Knowing for sure when opponents are bluffing


Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was published (2006) in Casino Player.


Do you want to know how to catch somebody bluffing? Listen closely. I’m going to tell you one powerful way to know for sure.

Imagine this. You’re in your usual hold ’em game, playing against your usual opponents. You hold K♣ J in the big blind. Two players call your forced $200 blind bet, but nobody raises, so you get to see the flop for free. Here it comes… 10♣ A♣ 7♣.

Suddenly, you have hope. If another club lands on the next two cards, you’ll be able to use your king to form the very best flush possible. Hold ’em players call it the “nut flush” – meaning it can’t be beat by any other flush. Also, you could catch a queen of another suit and make a compelling ace-high straight. And, of course, if nobody holds an ace or makes two pair or better, then you might catch a king or a jack and win with just that lone pair. So, your prospects are meaningful, as long as no one makes a bet so large that it chases you out of the pot.

More profound

Got the picture? If not, it doesn’t matter. Even if you’re not acquainted with hold ’em well enough to follow this example, today’s lesson will still earn you a lot of money in whatever poker games you sit. This discussion isn’t really about this particular hand or about hold ’em. It’s about something much more profound. So, let’s continue…

Gary, a usually animated opponent who called before the flop from a middle position, bets $400 into the $700 that pre-existed (three $200 bets, plus the surrendered $100 small blind). He throws his chips into the pot with great fanfare, making you somewhat suspicious. Susan folds, leaving just two of you to compete for this pot.

You decide merely to call, although it crosses your mind to raise and, hopefully, take down the money without a struggle. You reason that, by just calling, you’ll have excellent odds of making something and, if you’re wrong about Gary’s flamboyant bet indicating weakness, it might cost you a lot more money by raising. So, you decide to see the next card cheaply. You call. On the fourth community card, called the “turn,” up pops 2♦.

That wasn’t a card you were hoping to see, and you aren’t feeling warm and fuzzy about it. But it almost certainly didn’t help Gary, either. He checks. You welcome the opportunity to see the final “river” card at no cost and check, also. That last card is 2♥.

Hope dashed

Okay, so now your flush visions vanish, your straight got stranded, and your thoughts of escaping with a pair of kings or jacks prove hapless. You must now hope that Gary checks with nothing and your king is high enough to win. But he doesn’t check. Instead, he hurls $3,000 at the $1,500 pot. Now what?

Well, quite clearly, you’re usually going to fold. You look over at Gary and see no obvious clues. He’s melted into “poker face” mode. He’s like a statue, almost not breathing.

Listen closely. I want you to call. What? Call $3,000, twice the size of the pot, with not even a pair? What if Gary has three deuces, or simply an ace, giving him a pair of aces? Or what if he had two clubs all along and was just checking to me, hoping I’d hang myself with a bet? Or maybe he has some other pair – or even king-queen, which – after all – is better than my king-jack. Don’t I have to fold?

No, you have to call, if you like money. And I’ll tell you why. When players bet big hands, then tend to be relaxed. They breathe normally, or even more noticeably than usual. When players are bluffing in big pots, they’re like scared children hiding in the dark. They’re afraid to move, so they’re like statues – just what you’re seeing in Gary right now.

Fearful

And one other important thing: They don’t breathe much. Sometimes they don’t breathe at all. Honest! And this is what you see Gary do at this moment. He seems to have stopped breathing, fearful of betraying his hand. It’s as if the suspense is killing him and he’s frozen, awaiting the outcome. Awaiting his fate. Please call. For me.

There! Good job! You called and Gary threw his hand away without even showing it. You win! And all you need to remember in the future is that when your opponents bet big and stop breathing, you should often call. — 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.

15 thoughts on “Knowing for sure when opponents are bluffing”

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  1. I truly become animated, chat with others at the table and lean back in my seat and smile. When I’m bluffing. Because I read your book. Works more than it doesn’t.

  2. I didn’t see who the author was when I wrote my first reply (came across the article on Stumbleupon). Thanks for the warm welcome, Mad Genius. It’s my pleasure to contribute to the conversation.

    I’ll stick by my analysis, though, your reputation notwithstanding. Seems like the way to take advantage of this tell (assuming stack sizes allow) is a raise. Knowing that he’s unhappy with his hand, he’ll likely throw away a pair or other hand that would beat you if you just called:

    If you’re looking at [K J] 10 A 7 2 2, you would be beaten by any pocket pair, K Q, K 10, Q 10, J 10, 10 9, any garbage ace, or any garbage 7. You may know that you’re not looking at a flush or a boat due to your read, but by just calling, you’re betting that he’s holding… what? Q J? 8 9? Unless you know that Gary is an absolute maniac who plays 5 3 offsuit every time he gets them, the odds are heavily weighted against just calling here.

    Lest anyone think I’m completely full of crap, I have made one WSOP final table in two attempts (both this year). I know that’s not quite world-class, but I’m not quite talking out of my butt, either :)

    1. Hi, Matt —

      There is at least one entry here (and probably more) covering a similar concept. It’s something I teach.

      If you and an opponent seem equally weak, it’s a mistake to just call. You should frequently raise to avoid a 50-50 chance at the pot.

      I’m not sure what to search for, but if anyone finds this, please post a link (or links) below.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

      1. Mike,

        I know you’ve written on the concept before, which is why I was a little startled to see you advocating a call there. In this case, you are very weak indeed; there are almost no legitimate hands Gary could be holding that WOULDN’T beat you. A raise I can see, if you’re confident in your read. A simple call seems to be a negative expectation move.

  3. I’d have to say that your table image and your opponent’s style of play is going to matter a great deal in this situation. It’s true that not breathing can be a great tell, but although you know your opponent isn’t happy with his hand, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should just call here.

    Your opponent may think he’s “bluffing” out here with Jc 10d, (or 99 or even JJ or QQ on that board) thinking, “I doubt he’ll call me here unless he has an ace or a flush.” … and then, “don’t call me, don’t call me!”

    Don’t get me wrong — if you know your opponent would be confident with a pair of 10s or jacks here, and is instead frozen up, you may be right. But is this tell enough to keep you from losing a lot of money to a BS 10, 7, or pocket pair? Depends on the player, but I’d proceed with caution.

    1. Hi, Mark —

      It’s a mystery. Maybe J♦ 9♦ or Q♠ J♠ — or even something more ridiculous, like 9♥ 6♦.

      Welcome to our Poker1 family.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

      1. I did the opposite this week. Flopped the nuts with a 5c6h when 2h4c3h hits the flop. I was in 4th position. I raised the minimum, player after me raises and everyone else folds. I call. 9s hits on the turn. I go all-in with $101.60. The pot was $15.10. The other guy thought I was nuts and calls. He had a pair of jacks.

        In reading Mike’s advice, I try to put it into practice on both sides of the equation. I knew my bet was over the top, but got a caller not believing my play. Works both ways.

        1. Welcome, asxn557. Thanks for making your first comment.

          You’re right about analyzing poker tactics from both perspectives — yours and your opponent’s. That’s one of poker’s strongest lessons, and a skill all world-class players possess.

          Straight Flushes,
          Mike Caro

        2. The stack and pot size numbers indicate that this was online, which is an entirely different game altogether in my opinion.

    1. Actually, you may be right, Sandals, except for the “by far” part.

      Reason? Some opponents are more likely to play spades, hearts, (and to a lesser extent)diamonds, because these suits psychologically appeal to them more than clubs.

      For that reason, when there is multi-way action, there might be very slightly more clubs left in the deck, on average, than you’d otherwise expect.

      The lesson in this that you can’t just make humorous or flippant babble at Poker1 without risking saying something profound by accident.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  4. Mike: Last article you had us laying down four aces. Now we are to call when we cannot even beat the board. Jeezz.. my head is swimming. Your explanations cause both articles to make sense. I will try the tell read you describe here. (I still cannot imagine I will ever fold four aces.)
    Rich

    1. Funny stuff, Rich.

      But I wasn’t the one who said to lay down the four aces. I was the one arguing AGAINST laying it down — which is what the other expert recommended.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

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