Ask most poker players to define bluffing and they will tell you it’s about betting a weak hand with the hope of driving other players out of the pot. Without bluffing, poker would be a boring game. Bets would be made, and the best hand would win. Always.
Since the cards figure to break even in the long run, without the possibility that someone is bluffing each player would have the same expectation, and when all was said and done, no one would win any money.
There are winning players and there are players who lose most of the time, and it’s often bluffing –or the possibility that one might be bluffing – that goes a long way towards separating them. Bluffing is, ultimately, a form of deception; and deception is an essential component in winning poker. After all, if your opponents always knew what you had, they’d be tough to beat.
Different Kinds of Bluffs
Betting – or raising – with a helpless hand is not the only way to bluff.
Betting or raising on the inexpensive betting rounds to get a free card later on in the hand – when the cost of bets double – is another form of bluffing.
There’s also the semibluff. A semibluff is a bet with a hand that is not expected to be the best at present, but still has the possibility of outdrawing your opponent’s hands. This presents two ways to win; forcing a fold with the bluff or – if connecting – winning at showdown.
The Importance of Bluffing
There are some players who never bluff. Once you learn who they are, playing against them is easy. If they bet once all the cards are out, you can safely throw your hand away unless you believe that your hand is superior to theirs. If it is, you should raise.
Others are habitual bluffers. When they bet, you have to call as long as you are holding any reasonable hand. Although habitual bluffers will also make real hands every now and then, the fact that they bluff far too often makes your decision easy. By calling, you’ll win far more money in the long run than you would save by folding.
Opponents who bluff some of the time are better poker players than those found at either end of the bluffing spectrum. These players will be able to keep you guessing about whether or not they are bluffing and, when you’re forced to guess, you will be wrong some of the time. That’s just the way it is.
Of course, you might be able to pick up a tell and know when your opponent is bluffing, but that’s unlikely in most cases. The truth is that players who keep you guessing are going to give you much more trouble than predictable opponents.
The Hidden Benefits of Getting Caught
Bluffing won’t succeed all the time. Observant opponents will notice when you are caught bluffing. Once others realize that you do not have a legitimate hand each time you bet, your good hands will attract more calls than they would if you left your opponents with the impression that you never bluffed at all.
That’s one of the benefits of bluffing. Not only will you be able to steal a pot every now and then, but a failed bluff or two will serve as potent advertising. As a result, a player who bluffs every now and then can expect to make more money on his good hands too.
The Threat of Bluffing
The threat of a bluff is just as important as a bluff itself.
A good player bluffs neither too often nor too infrequently, and seems to do so under the right conditions. This creates mystery about their play; Do they have the goods or are they bluffing? How can you tell? If you can’t, how do you know what to do when they bet?
As a result, the threat of a bluff combined with the bluff itself enables you to win a pot you would expect to lose at showdown, while the threat of a bluff helps you win more money with a good hand than you would have if your opponent thinks you never bluff.
A Balanced Approach to Bluffing
A successful poker player adopts a middle ground strategy. This means that sometimes you’ll be called when you bluffed and lose that bet. Other times you will release the best hand because an opponent successfully bluffed you out of the pot.
Neither is enjoyable. Just remember that making errors is inevitable when you deal with incomplete information. One can call too often or not enough. One can bluff too often or not at all. The only way to eliminate errors at one extreme is to commit them at the other.
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