Category: 
Poker

What is Bluffing?

Bluffing refers to the wiles and stratagems a player may employ to accomplish the first half of Sklansky's Fundamental Theorem of Poker - inducing someone to act (bet) in a way that they would not, if they could see your cards.

Sometimes it is important not to bluff, but be thought to bluff. That's as critical as being able to bluff and be thought to tell the truth. If bluffing were a requirement, then everyone would know never to trust anyone else. The whole point is to create uncertainty or ambiguity. For that reason, when context requires, this text refers to the bluffing tactic as "bluffing (or not)."

Sometimes, a betting decision may be called a "semi-bluff" because it communicates a certain strength that is not there in the hand, but might reasonably show up in a later card or draw.

At the same time, the second half of Sklansky's Fundamental Theorem merits attention: Try not to be misled by what others say or do. If someone makes you behave differently from what would happen if you could see that player's cards, then you have lost ground in the quest, and perhaps the pot as well.

Finally, before addressing bluffs specifically, one important "behavioral" point should be cleared up: On the Mississippi river boats in the early 19th century, poker had not yet come to be called "poker." It was just called "the cheating game". To be sure, there was a good bit of genuine cheating going on. But it is more probable that this name refers to misleading opponents about cards. The term "cheat" was not used then exactly as it is today, but rather had the implication of "confiscate" or "deprive."

So "cheating" probably just referred to winning pots through a betting system that involved bluffing. The importance is that bluffing (or not) is not a sign of bad character. It is not a violation of the ninth commandment (or eighth, depending on how you count them). This is not "cheating" in the sense of cheating in a relationship, a usage that did not come along until the 1930's. No, it's just part of the game.

If you are uncomfortable about purposefully misleading the opponents, you should probably aspire to be good at a different game, like Monopoly, because this one aspect, more than anything else, is what gives poker its central appeal.

So now that it has been established that bluffing (or not) is the central part of the game and not evidence of bad morals, it is time to look closely at what it is all about.

Bluffing Basics

How does a poker player communicate to the others at the table? There is only one way in stud and community card games, and that is by what is said or done at a betting opportunity. In draw poker there is an additional means of communication: the choice of how many cards to draw.

If this is the universe of (correct) ways of communicating, obviously the only way to mislead other players is by mischaracterizing your hand in some form of a bet or draw. Done with enough frequency (and discovered as such by the others), this permits you to bet "truthfully" on occasion, especially when the hand is strong, and not scare away the others. They may think it's another bluff. Recall that there are two extremes of speed or aggressiveness of play: slow and fast. Slow-playing a pat hand or a strong hand is a form of bluffing. It is designed to bring more players into the action before the sincere betting begins in earnest. Fast-playing a draw hand or other weak hand is also a form of bluffing, as it is designed to scare away action from the table.

Recall also that there are two terms for the extremes of risk preferences of a poker player: "loose" or "tight." A "loose" player is more aggressive on weaker hands and will play hands that a conservative player would fold. A "tight" player is aggressive only on pat hands and throws away marginal hands. If the other players can diagnose this attitude towards risk, they will not be as susceptible to being misled. A loose player, even though he or she may be sincere, will be either bluffing or excessively optimistic a good bit of the time. A tight player, even though he or she may be equally sincere, will not be bluffing, or even too pessimistic about his or her own cards, a good bit of the time.

So bluffing is really not something that a poker player "does" on purpose, as much as it is the natural consequence of poker play. Loose players may try to mislead the other players more often than they purposefully intend to (because of their unjustified optimism), and tight players probably are less misleading than they probably think of themselves as being.

Some examples help to illustrate the point. If the betting communication options are "fold," "bet," "check," "call," or "raise," then the system seems fairly simple. There are only five possible alternatives. In truth, there are only four at any one time, as some options (like "check" and "call") can not arise in the same betting situation. (This discussion assumes "limit" games, so that the amount to bet is not a complicating variable.)

The first part of the Fundamental Theorem deals with misleading others. As a technical matter, if they call when they should have raised, that is a point for the home team, even if ultimately the hand is lost. Why? Because less money is lost. Money-not-lost counts the same, dollar for dollar, as money won. So when someone does something differently from what he or she would have done had your cards been visible, that is a win.

How does somebody play so that an opponent with a stronger hand calls instead of raises? Communicate (by betting or raising) a stronger hand than is really the case. The cards need to cooperate with the player, however. It is only possible to do this if there is a certain ambiguity in the cards to start with. If the game involves board cards, for instance, it is foolish to try to mislead the others if your board cards are just plain inconsistent with what you are trying to convey. Here is an example:

In seven-card stud you have pretty much nothing in the hole, and an ace and some middle card on Fourth Street. You opponent, one-on-one, has a high card showing, but lower than yours, and a middling card.

You bet. The opponent calls. The call would not be a smart move unless, in this example, one of the hole cards matched his (or her) queen.

So he has the better hand. Now on Fifth Street, suppose your middling card is matched for a pair. You still do not have the better hand, but it is better than it was for sure.

If you check, your opponent will know there's no ace in the hole. But if you bet, you are communicating two pair, one of them aces. If your opponent believes you, he will fold, even with two pair. Making him fold when he would have called or raised (had he seen your hole cards) is an example of a bluff. It illustrates the first part of the Fundamental Theorem.

Suppose that your opponent is not prepared to believe you totally when you bet a middling pair with an ace showing. He might "call." Even though the game continues, and he has the better hand, it is still a "win" for you. You got to hold out for one more card for the price of a bet. The opponent's correct decision would have been to raise you to the point that it would not have made any sense to stay in the game.

Another example can come from five-card draw. This illustrates that a good player can sometimes hope the opponent will just make a mistake, though not necessarily misled by anything the player says or does. Suppose you were dealt a reasonably high pair and the opponent has a four-flush. You bet. Now the odds of drawing a flush with four cards of the same suit already in the hand are 19% or so. Assume the pot odds are 5:1 or better, so the correct decision of the opponent would be to call and draw.

You want the opponent to make the wrong decision. You want him to fold. This may not be obvious, as you have his existing hand beaten anyway, but there is a finite chance that the opponent's draw will cause a winning improvement.

Where is the bluff in this example? There really is none. Your bet communicated that you had a strong enough hand to bet, which could have been a bluff, but it wasn't. Your opponent needs to believe that you have at least a pair and maybe a chance for much more. As it happens, you want your opponent to believe you and conclude that you may have much more than a pair. There is no opposite tactic to a bluff, which would say something like "This time, I really mean it!" Since making the bet is all you can do, the rest of the scenario must come from your history (playing loose or tight?) and from body language associated with the bet (are you being fast or aggressive in how the bet was made?).

A third example comes from Texas Hold'em. Your hole cards are spades, say the ace and queen. The flop comes with two more spades and a middling off-suit card. Then, on fourth street, the king of clubs appears.

Poker Bluffing

You want to hang in there for the last card, hoping for a fifth spade, but you don't want to have to pay dearly for it. How do you accomplish that? One way is to check, hoping everyone else will also check, and then the river card will be free. That is not likely to happen. A "check" will be saying, "I have a draw hand," and with two spades on the board, everyone will immediately assume you are holding out for a flush. A bet, on the other hand, might lead everyone to think that you have a king in the hole to match the king on the board. With everything else on the board being nondescript, the other players may just call the bet, including someone who does have a king in the hole! That would be a victory, and a good bluff. If the player with the pair of kings knew you were holding out for a flush, he or she should not have merely called your bet, but raised it, to the point where perhaps it would be too expensive to play the hand.

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