In many ways, bluffing is synonymous with poker. When people talk about having a "poker face," they mean someone who can bluff without giving him or herself away. Often, even if someone knows absolutely nothing else about poker, they know that it's a game that relies heavily on bluffing or, as It can most simply be explained, lying about the strength of your hand-- or letting others believe something other than the truth!
The tricky part comes in understanding exactly how complicated bluffing really is in a poker game. A lot of new players think, "Oh, I can lie convincingly! I'd be great at poker because I can bluff with no problem!" While that might work for some people, this kind of overconfidence tends to turn around and bite most people, because bluffing in poker is about far more than just concealing the truth. Bluffing invades every single aspect of a game of poker. It's always present, every second of a game-- often even before the game begins! To be a truly good poker player, you have to truly master bluffing, which means constant awareness, a cool demeanor, and an in-depth understanding of the secret language of poker, from betting to table talk.
We discuss specific methods of bluffing in several portions of our advanced strategy guide, which covers bluffing-related topics such as trapping, continuation bets, value betting, limping, and stealing. Truly, almost all advanced strategy techniques in poker are oriented around bluffing. Here, we'll give you a basic run-down of the essentials of this invaluable poker tool:
Reasons to bluff
You can't win a poker game without it.
This is, of course, the simplest and best reason to learn to bluff. If you want to play poker, not bluffing just isn't an option. If you don't bluff, you have absolutely no way to gain any money from other players (or hold onto your own) in a poker game without bluffing.
You want to get other people to commit more money to the pot.
If you can't get any other players to put their money into the pot, it doesn't matter how good your hand is; you just won't make any money. For poker to be a profitable and worthwhile endeavor, you have to convince the other players at the table that it's worth the risk to call or raise you, even when you have a good hand. This particular kind of bluff is called slow-playing, and it involves not making bets as big as would be expected from a player with a strong hand. Its purpose is to lure other players into a false sense of confidence so that you can help relieve them of some of their extra chips.
You want to scare off other players who might have medium strength hands.
If you have a hand that's okay, or even good, but certainly isn't the best, it's probably in your best interest to try and scare off some of the other players. If you can make a convincing bluff, players who have draw hands that could potentially beat yours, and even conservative players who already have better hands than you, are more likely to fold, giving you the opportunity to steal the pot.
The rookie's greatest fear: the failed bluff
At some point in a game of poker, you will encounter every beginning player's worst nightmare: a bluff that doesn't quite go the way that you want it to. To be perfectly honest, in any given game of poker, you'll probably have several failed bluffs. Professional players and experienced amateurs understand that this is part of the game-- there's always a risk that another player will be able to read you or will just decide to take the chance of calling you. You could be up against inexperienced players who don't know when to fold, and while you've done everything right, you find yourself with a bluff that's failed. While unpleasant, this isn't the end of the world, despite how it might feel to players who are just starting out.
Many rookie players hesitate to bluff when they really should because they're afraid of failing and potentially losing a little money. Even when the math says to bluff, these players will hold back. This is one of the most common poker mistakes-- players who aren't willing to take chances and hold back instead aren't going to get very far in the game of poker.
Poker math: bluffing by the numbers
Loads of books have been written about the subject of math in poker, and even if you're not a particularly math-oriented individual, it helps to know at least a little bit about how the numbers play out in a game. Bluffing in particular is an action based on percentages, and when you bluff, some of the things that you should be calculating include:
- how much you stand to gain if successful
- how much you stand to lose if you fail
- how much you'll be out/lose (and in poker, money you fail to take is money "lost") if you don't bluff
- the strength of your hand, relative to the nuts
- the potential strength of other players' hands
- the odds that a player will call you, given his hand and personality
- the pot odds
- how often you'll need to break even to make this type of bluff worth it
Bluffing: What you absolutely have to know
Here's the trick that a lot of beginner players get tripped up on: bluffing isn't just a matter of whether or not you're being honest about what's in your hand. Yes, betting on a weak hand is bluffing, no matter how you do it, but you have to pay attention to how you bluff in order to make a bluff work. Many beginner poker players start with simpler versions of poker, such as 5-card draw, or play games with fixed limits, because both of these methods severely limit the number of times that you bet (and therefore the number of chances you have to bluff) and how difficult a bluff is to pull off.
When you bluff, you have to consider both your position, the amount of chips already in the pot, and the specific message that you're hoping to send (and how likely the other players are to believe it!). Bluffs are generally more effective in later position, as you can judge the strength of the hands that have come before you. Keeping an eye on the pot will also help you determine what percentage to bet-- betting too much or too little are dead giveaways that you don't know what you're doing where bluffing is concerned.
To be successful at bluffing, you have to learn to read your opponents. This simply isn't optional. You have to be able to determine whether they're the kind of people who take risks and call, if they're rookie players who don't fold nearly as often as they should and perpetually limp into hands, or if they can read you better than you can read them. The best way to improve this particular skill, and your bluffing in general, is through practice-- it's the only way to perfect this delicate art!