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Poker bluffs: What is bluffing, and when and how do you bluff in poker?

Bluffing is an essential aspect of poker but is often misunderstood, misapplied, and overused. Don't frequently bluff, and savvy opponents will fold to your value bets. Bluff too much, and those same thinking opponents will snap-call your feeble attempts to pull the wool other their eyes. You will learn about the nuances of bluffing, including how to pull off the perfect poker bluff, by the time you reach the end of this article.

Generally speaking, poker bluffs tend to fall into two categories. You have a semi-bluff on the one hand and a pure or stone-cold bluff on the other. Of course, we will discuss both bluff types in detail. Before we delve into the art of bluffing, there is one crucial aspect you need to grasp. If you never bluff, playing poker not only becomes a little boring but becomes almost unbeatable. Keep that thought in the forefront of your mind.

What is a bluff in poker?

A bluff is, in essence, any bet or raise you make in a cash game or tournament, knowing that you are unlikely to have the best hand. Good players bluff to induce a fold from at least one of their opponents or to win the hand outright without going to a showdown. It does not take a genius to work out that bluffing is a high-risk poker strategy, but it is also a potentially high-reward and necessary move every poker player should have in their arsenal.

Why is bluffing important in poker?

Bluffing is not only an important factor in a poker player's success but crucial. There are two ways to win a hand of poker when playing Texas Hold'em: you either have the best hand at showdown or force all of your other opponents to fold. Anyone relying on always having the best hand will not go far in this game because it does not happen enough.

Furthermore, your bluff frequency plays a role in having your value bets paid off. A player that only ever bets for value, that is, wants to be called because they know they have a strong or the best hand, will soon find their opponents folding like an origami convention whenever they commit chips to the pot. Why would you call an opponent that always shows strong hands?

Conversely, by the nature of the game, someone that bluffs too often will have many of their value bets paid, but they will also see most of their bluffs called, which can become expensive.

What about a player that balances their bluffs with value bets? That player is horrible to play against because their actions leave you second-guessing yourself. You are unaware whether they have a strong, medium, weak hand, or even complete trash when they bet or raise. All too often, against this player type, you will fold the better hand to their bluffs and pay off their value bets handsomely.

The semi-bluff

As mentioned earlier, poker has two main types of bluffing, and we will cover the least risky option first: the semi-bluff. A semi-bluff is still a bluff, but it is made with a hand that could improve to become the best hand. For example, your opponent raises from the button, you call with Th-9h in the big blind, and the flop falls Qh-Jc-6s. You check, your opponent makes a continuation bet and you check-raise. Your check-raise is considered a semi-bluff here because ten-high is unlikely to be the best hand right now, but you could improve to a straight on the turn or pick up a flush draw that changes the course of the hand.

Speaking of continuation betting, a continuation bet is often a semi-bluff in its own right. You may raise from late position with Ac-Qc and the small blind calls. The flop falls Kc-9s-2d, your opponent checks, and you c-bet with only ace-high. Your bet is a semi-bluff because although you will not get folds from a king, nine, and probably not a deuce, someone holding pocket threes-through-eights will likely relinquish their hand. Of course, those hands beat yours right now, so you are bluffing.

The pure or stone-cold bluff

Pure or stone-cold bluffs are dangerous moves to pull off because they are made with hands that have zero or almost zero chance of winning the hand at showdown. The danger is amplified by the fact you are nearly 100% certain that you have the second-best hand, and the only way to win the pot is to somehow force your opponent to believe you are stronger than them, and they fold.

Making far too many pure bluffs will see your bankroll disintegrate before your eyes. Just as you can never entirely rely on you having the best hand 100% of the time, you cannot guarantee that your opponent will not have a hand they are willing to call with. An example of a pure bluff would be raising a river bet with 4s-4c with the board reading Qc-Th-7s-5h-Ad. Almost every hand that reaches the river (of course, the betting action would influence any decision-making) here beats us. Your river raise screams, "I have managed to hit an ace." You are toast if your opponent does not believe you.

When is the best time to bluff in poker?

Strong bluffers are expert storytellers because that is what you are doing; you are spinning a yarn to your opponent. Your story must be believable to everyone you are telling it to for it to be successful. Your bluff will fall flat on its face if any element of your story seems amiss

There is a plethora of factors worthy of your consideration whenever you ponder bluffing in poker. You can ignore the following elements and bluff away to your heart's content, but that is not recommended.

  • How many active players are in the hand? – Bluffs are more successful against a solitary player and become less so with more players in the hand. The fewer players you have to bluff, the better.

  • Your opponent's tendencies – The ideal opponent to bluff is a thinking player who can fold a hand when necessary. There is no point bluffing someone that calls every bet regardless of what is happening around them (a calling station) because they will also call your bluff, literally!

  • Your image at the table – How do your opponents perceive how you play poker? Have you been playing loose and splashing around in pots, or have you been card dead for an eternity? Tighter, solid players are given more credit for potentially showing up with the goods than a loose cannon.

  • The stack sizes of you and your opponent – Stack sizes are important when considering whether to bluff or not. Preferably, neither you nor your opponent will be short-stacked because this can result in them being priced in to call your bluff, which is not ideal. Larger stack sizes mean your opponent can fold and fight to live another day. Furthermore, larger stack sizes mean your opponent may feel all their chips are at risk if they continue in the hand.

  • What bet size to make your bluff – Again, stack sizes play a significant role in the size of your bet or raise when bluffing. However, most players tend to make their bluffs the same size as their value bets to disguise them better. There is no point bluffing if you only bet much smaller or larger than "normal" because your bluffs become easy to read.

  • The texture of the board – Always consider the texture of the board. Dry boards make for better bluffs because they are less likely to have helped your opponent, plus there are few or no possible draws. On the flip side of the coin, wet boards like Qs-Js-Th are usually a bad idea to bluff on because these wet boards have a myriad of draws, two-pair combinations, and more than your opponent could hold.

  • Is your bluff believable? – Above all, you need to ensure the story you are telling is believable; otherwise, what is the point? For example, there is little value in representing a hand such as 7s-6s on a Th-9h-8c flop if you have four-bet preflop unless you are a complete maniac! Consider not only your opponent's possible range of hands but your range of hands, too.

How to spot a bluff at the poker table

You are not the only poker player making bluffs at the table; your opponents will also bluff. The skill to spotting a bluff is to put yourself in the bluffer's shoes and use all of the bullet-listed points above in your decision-making. Does the story they are telling add up? Is anything off about it? Is a usually tight-passive player suddenly raising? Are those raises a standard size or out of the ordinary?

Like many things in poker, being observant and taking notes are vital in learning whether an opponent is bluffing.

Poker bluffing FAQ

Q: Is bluffing allowed in poker games?

A: Bluffing is a natural component in all forms of poker. Without bluffing, you need the best hand to win any pot. Bluffing is not only allowed but encouraged in all poker games.

Q: What is a triple barrel bluff?

A: A triple barrel bluff is the most daring of all bluffs, one that looks spectacular when it comes off but leaves you with an egg on your face when it fails. You triple barrel or "empty the clip" by betting or raising on the flop, turn, and river, with the river bet often being enough to see you all in! It's a ballsy move but sometimes a necessary one.

Q: What is meant by turning your hand into a bluff?

A: This is when you have a hand that has some showdown equity but is probably not the best. For example, your opponent raised to $9 with king-queen, and you called with 9d-8d in late position. Your opponent bets $15 on the 9s-Kc-Jd flop, and you called. The turn was the Jc, your opponent bets $33, and you call. The river comes the 4d, and your opponent bets $80. You raise all-in to $275, and your opponent folds his top pair. Your action here smells of a powerful hand, even though you only paired your nine. Your hand had showdown equity against some of your opponent's range, but you turned your hand into a bluff. To your opponent, you look like you have a super-strong hand because there is no way you would turn a hand into a bluff!

Q: How often should I bluff?

A: There is no schedule for bluffing, but always consider that the more you make a move, the less credit it is given. A player that rarely bluffs or has shown down strong hands will be believed more than a crazy loose player showing down all sorts of weird and wonderful holdings.