Strategy Spotlight: Bluffing

Bluffing is as essential to a poker player as barking is to a dog. OK, even if you disagree with that analogy, you have to agree that bluffing is a big part of any poker game. This article will take a look at bluffing in light of David Sklansky’s Fundamental Theorem of Poker, which was discussed in the previous article. First, a quick reminder to the Fundamental Theorem of Poker: "Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents' cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose. Conversely, every time opponents play their hands differently from the way they would have if they could see all your cards, you gain; and every time they play their hands the same way they would have played if they could see all your cards, you lose".

Bluffing is the act of betting when you’re pretty sure you’re not holding the best hand. You do so hoping to make your opponents fold. But when you’re bluffing, aren’t you playing your hand differently than you would have had you been able to see your opponents’ cards? Doesn’t this go against the Fundamental Theorem of Poker? Not necessarily. Bluffing is more about your opponent’s end of the above equation. When you’re bluffing, you may deliberately play differently than you would have if you could see your opponents’ cards. But you are doing this in order to make them play differently than they would have if they could see yours! Whoever deviates further from the ‘norm’, or the correct action to be taken if all cards were visible, stands to loose more. Remember: poker is all about expected value, and you want to make the move which has the highest expected value over time. Throwing off your opponent with a bluff is one way to make him play his cards incorrectly, therefore raising your expected value. If you need further reading on expected value, see last week’s strategy spotlight: Fundamental Theorem of Poker.

Sounds complicated? Let’s take a look at two classic bluffing situations and explain why they work. One classic bluff is to bet from late position after all other players have showed weakness, hoping for everyone to fold. Say you’re in late position and everyone has checked after the flop. The turn comes out and everyone is checking to you again. In most situations a bet here will win the pot regardless of what you’re holding. Even if the other players know you’re abusing your position, they have shown enough weakness to probably fold on any bet. This fact is what gives your bluff a high expected value. There is always the possibility of someone re-raising you with a good hand that he chose to slow-play, but more times than not – raising here is a worthwhile investment.

Here is another good bluffing situation. Say the last card is out, and you are facing one single opponent. You missed your straight draw, but the last card is the third suited card to appear on the board. For example, say you’re holding 4d 5s, and the board shows 3c 6d Jc Ks 8c. If you think your opponent might fold, bluffing and representing the flush could be a good idea. You were probably playing your hand the same way you would have played it had you been drawing for the flush, so you can just pretend you hit your flush instead of your straight. But exactly how good of a bluff is it?

Here is where we can make good use of the fundamental theorem again. It’s all a matter of expected value. Just like using pot odds, you should compare the size of the pot to the chance that your opponent will fold. Suppose there’s $100 in the pot, and you bet $25. You’re getting 4-to-1 odds on your bluff. If you think your opponent will fold more than one time in five, then the long-run expectation for your bluff is in your favor and is therefore a good play to make. In the words of the theorem: every time your opponents play their hands differently from the way they would have if they could see all your cards, you gain!