To Bluff or Not to Bluff
Monday, 28. December 2009

One of the most important weapons in a no limit hold'em player's arsenal is his ability to bluff. Online or offline, knowing when and how to bluff is sure to keep you ahead of your opponents in the short run and in the long run.

There are essentially two types of bluffs — a pure bluff and a semi-bluff. The difference between the two is nothing more than a question of what cards you are holding. A pure bluff is a bluff done when you have essentially no hand, and no chance to win the pot unless your opponent folds. A semi-bluff on the other hand, is made in a few situations. The first situation in which a bluff is considered a "semi-bluff" is a drawing situation. You may be holding four to a flush or four to a straight on the flop or after the turn and you decide to take the lead in the betting, raising your opponents. This is a semi-bluff because although you have no hand yet, there is a reasonable chance that you will make a strong hand when all five community cards are showing. The second situation in which a bluff is considered a "semi-bluff" is when you are holding a mediocre hand... mid pair for example. You are very unlikely to win the hand if you check or call, so you make a large bet in order to attempt to drive your opponents out of the table.

The difference between most good no limit hold'em players and most weak players lies in their ability to bluff. Intelligent, well rounded players are able to spot a good bluffing opportunity when it arises, while also knowing when bluffing is the last thing they should do.

Scare cards, I believe, are one of the most important concepts in the realm of pure bluffing, especially in online no limit hold'em. By a "scare card," I mean a card that falls on board that makes a flush possible, or a straight possible, or perhaps even a higher pair possible. For example... let's say the flop comes (Qs-4s-Td). You are holding KT, a pair of tens. You open with a small bet and your opponent raises. Well you are out of position but you have a hand and an overcard, so you simply call his raise (Simply calling the raise may offput your opponent) Let's say for example that the turn comes Jc. This card makes a straight possible, but it is not terribly obvious. You check into the aggressor, who leads with another bet. You smooth call, because not only do you have a pair, but you have an 8 out straight draw as well. In this situation, the river is likely to be a scare card for your opponent. Judging by the aggressor's actions, he is betting on a high pair. not on a straight or flush draw. And in his mind, he is thinking that you are calling on a draw, not with a made, albeit weak, hand. With two spades out on board, and 3 to a straight, your opponent may fear the river, even with a hand as strong as top two pairs. The river can come up a variety of cards, and still give you ample reason to take a stab at the pot. For example... if a spade falls, it will be worth your while to lay down a relatively large bet, and bluff the flush, in an attempt to make your opponent lay down his hand. If he was perceptive enough to your betting patterns, he may very well have put you on calling out a flush draw. As an active player and an effective bluffer, you should always keep an eye out for these kinds of opportunities when you are involved in a hand with few opponents. Often times they will be very reluctant to call a large bet without a straight, flush, or full house (if a pair is on board) when scare cards show up.

Position bluffs are also typically effective forms of pure-bluffs, but you must be extremely careful not to over-use this type of bluff, as most players will pick up on it quickly and call you down with mediocre hands in the future. By a position bluff, I am referring to a bet with no hand or draw in order to take down a pot, when you are last to act and all players have checked to you. Usually a moderate sized bet will take down the pot, however, you must be careful to observe which kinds of players are involved in the hand in front of you. Specifically, are these opponents likely to check-raise? The less often you see your opponents check-raise, the more often you can feel confident in bluffing at the pot in last position when everyone involved has checked to you.

Small pots are typically your safest bet when it comes to bluffing. Most players will feel committed to a larger pot, and will call a moderate sized bet with a hand of medium strength if there are sufficient pot odds to do so. This is why you should avoid making pure-bluffs at large pots. Bet when you are involved in a hand and it appears that the flop is no help to anybody. If there are two or three limpers in the hand and the flop comes all rags (meaningless low cards) of different suits, there is a very good chance that a moderately sized bet will take down the pot. In fact, there is an extremely good chance that your bluff will be effective. The key to hold'em is winning a large amount of small pots, and remaining the aggressor. If you win 75% of the small pots you bluff at, you will still come out ahead if you are called down or re-raised the other 25% of the time and are forced to muck.

Another ample opportunity for bluffing arises when the flop comes with a pair on board and there are few opponents in the hand. The fact is, more often than not, the first player to bet at a paired flop willl take down the pot. Obviously this is another tactic you have to avoid over-using, since perceptive opponents will learn to call you down or re-raise, but you should always keep in mind that with such a flop, your opponents are more likely to fold to the first reasonably sized bet, if they have not made at least two pairs. The reason? Well, with a pair on board, that means there is a very limited chance that your opponent has a "made" hand. In reality, there would only be 5 cards in the deck he could be holding (save for a pocket pair) that would give him a made hand. Additionally, with the presence of a pair on the flop (2 of the 3 cards are of the same rank) your opponent is less likely to be holding any kind of draw, and if he is holding a draw, it is not as valuable as it would be due to the possibility of a full house.

Semi-bluffing is the act of betting aggressively with a drawing hand. This can be a very effective part of your game, and for many players it is a regular component of their betting patterns. This is often effective for a variety of reasons. First, you are bluffing with an escape hatch. You may have four to a straight or four to a flush, but you have a decent amount of outs (cards) that will give you a very strong hand. Now in analyzing the results of a semi-bluff, essentially three things can happen. You can bet aggressively with your draw and everyone will fold with weak/medium-strength hands. This is obviously one of your desired outcomes, since you win the pot. On the other hand, you can bet aggressively, and people will call you down with reasonably strong hands, such as top pair, ace kicker, and you will miss your draw and have absolutely nothing. Not so good. However, based on your evaluation of your opponents' strengths and which types of players they are, you can take a stab at the pot on the river with nothing in a pure-bluff attempt. Many times this is also effective. You may even bet your draw aggressively and then catch one of your outs on the turn or river, making you a very strong hand, in which you are very likely to win the pot. Obviously this is another great outcome, and thanks to your aggressive play, the pot you will win is pretty hefty.

As you can see, semi-bluffing can be very profitable, but it goes without saying that it can dig you a hole, perhaps more so than pure bluffing. Regardless, it is a valuable tool that you should work to improve and include in your no limit hold'em arsenal. One important side-note to keep your semi-bluffing to a reasonable and profitable level: do not over-do it. Essentially, do not continue to bet aggressively into calling opponents unless you have "outs" that will make you a strong hand. Keep that simple rule in mind, and you should find semi-bluffing a valuable tactic in no limit hold'em.

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