Five profitable truths about bluffing

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2012) in Bluff magazine under the same title.

I like to bluff. It makes me feel tingly and triumphant. But I don’t get to do it very often. After you finish today’s lesson, you’ll understand why that is. So, here are five facts about bluffing in poker.

Profitable bluffing truth #1: Most players lose for their lifetimes on bluffs.

Most players don’t realize that their bluffs don’t work. They remember their successful attempts more than their failures. Human nature, sure.

I’m betting that your opponents are mostly unsophisticated players. They came for the excitement of being involved in hands. That means they have a bias toward calling. And it’s that bias that makes them surrender their money by calling too often.

That fact makes bluffing unprofitable against all but the most conservative players, except in unusual situations where the chemistry is just right.

Profitable bluffing truth #2: Whenever opponents are likely to call too often, you should never bluff.

I’ve read that you should bluff less frequently against opponents who call too willingly. That sounds reasonable, but it’s wrong.

Against players who call too often, you should not bluff at all. Look at it this way: If you try to bluff an opponent who calls liberally, you’re betting against their nature and you’re betting against the odds. Sure, you might succeed sometimes, just like you might win at the roulette wheel. You can win sometimes, but you won’t win overall.

It’s the same with trying to bluff opponents who love to call. Succeeding is exciting. But your mission as a serious poker player is to bet when the odds are in your favor, not to challenge the odds.

Profitable bluffing truth #3: The threat of a bluff makes poker function.

The very nature of poker makes bluffing essential. Opponents often call bets even when they hold mediocre hands. Why? It’s because they suspect a bluff or think that there’s some chance one might be aimed their way.

The mere threat of a bluff helps you get calls when you hold winning hand. Remember this about bluffing: You don’t have to do it, if they fear it.

Profitable bluffing truth #4: Animation makes bluffing fail.

Your poker opponents came to the table to play hands and make calls. So, they’re always looking for excuses. Anything you do can make them suspicious.

The slightest movement or even the most natural words can be rationalized in their minds as suspicious and a reason to call. That’s why the best policy in most situations when you bluff is to do almost nothing. Don’t provide reasons to call. If you’re animated after bluffing, you’re inviting disaster. (By the way, that’s why you should be animated when you hold a strong hand and are hoping to be called.

Profitable bluffing truth #5: Opponents who are bluffing usually don’t move.

Now, think about what I just told you regarding not being animated when you bluff. Guess what?

Your opponents instinctively realize this. They unconsciously understand that they shouldn’t move about or speak when they’re bluffing. They’re afraid of making you suspicious and enticing your call. So, usually they sit stoically and sometimes they barely breathe.

That’s one of the biggest tells in poker. Opponents who bet big and are suddenly inactive or don’t seem to be breathing are usually bluffing. Profit from that tell. And don’t worry about unsophisticated opponents profiting from it against you – they won’t.

More truth about bluffing

There are, of course, many things missing from this discussion. Here are a two extra things about bluffing.

If you take too long to bet, players will become suspicious and call more often. It’s the same if you bluff too quickly. I’ve estimated that the most-profitable pause before bluffing is two-and-a-half seconds. Yes, really.

It’s particularly unprofitable to try to bluff more than two active opponents. And going after two is stretching it. The reason is mathematical. Most opponents don’t correctly assess the strategic challenge you faced when you made the bet. They just think about the strength of their own hands.

Because of that, they tend to call with almost the same hands when you bluff against many opponents as when you bluff against just them alone. And that’s bad for you. Why?

It’s because if each player will fold 30 percent of the time, regardless of how many opponents you bet into, then two players will fold just 30 percent times 30 percent of the time – and that’s nine percent!

Here’s some boring math, but make it simple. It’s 70 percent likely that your bluff will be doomed by the first opponent (which might make your 30 percent chance of success enough for a moderate bet into a large pot). But of the 30 percent that you survive the first opponent, 70 percent of the time the second opponent will spoil your plans – leaving just that dismal nine percent success rate.

And with three players, you’re 36-to-1 against winning! Of course, that example is a bit extreme in most situations, but it points us to the truth. Because most players don’t accurately consider how many players you bet into, they call almost as often as they would if you had only bet into just them. And that usually makes bluffing against multiple opponents unprofitable.

In fact, unless you’re nearly a world-class player, you should make this your policy: Never attempt to bluff more than one player out of a pot. — MC

Published by

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.


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