How to Effectively Bluff in Poker – and How to Detect Your Opponent’s Bluffs
You can’t win in poker over the long run simply by showing down the best hand. For a start, if you always have a hand when you bet – your opponents would soon catch on and stop calling you. Bluffing is what makes poker strategy interesting. Done right, this can give you a huge edge in the games. On the other hand, if you indulge in poker bluffing too often, or in the wrong situations, it can get expensive very quickly.
This poker bluffing guide takes you through everything you need to know to become an effective bluffer. Here are the topics you will find covered below:
The most common type of bluff happens so frequently, that you might not even consider it to be poker bluffing. A player raises a hand before the flop, gets called by one or two opponents. On the flop, that same player makes another bet. This is usually between half and two-thirds of the pot. The other players fold, and the aggressor wins the chips.
This is known as a continuation bet – the raiser is simply continuing with their aggressive action. It is the most common bluff. While players raising pre-flop have a hand some of the time, they are likely to try and win the pot even if they missed (as long as the flop seems safe). Unpaired hands connect with the flop around 1/3rd of the time. If an opponent bets on 70% of flops – then there are a lot of continuation bet bluffs in their range!
A variation of this bluff is to check on the flop – and then if nobody shows interest in the pot to make a bet on the turn. This is known as the ‘delayed continuation bet’.
Good players don’t bluff with ‘air’ too often, instead they choose spots where they have a reasonable chance of winning the pot even when they are called. This bluff + backup plan can happen with flush draws, straight draws or over-cards to the flop. A player might have a pair plus flush combination (and so may be betting with the best hand already against part of an opponent’s range).
Semi poker bluffing is profitable even when the two components (winning the pot right away or making a hand) are individually losing plays.
For example, if you expect your opponent to fold only 30% of the time, it might not be profitable to make a large bet at that point in the hand. When you add in your ‘outs’, the chance you will make a hand by the river – this can add significant equity. Those times you get called and make your straight (for example) have the advantage that you’ll have the potential to win a very big pot.
If you suspect that an opponent bluffs too often, you can turn the tables with a strong play. Check raising is a power-move, and not common above the smallest stakes. This works well when opponent’s continuation bet too wide, or are likely to bet with any part of the board (middle pair and so on).
When you check-raise, you announce that you have a monster – forcing many of the hands opponents would continuation bet with to fold. By doing this as a bluff on some occasions, you will keep your own range balanced. If you only ever check-raise when you really have a monster, that would be far too easy to play against.
I would caution against using this move too often – especially if you are known for slow-playing your monster hands. If you do get caught, and your opponent reraises or calls, you should slow down on the betting. Hands capable of calling check raises are generally in the top part of your opponent’s range.
This bluff works before the flop and is a great way to trap opponents. When a loose player raises from early position, and two other players call, you can make a big 3-bet from later position. You know the initial bettor has a wide range. You also know that the other players had a chance to raise, and decided to call instead. This can mean a weaker than average range of hands – exactly the type which would give up when you show massive strength by 3-betting your button.
As with all bluffs, balance is the key. If you over use this, players will catch on, and start to trap you by calling with their premium hands. If you are called, you’ll usually need to continuation bet – and the pot could get large before you realise you are beaten.
Novice players might think that the right way to bluff is simply to pile the pressure on opponents with huge bets – and to hope that they fold. Unless you are experienced at spotting scenarios where this might work, I’d recommend removing it from your range of bluffs completely. At the lowest levels, it is hard to get opponents to fold. If you miss a flush draw and bet big to win the pot, it can look exactly what it is – a desperate move!
There are some spots where a pure bluff can work. Examples include a scare card hitting the turn or river (an ace or king), or the later stages of a tournament where many players are trying to make the money and you have a big stack.
The name of this bluff was popularised by WSOP winner Dan Harrington in his series of books on tournament poker. Compared to the concepts above, this bluff requires that your opponents are experienced enough to know what your river bet means.
When you have a hand which can’t win a showdown, you can bet small on the river. The idea is that you look as if you hold a monster hand, which is looking to get some extra value from your opponent. If they know what this bet means, they will foil your plan – folding and refusing to pay off you strong holding.
Beware of trying this bluff against novices, they have no idea of what a river value bet means, and will call you down with just about any hand.
The best time to make any type of poker bluff, is when you act last in the betting. This applies to all poker formats.
Acting last will give you time to see whether any of your opponents like the flop enough to bet out before you act. If there is a raise and re-raise before you act, then you might want to reconsider whether this is a good spot to bluff at all.
There are some bluffs which work when out of position. For example, many players raise the button with a wide range when folded to, and will continuation bet bluff on most boards. If you are in the big blind, a timely check-raise bluff could win you a small to mid-sized pot.
Semi-bluffing works especially well when last to act. For example, you bet the pot with a flush draw when checked to – and end up getting called. The turn brings no help and you feel that your tight opponent probably has a strong hand. When you are checked to again after the turn, you can check behind, giving yourself a free card. You might even induce your opponent to bluff on the river by showing weakness after the turn.
Before you decide whether to run a bluff, decide whether the flop is likely to have helped your hand or your opponent’s hands more. For example, players raising from early position often have strong pairs and hands like Ace-King or similar. A low, coordinated flop like 5-6-8 is less likely to have connected strongly with the range of an early position raiser. In fact, this flop is exactly the type which would connect better with the range of someone that flatted the raise in later position. A bluff from the raiser might work, though if someone called, there is a stronger likelihood you are beaten.
Flops can either be coordinated (with straight draws and flush draws available), or dry (with unsuited cards many ranks apart). Coordinated flops, for example 8-10-J with 2 diamonds, do not make good bluffing candidates when you missed – especially into multiple opponents. You’ll get called with pairs, flush draws, straight draws and even unlikely 2-pair combinations. The trouble is, you’ll never know which turn cards helped which opponent! Dry boards like 2-7-Q are far less likely to connect with people’s calling hand. Here, a timely half-pot bet can often win the money.
How many chips both you and your opponents have in your stack make a big difference when it comes to bluff frequency. This applies to spots where you are deep (have a lot of big blinds) and to when one or more players has very few blinds left in their stack.
Tournaments have the biggest variation in chip stacks. You can often find that effective stacks are short in the later stages. The risk here is that if your bluff gets called (or raised), you can find yourself priced in to calling bets – due to the huge size of the pot compared to the remaining chips.
With deep stacked situations, opponents will often call one street (called ‘floating’), simply to see whether you will bet again on the turn. If you give up by checking, they will run a bluff on you – taking away the pot you previously tried to steal. This play is not possible with shallow stacks, the risks are as high as the rewards.
The ideal bet size for a continuation bet or semi bluff will depend on the number of opponents you face, the flop texture and your known tendencies (table image). A continuation bet of half the pot only needs to win 25% of the time to break even, if your opponents fold more than this, you’ll be instantly profitable. Remember to make sure that you do not bluff with one bet size and bet for value with a different one. Observant opponents are on the look out for exactly this type is tell and will be ruthless in exploiting it.
Poker games attract a wide range of styles and experience levels. Here are some guidelines for poker bluffing against different types of opponent:
So far, I have explained bluffing in the context of regular cash games. Poker comes in many formats, and tournaments have a lot of spots where you can effectively bluff opponents in particular.
Stack sizes are key to picking bluff spots in tournament poker. Try to avoid bluffing players with very deep stacks, and those with small stacks (who might well be desperate). Instead, choose players in the comfort-zone, and steal their chips instead. Mid-stacked players will have enough chips to comfortably fold – and are less likely to want to risk them to make a hero-call.
When the bubble of a tournament comes up, a lot of players will be looking to fold into the money. This is the perfect time to get super-aggressive, stealing pots with bluffs as many times as your opponents will let you. A similar spot comes up when the final table is close.
Sit N Go tournaments have bubbles where players go all-in almost every hand. The math behind these games drives this strategy. While these look like bluffs, the super-narrow range of hands which players can (rationally at least) call with make this strategy sound.
Without bluffs, poker would not have anything like the rich strategy that it enjoys today. Any player that never bluffs (or does so extremely rarely) is super-easy to beat.
There are many types of bluff, with the semi-bluff and continuation bet the most common types. The best time to bluff is against a single opponent, in position with some backup (outs) in case you get called. Depending on the experience level of your opponent, there are many more poker bluffing moves you can add into your range.