Kenny Rogers tells us that “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,” and this is a key to success in Texas Hold Em. I have discussed moves in my past articles dealing with knowing just when to bet or raise with certain cards, and when those same cards should be thrown in the muck. However, I have not yet discussed one of the most important strategies of any game of poker… bluffing.
First, I would like you to consider the following Scott’s Rules of Bluffing in Texas Hold Em:
1. Do not bluff often. If another player catches you in a bluff you are just going to lose your money. One important goal of this game is to always get your money in the pot with the best hand. If you bluff too often, you are going to get caught, and that is going to cost you valuable chips.
2. Do not bluff a calling station. If you are playing poker with one or more opponents who like to call a lot, regardless of their hand strength, do not try to bluff them. Chances are their lowly pair of fours will beat your high card King. You will be irritated that they called your bluff with such a bad hand. Cry all that you want, but you will not be getting any of those chips back!
3. Do not bluff unless you expect your opponent to fold. There is no reason to throw out a losing bet unless it is going to make you win the hand. You can learn to recognize good bluffing opportunities, some of which I will mention in this article. For purposes of this rule, just make sure you have a good reason to be bluffing.
4. With little exception, do not bluff out of position. Try to make most of your bluffs when you are in position. Being in position means that you are the last person to act after all of your opponents have made decisions. Your opponents being forced to make decisions before you will give you information about their hands that you can use against them.
5. Do not make all of your bluffs without any chance of winning. Try to make most of your bluffs when you still have outs. This is called a semi-bluff. If you get called on your bluff, this will leave you with a chance to hit a card or two and make your hand. Open ended or double gut shot straight draws, flush draws, and two over cards to the board are good examples of times to make a semi bluff after the flop.
6. Do not become attached to your bluffs. If you bluff at a pot, get called, try it again, get called, you need to think about checking or folding to save your chips. I almost never bluff at a pot three times, with very little exception. If you know your opponent to be tight, I would not recommend bluffing more than once at them. Chances are if they call you, it is because they have a hand.
7. Spread out your bluffs. You do not want to be bluffing several times in a row, with very little exception. Sometimes, at a very tight table you can bluff for several hands in a row and get paid off, but for the most part, you will play at tables where someone will make a big stand against you with a moderate hand. These are not the types of hands that will help you be a consistent winner at poker.
8. Be more willing to bluff at tight players than at loose players. Loose players are more likely to call you, or worse raise your bluff. At that point, you would have no choice but to fold. A tight player, even a tight-aggressive player, will fold to you well timed bluffs, often with a decent hand. The simple fact is that loose players call/raise more often than tight players call/raise. The goal of a bluff is to get your opponent to fold, so it makes sense that you want to bluff against tight players when you can.
9. Try to play your bluffs like you would play a made hand. How would you bet if you hit a good hand? That is how you should bet when you bluff. Keeping the bet the same as if you made a hand will look less suspicious, and your clever opponents will respect the bet all the more.
10. Do not go broke on a bluff. This seems obvious, but I have seen many a player try the all-in bluff. Unless you are short stacked at a tournament and are trying to steal a few bets, this is an awful idea. If you have a marginal hand then it stands to reason that any hand will have a good chance to beat you. You want to avoid this situation at all costs. Save your all-in moves for when you think you have the best hand, not the worst.
11. Do not try to bluff at more than two opponents. Generally, bluffs work better if you need to convince fewer people to fold. Try to bluff when there are only one or two other players in a hand.
While there is some wiggle room, if you keep those rules in mind, you do not have to worry about making a bad bluff decision, one that will get you into a lot of trouble.
So, now you know when not to bluff, but when should you bluff? Well, as previously mentioned, you want to be in position and have a draw to a good hand as often as possible. However, there are a few times where it is never wrong to bluff. If you are on the button, and the table folds to you, it is never wrong to bluff to try to steal the blinds. If one of the blinds calls you, or raises you, you will have a better idea of what kind of hand they have. Fine, at worst you gain valuable information about the hand. Most of the time however, the blinds will fold to you. Similarly, if you are in the small blind and the table folds to you, it is never wrong to bluff to try to steal the big blind. This is for the same reasons mentioned. Even though you will be out of position for the rest of the hand, you will have gained valuable information at worst. Just because it is never wrong though, does not mean you should do it every time. Mixing up your game is a better way to play. Still, it is better to raise in those situations most of the time.
There is one other time where bluffing is not ever a bad idea. If the board is paired, you are the last to act, and the table checks to you. A bet anywhere between 1/3 pot to the size of the pot, especially if you have over cards, is a good bluff. The table will often fold and award you the chips. If that does not occur, you need to make this bet anyway to get more information from those left in the hand. Is your bet being called? If your bet is called by only one player, be wary of the set and slow down. It is also possible that the caller has two pair. If your bet is called by multiple players, it is likely that someone has at least two pair. Again, slow down. If your bet is raised, there is no shame in folding. However, the math of the situation tells you that even if you have to fold, you made the right decision by bluffing.
Consider this: This situation occurs 10 times in a game, each time you are in a hand with one other player, and each time the pot size is 100 chips. Also, you make a bet of 40 chips whenever this occurs. This play only needs to work four times out of ten for you to break even on your odds. The chance that the flop improved another player’s hand is only 3.3 times out of ten. This means that your bluff will work between six and seven times out of ten. Against two opponents this bluff will work between three and four times out of ten. This is based on the math alone. If you can convince your opponent that his two pair is no good, you could pull off this bluff even more often. Also, the odds are even more favorable then this. On the times your bluff succeeds, you will return your bet of 40 chips to your stack. You only lose chips from your stack when the bluff fails. So, being conservative and looking at the math alone, against one opponent you will win six pots (600 chips), and lose four (160 chips bet on the bluff). This is a profit of 440 chips. Well worth it. Against two opponents you will win (conservatively) three pots (300 chips) and lose seven (280 chips). This is still a profit of 20 chips. These numbers are only considering the math, and that you have no outs. Playing hands that are only semi-bluffs will only increase your winnings in this situation.
Beyond that, bluffing is all about timing, feel, and your table image.
Timing: You want to isolate players, as previously mentioned. Also, you want to gather information at the table, such as how they typically bet, how they have bet this hand, what you think their hand is, what do they think your hand is, and are they someone who will fold if you will bet. Timing all of this in the right hand against the right player can be tricky. Paying attention to every hand will help you know when a bluff might work. When you pull the trigger, play it like any other strong hand.
Feel: This comes from just from learning about what you expect your opponents to do. Bluff against players that you can make believe you have a strong hand. Sometimes this means playing a weak hand like it is strong, from the very beginning. As an example, last week I went up against a player who had A A in his hand, while I sat with my lowly 2 7. After his raise pre-flop, I chose to re-raise. This particular opponent played all night like his hands were no good, and was tight without being aggressive. I made a big raise and he just called. At this point I put him on a big pocket pair. He called quickly without thinking about it, despite my raise. Flop came 4 K 8. He checked to me. I made another big bet. He folded his A A, just as I predicted he would. I knew he would fold if he did not hit. Playing my hand big early on made it very believable I had K K as hold cards, even though I only had a 2 7. This example is not to convince you to play any two cards, just to get a feel for your opponents. For those of you wondering, the way for him to have avoided this situation would have been to go all-in after my pre-flop re-raise. I would have folded and he would have won my chips without having to be concerned that I may have made a set of Kings.
Table Image: If you are a loose player, other players are not going to give you credit for a strong hand every time you bet. This does not mean you should never bluff, but it does mean you should be aware that your bets are not taken to mean you have great hands. Players that have a tight image can more effectively bluff because the table respects their bets to mean they have a strong hand.
As a final reminder, be sure to err on the side of caution while trying to make a bluff. If your make a bluff and get called, there is no shame in checking or folding in a subsequent round of betting. Follow Scott’s Rules of Bluffing in Texas Hold Em to avoid getting into too much trouble and to find the best times to try a bluff. Beyond that, all you have to do is convince the other players that you have the best hand every time you bluff. Easy, right?