Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2008) in Bluff magazine.
Every competition affords its own special thrills. In golf, it’s sinking a long pressure putt that breaks two ways in route to the cup. In tennis, it’s dinking the ball just over the net 20 feet from an astonished opponent and noting that helpless expression as he watches the slow bounces. In poker, it’s bluffing.
Sure, bluffing is a thrill. But most players bluff too often and pay the price. Successes are remembered and the emotional reward is so great that attempts are made again and again. Failures are forgotten. The reason bluffs are unprofitable is that most opponents call too often. That’s their biggest weakness. They came to the game hoping to be in action, hoping to play hands, hoping to bet and call. When they fold, it’s always reluctantly.
So, they’re not objective. They have a bias toward calling, and whenever they’re in doubt or can convince themselves that calling might be the right choice, that’s what they do. As a result, typical opponents lose money on average for every call they make. Got it? Most players lose money bluffing. And they lose money calling.
I teach that you should never attempt a bluff unless there are compelling reasons to make an exception. This advice is doubly true in limit games, but average players lose money trying to bluff in no-limit games, too. So, what are the exceptions?
Obviously, the only times bluffing is profitable is when an opponent, right now at this exact second, is likely to fold more often than is appropriate. I remember playing in Gardena, California 35 years ago. I had stopped by one of the cardrooms to meet ASQ for coffee. In Gardena the regular players became known, not by their real names, but by the initials they used for the waiting lists. I was MJC. And ASQ was one of the finest draw poker players in history. He had left his chips on the table and taken a break. As we sipped coffee, he told me he was in a great game, that there was a seat open, and that I should play. I said I’d rush home, get money, and be back. He offered to lend me chips from his pocket. A few minutes later, we were in the game together. So, at the first opportunity, I bluffed him.
For years after that, he would tell the story, especially if I were present, as if it helped others understand my nature: “I lent him money. Then he got in my game and immediately bluffed me.” The implication was that it was bizarre — or even unsporting — to bluff a friend who had lent you money to get in a game. Well, listen closely: (1) It’s unethical to show favoritism to any opponent in a poker game; (2) If you can’t bluff your friends, who can you bluff?
Poker is psychological warfare. Bluffing is all about psychology, and you clearly need to choose targets that are psychologically bluffable at the moment. ASQ had made himself such a target by his kindness. He hadn’t expected to be bluffed, so that made bluffing an obviously profitable play.
Now, here’s something else to think about when you decide which players should be targeted for bluffs. Players who just sat down or who just got even are more likely to be playing objectively and more likely to fold. Let me tell you my New Year’s Eve story.
This happened 1984 at the Bicycle Club near Los Angeles. I was there because my wife was in charge of the dealers, working the shift beyond midnight this New Year’s Eve. Well, all the bigger games broke down and I was moved to a tiny no-limit game with $1 and $2 blinds. Normally, that game should have afforded pot sizes in relation to the small blinds. But instead of pots averaging $20 to $70, I found myself in one of the wildest action games ever — with pots averaging $700 and many pots exceeding $2,000. I was winning almost $5,000. It was unbelievable! I was in poker paradise.
Then midnight approached. Management handed out silly hats, streamers you could throw in the air when the year turned to 1985, and noise makers into which you could blow obnoxiously. The countdown began. I managed to win one more pot before the players got up to hug and kiss their husbands, girlfriends, or whatever and wish everyone a happy new year. All this traditional celebration annoyed me, because the game was momentarily suspended. But what the hell — if you don’t feel it, fake it. So, I did what they did. Finally everyone sat back down. And guess what? It was the tightest, most conservative poker game of all time!
What happened? I’ll tell you what happened. New Year’s resolutions happened. My opponents had all decided that they had a fresh start and that this was the year they would play sensibly. And for the next 20 minutes you could bluff successfully — and I did. And here’s the lesson I want you to take from this. Whenever opponents just sit down in a game, they’re likely to have resolved to play well. They’re more objective, and they can be bluffed. This typically lasts for 20 minutes. Also, when opponents have found themselves buried in a game and gotten lucky enough to recover and get even, they resolve once again to play judiciously. They, too, can be bluffed.
So, that’s why I’m advising you that players who just sat down or just got even are primary targets for bluffing. — MC
10 thoughts on “The right players to bluff in poker”
Second time I’ve read this recently. Means I didn’t understand it the first time :) Ok, as I’m a tournament specialist, and it’s all I really play, how do I apply the New Year’s Eve part of the lesson to tournaments? I usually play in rebuy tournaments, and we get people that make crazy rebuy calls all the time, figuring, what the hell, there’s a rebuy, right? I’ve been guilty of this on more than one occasion as well. Does it make sense never to bluff?
Hi, Matches Malone —
You can apply the concept to tournaments when you realize that at the very beginning opponents will make more rational and conservative decisions. As they begin to take bad beats and get desperate, they’ll typically play worse.
I think you have it just about right regarding rebuy tournaments. Players who intend to rebuy, if necessary, are poor targets for bluffing.
That was cool mike, but how the saying go. That Poker. LOL
Hi, Maurice —
Thanks for posting your first comment at Poker1. Welcome to our family.
Thats a really interesting story if its true Caro.
I think it was you who said it, most people are just not logical at all.
Hi, Jason —
It’s true. The player is known in Gardena and the Los Angeles area as ASQ. He is a close friend.
But it would be an interesting story even if it weren’t true, right? LOL.
I don’t remember if I said what you mentioned about people and logic — but I should have. Thanks for posting your first comment.
you obviously don’t play freerolls or small stakes poker lol
Hi, Pokerina Flash —
You’re absolutely right. In those environments, where players call far too often, there are very few profitable bluffing opportunities. That’s something I stress often in other writings and lectures.
Mike – sorry you busted so early. I’ve been learning a lot on your site. Thank you!
You’re welcome, Dylan. And thanks for making your first comment at Poker1.