold.
Don’t hesitate to bet a garbage hand against an opponent you think might have missed completely. This garbage vs. garbage situation often requires a bet. That saves you from either being bluffed out of a pot or facing an equally hopeless hand that will win half the time in a showdown. Essentially, you get a whole pot, instead of half a pot. That’s because obviously half is mathematically what a fifty-fifty showdown is worth.
Question 7: Can you summarize your thoughts about bluffing?
Basically, you should adopt the philosophy that you’re never going to bluff unless there’s a compelling reason. If you enter a poker game with that philosophy, you’re more likely to cash out winning.— MC