A well-timed poker bluff can be the difference between winning and losing a session of Texas Hold 'em. In this guide, we'll talk about why bluffing is necessary and share some tips and tricks to help you pull them off.
What Is a Bluff in Poker?
A poker bluff is simply an attempt to get your opponents to fold hands that are better than your own. After all, you don't need to have the best hand – or even a strong hand – to win the pot. All you have to do is make your weak hand look stronger than it is and force your opponents to fold.
For instance, imagine you’re holding A-K pre-flop, so you raise. The flop comes Q-J-6 giving you a straight draw, so you continue betting on the flop and turn. But by the river, you don’t make your draw, leaving you with nothing but Ace high.
Having been called all the way down, you feel pretty sure that you are behind. The only way to win now is with a bet or bluff raise. So you take a stab at the pot and your opponent folds. This is a typical example of a successful bluff in poker.
Is Bluffing Really Necessary?
In a word, yes. It is completely necessary to bluff when you're playing poker. You can't simply wait for a good hand for several reasons.
First of all, the game would be totally boring and not half as enjoyable if you sat doing nothing until you found the nuts. Secondly, by only playing strong hands you would become extremely predictable, so good players would just fold whenever you enter the pot. This style will cost you money in the long term.
But even when you do find a solid starting hand, you can still miss the flop or be outdrawn on the turn and river. It is very hard to win pots at the best of times, so bluffs are the key to making a profit.
The Successful Poker Bluff
Bluffing in a poker game is the art of making the opponent player lay down a stronger hand than what you hold, which is the opposite of a value bet. And that's why it requires careful consideration.
Your Table Image
First of all, you need to consider your image at the poker table. In short, you’re most likely to get away with a bluff if you are thought of as a tight player.
If your opponents know that you’re playing loose and raising often, you’re not going to get the same respect as a rock. The other players will soon tire of being pushed around, making it harder to pull off a bluff.
Your opponent determines whether your bluff will succeed. If you bet and they fold, your bluff works, and you win the hand. However, if you bet and they call, your bluff fails.
If you’re going to pull off a successful bluff, you need to think about the tendencies of your opponents. If you’re facing a calling station, there’s no point in trying to execute any kind of poker bluff. You’re just throwing money away because you know they’ll call.
Similarly, if you find your bluff raised by a total rock, this is not a great spot to continue. What are the chances of you being bluffed in return? It’s highly unlikely. Don’t think you can bluff a tight player who is telling you they have something.
You also need to consider the mindset of your opponents at any given moment. Perhaps they are playing at stakes that are too high, for instance, in which case they may be running scared. Now you can put them to the test, as your bluffs are more likely to succeed. Similarly, if you're playing at micro-stakes, expect to be called far more often.
Finally, think about the number of players in the hand. The chance of a bluff getting through decreases exponentially as the number of opponents increases.
Betting History Of The Hand
In order for your bet to succeed against perceptive opponents, it has to fit into the narrative it is a part of. It is rather unlikely that your opponent will believe that your bet on the river means you hit the flush if your betting up until that moment didn't indicate that you were on a flush draw.
Relative Chip Stacks
If your opponent is short-stacked in a tournament, they might be feeling desperate. This would increase the likelihood of them shoving over the top or calling your bluff. If someone feels like they need to make a move before time runs out, it’s not the time to pull out a poker bluff.
Opponents with considerably larger stacks are also more likely to try and catch you out. Particularly in a cash game, where they can always rebuy if they make a series of bad calls.
Reads and Tells
A “tell” in poker is some kind of revealing signal that indicates the type of poker hand your opponent is holding. If you’re successfully able to identify a tell, you’re said to have a “read” on a player. Although they’re not always easy to find, a tell can help you pull off a poker bluff successfully.
For example, let’s say you can put your opponent on a high pocket pair. If the board is very dry, with low, unconnected cards, this feels like a terrible spot to try and bluff. But if there were straight and flush draws everywhere, you might be able to elicit a fold.
There are certain tells that can be identified online, regarding how quickly or slowly players call. You can also sometimes see physical tells in a live poker game. Whatever information you might find can help you get a bluff through.
Balancing Your Bluffs
Good players understand that their decisions should be based on hand ranges, rather than their current individual holdings. If you don’t understand what is meant by the term “range”, brush up on your poker strategy before going any further.
Within your range, you will have a certain percentage of strong hands that you’ll want to bet with. But you’ll also have some weak hands, which become candidates for a good old-fashioned poker bluff. Why? Because if you only show aggression with strong hands, you become too predictable.
If your opponents know that you only ever bet when you have the goods and always fold with nothing, they can exploit you. So you need to balance your range. This means finding the right number of value bets compared to your outright bluffs.
Choosing Hands to Bluff With
So which hands are the best for bluffing? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple because every situation is different and it depends on your range. But speaking broadly, it’s better to bluff with hands that don’t have any showdown value.
Imagine your opponent bets the flop small and you’re holding the bottom pair. Your hand has some value here, though you can’t be sure you’re ahead. If you raise, you might take the pot, but you also risk being 3-bet and things could get out of control. However, you can’t fold in that situation.
If you're going to try and bluff your opponent out of the pot in this spot, it makes much more sense to do it with no hand and no draw. There's no way you can win the pot, other than by betting and raising. But if you have a reasonable amount of equity, you should try and realize it by getting to the river as cheaply as possible.
We can’t fully discuss the art of the poker bluff without mentioning the concept of a semi bluffs, which, compared to a pure bluff, has a backup plan. This is when you bet with a hand that doesn’t have much showdown value right now, but could potentially improve to win. Examples are flush draws and straight draws.
The aim of a semi-bluff is still to get your opponent to fold, as it is with all bluffs, whether it's continuation bet bluff, stone-cold bluff, or opportunistic bluff. But at the same time, you don't really mind if your opponent calls. For instance, imagine you have 3-2 on a board of Q-J-8.
You're almost certainly behind at this point, but you have two shots at making a flush. If you bet, you might get your opponent to fold. But if your opponent calls, you could still hit your draw, putting you in a good position to win. What's more, you are building a bigger pot for if you do go on to make the flush. That is a classic semi-bluff situation.
What if I Am Not Capable of Bluffing?
A poker bluff often requires a certain amount of acting capability, but it almost always involves a lot of bravery. As a result, not each poker player feels capable of bluffing. If that sounds like you, I have some bad news for you. You simply have to try. Otherwise, you're going to leave a lot of money out there on the table.
The best way to learn how to bluff is to just practice doing it. Start out in friendly home games, where you’ll be able to laugh it off and not feel as stupid when caught. You can also sharpen your timing by playing online, where there’s nobody around to berate your play or make you feel bad.
Before we wrap up our guide to bluffing in poker, let’s quickly run through our top tips for pulling off a successful bluff.
Play solid poker first. Before you even think about getting creative with bluffs, make sure your fundamentals are solid.
Reassess every street. A hand that looked like a good bluffing candidate on the flop may no longer be on the turn or river.
Think about bet sizing. When trying a poker bluff, consider the bet size if you had the nuts. A smaller size does not need to see as many folds as a larger bet sizing to be successful, but it is not always obvious where the optimal place for action is. Good players will pick up on inconsistent bet sizing.
Don’t bluff an idiot. There’s no point telling an intricate story to someone who barely understands the game. Just stick to basic poker against new players.
Don’t bluff calling stations. When bluffing, the last thing you need is a call. Don’t pour money into a black hole.
Pulling off a Poker Bluff: Conclusion
Executing the perfect poker bluff requires good judgement and timing. It’s a necessary skill to learn if you’re to become a winning player in the long term. So don’t be scared of bluffing! Hone your acting skills, develop a poker face and watch your win rate improve.
Check out some of the Best Poker Bluffs of All Time for inspiration.