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Bluffing in Poker Explained (by Doug Polk)

Is there anything more satisfying than a successful bluff?

Bluffing is life in poker, but not all players feel the same about it.

Some players think very conservatively about bluffing. From their point of view, opponents who bluff are taking unnecessary risks.

While it’s true that some players bluff too much, there are also many players who think that their opponents, or they themselves, bluff often, when actually they don’t bluff enough. And sometimes these players’ bluffs are really nothing of the kind.

Here’s the thing about bluffing: without it, you must have a strong hand to win the pot—the strongest hand, in fact. But it isn’t easy to make a hand in No Limit Hold’em. Most hands miss the flop, and a very strong hand preflop can become very weak by the river.

Consequently, bluffing is a necessary part of the game. If you never bluff, poker won’t just be boring, it will be unbeatable. Your opponents will be quick to exploit a playing style that depends too heavily on making strong hands, i.e., one that is not well-rounded with bluffing when appropriate.

''If you never bluff, poker won't just be boring, it will be unbeatable.'' -Doug Polk in this article: https://bit.ly/bluffin-w-doug Click To Tweet

The question, then, is how much you should bluff.

Note: Want to learn how to win more hands (and money) with your flush draws? Learn the 20 Rules for Playing Flush Draws used by Doug Polk and Ryan Fee to separate themselves from the average poker player. Enter your email below to download the rules.

  • Use Our 20 Rules and
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    You will make more chips by having bluffs and
    value bets in spots your opponents do not expect!

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Let’s start with a general rule:

Bluff more early in the hand, and less on later streets.

The reasoning behind this rule is simple. In terms of equity versus an opponent’s calling range, your bluffing range is at its strongest preflop, but that equity diminishes as the hand progresses.

For example, consider that suited connectors have around 30–40 percent equity before the flop against most of the hands your opponent will continue with. You can therefore play more of these “weaker” hands relative to the number of strong hands that you would typically raise for value. But as you get closer to the river, your bluffing range will have less and less equity against the hands your opponent will continue with, so you should be bluffing with them less on later streets.

This reasoning culminates on the river. If you decide to bet on the river, then you must know whether you are doing so as a bluff or for value.

Generally, if your hand has any equity against the hands your opponent could call you with, then you should not be bluffing. In other words, if you think your opponent could call with some worse hands, then bluffing on the river is probably a bad play.

It’s also crucial to account for the pot odds you’ll be giving your opponent if you decide to bluff. This will help you determine the frequency you should bluff.

For example, suppose you’ve bet $100 into a pot of $100, giving your opponent 2:1 to call (your opponent has to call $100 to win $200). This means that you need to be bluffing one in three times in order to make your opponent indifferent to calling. If your range consisted of 30 hand combinations of value bets, for instance, you would need 15 hand combinations of bluffs.

The idea is that the range of hands you bet with is profitable because your value-bet to bluff ratio is in exact proportion to your opponent’s pot odds (two value bets for every one bluff). As a result, your play is un-exploitable by your opponent. It doesn’t matter whether your opponent calls or folds. You make money either way.

Editor’s Note: Read this article if you’re unfamiliar with the above concept.

Obviously, this is all to say very little about which hands, exactly, you might want to bluff with at any particular time. Bluffing requires forethought—it’s not just a matter of betting with no equity when it feels right. You should plan every hand from preflop onward, thinking carefully about how the hand could develop, making the right adjustments on each street.

To take an easy example, suppose you bet a flop of Q♠ J 2♣. Here you could have a number of hands that are bluffs (or, ‘semi-bluffs’, if you like), which can improve to value hands on later streets. Backdoor flush draws, straight draws with K-T or T-9, or even A-T are therefore hands that are reasonable to bet as bluffs on this flop. Of course, when they don’t improve, some of these hands will also be reasonable bluffs on the turn and river.

Often, however, it’s not so easy to decide which hands to bluff with. A flop of, say, K 7♣ 2♠ requires a bit more thought, and perhaps more ambition if you decide to continue with a bluff. Hands like ace-high or backdoor flush draws seem reasonable to bet as bluffs, but have less potential to improve than those mentioned in the previous example, and possibly no showdown value by the river. So, you should proceed carefully, keeping in mind the general rule with which we began (bluff more early on, less on later streets).

A particular scenario that many players struggle with is checking the flop and then betting the turn. In this spot it’s important to remember that if you can have some value hands then you should also have some bluffs. The goal is to find balance. To infer which hands to include as bluffs after checking the flop you have to consider all of the value hands you might check back on the flop and then bet the turn with. For instance, on our K 7♣ 2♠ board could you have checked back the flop with a king? Or could you have had air on the flop and then bet the turn when your hand didn’t improve? Or perhaps you have a hand like pocket tens, and are now value betting on the turn.

Every scenario is different. But when bluffing is an option you must pause to do some careful thinking and apply the bet sizing and equity rules we’ve been discussing today.

''The most common mistake I see from players when it comes to bluffing is letting fear keep them from pulling the trigger.'' -Doug Polk in this article: https://bit.ly/bluffin-w-doug Click To Tweet

It’s true, some bluffs go hilariously wrong:

But even when all signs point to bluffing, players don’t bluff enough. They don’t put their opponents in tough situations and thus they leave money on the table.

Don’t be afraid to bluff! When done properly, bluffing is profitable and part of a well-rounded playing style.

Note: Many players make the mistake of playing all flush draws the same way. DON’T be one of those players. Get our free guide 20 Rules for Playing Flush Draws now by entering your name and email below. 

  • Use Our 20 Rules and
    Win More Hands

    You will make more chips by having bluffs and
    value bets in spots your opponents do not expect!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

I have over $5,000,000 in live tournament winnings. In 2014, I won my first World Series of Poker Bracelet, followed up with a 2nd bracelet in 2016.
My online winnings are over $2,000,000 on Full Tilt and PokerStars alone, mostly at Heads Up No Limit, and those graphs are publicly available on HighStakesDB.

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