Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2005) in Poker Player newspaper.
You should take pride in playing poker profitably. Take pride in making good calls. Take pride in having discipline. Take pride in bringing good manners to the table. The list of things you can be proud of in poker can be very long.
But sometimes being proud of bluffing can be a dangerous thing. In fact, you can bluff yourself right out of a bankroll, all the while being convinced that you’re doing the right thing. It’s a great illusion.
Four years ago I delivered a lecture explaining it. I called it “The mistake of monitoring bluffs.” I’d like to share it with you today.
Rick kept a poker notebook. So, one day many years ago when we were drinking coffee and having a philosophical argument about bluffing, he pulled it from his pocket to prove his case. You see, I had contended that the right way to beat those way-too-loose poker games in Gardena, California was to hardly bluff at all.
Sure, you could bluff once in a while, but you had to be certain that the situation ran contrary to the loose flow of the game – that both the particular opponent and the way the cards were playing out made a bluff reasonable. Most of the time this was not the case, I argued, because players in Gardena would call anybody who was breathing. Bluffs were mostly futile exercises in ego enhancement.
Not so, Rick argued. And he cited statistics from his book. He had logged games in the $2/$4 up to the $10/$20 range. At the end of each day, he would scour his notes and make a neat statistical table of how he was doing playing poker. This covered a lot of factors – how he had done with aces, how he had done drawing to flushes, the average size of his pots… practically everything.
So, he told me that for his last 500 attempted bluffs he was ahead something like, $953. That’s almost $2 every time he bluffed, he boasted.
“I say you’re losing money bluffing,” I countered.
“What?” he blustered. “Do you think I’m making these statistics up?”
“No,” I said, “I don’t think you’re making them up, but I think you’re misinterpreting what they mean.”
And I was right. Let me share a secret with you. It doesn’t do you much good to monitor the results of your bluffs, because you really don’t know – a lot of the time – whether you had the best hand or not.
Think about it. Let’s say you’re playing seven-card stud and you have missed everything. You have an ace-high. Your opponent probably has something, but only has a king-high showing on the river. He checks to you. You hope he has some small pair that he might throw away if you bet. So you do bet. And, wonder of wonders, he folds.
Now what? Well, if you’re Rick, you enter that as a bluffing success in your notebook. But wait one darn minute here. What if your opponent only had a king-high and had missed a straight or a flush? Now you’re giving yourself credit for a win that you might have secured anyway, without any risk, by simply showing down your hand.
You had the best hand
And here’s the powerful truth. A great number of bluffs that seem to be successful are the result of your having the best hand, anyway! That’s important and I’ll repeat it. A lot of the time that you think your bluff succeeded, you had the best hand.
Now, there’s another thing we need to consider. It might be correct to bet a weak hand, even if you’re not sure you’re bluffing. That’s because you should often bet in order to avoid a showdown when you think your opponent is also weak, but you’re not certain which one of you has the better hand. If you figure you’ll only win half the time in a showdown, but win much more often when you bet, it’s usually flat out worth the risk. But don’t confuse this tactic with getting away with a bluff. This is just a strategic move, not an attempt to bluff, because you don’t really know whether or not you’re bluffing.
Here’s what you need to keep in mind. You can only give yourself credit for scoring a bluff if you know your opponent has a better hand. And when you do bluff against a player who has a better hand, try to target hands you know are better, but not very strong. Those are the ones loose opponents might throw away. You should hardly ever try to bluff a loose opponent who is likely to hold a medium-strong hand, because loose opponents habitually call with medium strength. That what makes them loose players.
Seldom bluff in loose games
So, Rick was wrong. If he magically had the knowledge to filter out from his notebook all those bluff attempts when he actually was betting the better hand, then he probably would have discovered that he was losing money on his bluffs, not winning money. And that makes sense, because, on average, you just can’t expect to make money bluffing players who call too much.
So, save your bluffs for tighter opponents, for rare situations that cry out for bluffs, and for times when you know your opponent has you beat for sure, but is likely to hold a very weak hand. Otherwise, the trick in loose games is to seldom bluff, period.
This is “The Mad Genius of Poker” Mike Caro and that’s my secret today.— MC