Bluffing is the most fun part of poker for some people. For others, it’s the most terrifying part.
On the river, when the pot is at its biggest, it can be especially hard to pull the trigger. But you can’t let the fear of getting called deter you from bluffing the river altogether. In order to make as much money as possible, you need to have bluffs in your range on every street.
In this article, I will share 3 tips that will improve your skill set when it comes to bluffing the river. I will address this issue from both a mental game and strategic perspective.
This article is marked as advanced. If you’d prefer easier reading, check out our introductory articles here.
Let’s start by answering the following question: Why is bluffing the river so scary for most people?
I believe that the river is the scariest street to bluff because there is no safety net. If you get caught, there are no more cards to come. You’ve ran out of chances to improve your hand.
I think that it’s this aspect, combined with the fact that most people are afraid of feeling exposed and of failing in general, that makes river bluffing so daunting.
As human beings, this fear is embedded in us. Our species, as a whole, is risk-averse. It served us well for a long time in our history. If our ancestors had taken great risks too often, they would’ve had a very high chance of dying. It’s our innate self-preservation instinct that steers us away from making big bluffs.
But it’s 2021. You will not die if your bluff fails. You will just feel bad, until you won’t.
So don’t be afraid. Internalize the 3 river bluffing tips that follow and prepare yourself to pull the trigger in your next game.
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Now, let’s talk about some technical aspects of bluffing. This is where I will share with you 3 tips that will help you bluff better on the river.
Tip #1: Follow the Minimum Defense Frequency (MDF) concept
Minimum defense frequency is the fundamental concept on which bluffing, and notably river bluffing is based on. MDF is based in basic mathematics and it’s actually a simple equation that looks like this:
Risk / (Reward + Risk)
Now, if the solution to this equation is lower than the actual frequency that your bluff will work then you’ve made a profit. This is what we poker players call a +EV (expected value) bluff.
Let’s take an example:
Let’s say the pot is 50 big blinds and we bet 66% of the pot and we expect the bluff to work 45% of the time. Using our formula from earlier, the math works out like this:
33bb / (50bb + 33bb) = 0.397
We multiply that number by 100 in order to convert it to a frequency: 39.7%.
That’s the minimum defense frequency that our opponent must reach in order to deny us from generating profit with our bluffs. We know that our opponent is folding 45% of the time. Not to get too technical, but that’s an immensely profitable bluff!
Tip #2: Be mindful of blockers
Every other damn article you hear about these blockers. You know why? Because they matter!
Yes, you may check your HUD or database and see that, on average, a spot is over-folded by a few percentages. Does that mean that all non-made hands should be bluffed? Nope.
The cards you hold can have a significant impact on the actual folding frequency of your opponent. Having good blockers can mean your opponent will fold a couple percentage points (or more) more often, while having bad blockers can mean your opponent will call a bit more often.
Let’s take an example:
Middle Position opens to 2.5 big blinds, and you call in the Big Blind. The flop comes K♦ 7♠ 4♥. It goes check-check. The turn comes Q♣. It goes check-check again. The river comes the 2♠ making the board K♦ 7♠ 4♥ Q♣ 2♠.
This is the solver’s solution in Big Blind’s shoes:
The solver says that against a 66% pot bet, the player in Middle Position will fold on average 43.87%. If you remember from our previous tip, that means that it’s a profitable bluff on average.
If we look at the solver output, however, we see that a ton of hands without any showdown value (such as T9-suited, T8-suited, 98-suited, etc.) are checking 100% of the time despite losing 100% of the time. But why?
They represent the largest part of Middle Position’s folding range. Thus, blocking those hands will make your bluff less successful.
(Note: I confirmed this by using the “Frequencies vs one combo” option in Piosolver, which shows that the opponent’s folding frequency against T9/T8/98 drops to almost exactly the MDF threshold.)
Tip #3: You are playing against a human, not a solver
We have to round up these tips with some exploitative considerations.
River equilibrium strategies are extremely fragile, meaning the solver will make extreme adjustments based on slight changes to the inputs or situation. For example, having 2 bluff combos too many will shift the whole bluff-catching strategy to become a calling frenzy. On the other hand, 2 bluff combos too few will make the solver go into a folding frenzy.
The best players in the world are able to predict, more accurately than the rest, how their opponent will approach a given situation. This allows them extract more chips out of the pots that they play.
We have a ton of great content to help you learn about exploitative adjustments. If you want to maximize your profit, read one (or all) of these:
- How to Destroy Your Opponent After Seeing One Showdown
- 5 Strategic Mistakes Poker Players Make (And How to Exploit Them)
- How to Exploit 3 Different Types of Poker Players
- 10 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Exploiting an Opponent
- [Quiz] Can You Exploit This Hypothetical Poker Table?
I want to end this article with an unintuitive suggestion: always have some bluffs in your range, even if you think your opponent will over-call. I know it’s hard for timid bluffers to hear this, but you don’t want to end up being seen as the table nit. You have to give action to get action!
That’s all for this article! I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
What’s the Biggest River Bluff You’ve Ever Attempted?
Let me know in the comments below.
Til’ next time, good luck, grinders!
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