Learning How to Bluff

For poker players, the big bluff is the closest equivalent to the slam dunk for a basketball player or the bleachers-clearing grand slam for the baseball player.  Nothing feels quite as good as pulling off a monster bluff and winning chips that - at least based on the strength of your hand - you should have had no chance of ever seeing in your stack.

The other side of that coin, of course, is the bluff gone bad.  A failed bluff can be one of the absolute worst feelings in all of poker and leads some players to tilt harder and faster than even the worst of bad beats.  The trick, then, is to feel far more of the first thing and far less of the second on average, a goal we'll help you to achieve with this article that breaks down the math and mechanics behind everyone's favorite play in poker: The bluff.

The Math of a Good Bluff  

Sure, there will be a few times when you feel 100% certain that you can get an opponent to fold with a bluff - and you might even be right (at least some of those times).  The majority of your bluffing situations, however, will involve a bit more ambiguity.  That's where the basic math of bluffing comes into play.  When you're trying to decide whether or not a bluff will be profitable in a certain situation, you need to apply the following formula:

(Chips won when bluff works * Percentage of time bluff works) - (Chips risked to bluff * Percentage of time bluff fails)

Or, in slightly more compact terms: (Win * Win %) - (Loss * Loss%).  If you end up with a positive number, then you have a profitable situation for bluffing - it's that simple.

Let's review a hypothetical hand to put this math in action.  You are on the river against an opponent who has called your bets preflop, on the flop and on the turn.  There are now 1000 chips in the pot.  You decide to try one more bet and fire out 700 chips.  If you think your opponent will fold half of the time, is this a profitable bluff?

When you win with your bluff, you win 1000 chips.  When you lose, you lose 700 chips.  Without even doing any math you should be able to identify this as a profitable situation.  As an easy rule of thumb, remember that (roughly speaking) bluffing the size of the pot means your bluff has to work half the time to break even.  As you bet less than the pot, that number decreases, and as you bet over the pot, that number increases.

Identifying Good Situations to Bluff

The main thing to keep in mind about bluffing is that it should always be a dynamically informed choice.  You should never decide before a hand (or even early on in a hand) that you're going to bluff a player and then blindly stick to that plan come what may.  When you play that way, you're letting your ego or your tilt make your decisions instead of your logic and intuition.  A good bluff is like any other decision you make at the poker table - it should be informed by the best and most recent information you have about what's going on in the hand.

Here are some characteristics of a situation that might be more fertile ground for a bluff than average:

  1. Your Opponents Have Good Reason to Give You Credit for a Hand:  Whether it's because you've been card dead or just checked out for a bit, or because you've been on a heater and showing down monsters all session, any time the table (or your specific opponent in the hand) has made it clear that they are willing to believe you when you show strength is a good time to start plotting a bluff.
  2. Your Opponent's Range is Dominated by Weak Hands:  We talk a good bit about putting players on a hand range in another article; once you get good at the skill you'll find all sorts of spots where it becomes clear that your opponent simply has to have more weak hands in their range than strong ones (a player who defends very widely from the blinds, for instance).  These spots are great for bluffing because your opponent is going to have way too many hands that just don't connect with the board, giving you a big cushion that makes it easier to show a profit bluffing.
  3. You Hold Blockers: Holding the ace of a suit in your hand when a flush of that suit is possible, or holding cards that make it less likely for your opponents to have made strong hands like sets or straights can tip a marginal bluffing situation into a profitable one.  While blockers are obviously far more powerful in games like Pot Limit Omaha than they are in Hold'em, they can still help you make a better decision about the right times to attempt an audacious bluff.

These are just a few examples of situations conducive to bluffing; as you play more and observe more, you'll certainly add many more to the list.  The point is to have a list in the first place, and to consult it before you decide that bluffing is your best play.

Bluffing may be the ultimate move in poker, but bluffing too much in the wrong situations could also be the ultimate end of your bankroll.  While it's tempting to shoot for the highlight reel with bold plays, and certainly satisfying when they work out in your favor, it's even more satisfying to know that by following a few simple guidelines and internalizing a small formula for successful bluffing, you can immediately - and significantly - improve the profitability of your play at the poker tables.