How to bluff correctly in poker

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Bluffing is an essential strategy in every game of poker. As a rule, if you never bluff, you are bound to be a loser. Your opponents soon learn you are a tight player – a “rock” – so they fold whenever you raise, knowing you never bluff.

Generally speaking, if your goal is to go home a winner, it is important to be skilled in the art of bluffing. How often do your bluffs need to succeed to be ahead?

Don’t expect your bluff to work every time. There will be times when an opponent holds a strong hand; so he calls your bluff – perhaps with some hesitation. Then, too, there may be one or more “calling-stations” at your table. Once they have invested in a hand, they are determined to call no matter what.

Bluffing break-even

The break-even is a measure of the percent of bluffs that must succeed in order for the bluffer to come out even. Win more than that of your bluffs, and you are a winner. Win fewer, and you are a loser. The lower the break-even, the better your chance of being a big winner.

Conservatively, we estimate that break-even for bluffing in limit hold’em is approximately 40 percent. It could be much lower. On average, if your bluffs succeed more than 40, you are ahead.

It is harder to bluff in low-limit games where the size of the bets is constrained and limited. You don’t have the great power of a big bet to discourage your opponents from calling, as is the case in no-limit games. But, even in a low-limit game, a “smart” bluffer – who uses the Esther Bluff tactic – can win over 70 percent of the time, considerably more than our estimated break-even.

The break-even for bluffing is an educated guess. For no-limit games, it is practically impossible to even roughly estimate the break-even because of the implied pot odds, especially the unknown size of the bets on the turn and river, which often are extremely high.

For limit games, first, we estimated a break-even of approximately 30 percent on the basis that, on average, you “fire a barrel” to bluff (semi-bluff) on the turn, and, if necessary, a “second barrel” on the river. Assume four opponents and you call preflop and then again on the flop, with no raises. Then, one calls your semi-bluff on the turn, and folds when you bluff-bet on the river. Subtracting the casino rake, you have gained a total of approximately 4.5 big bets.

In the same scenario, if one opponent calls on the turn, and then you bluff again on the river, but lose to the caller, you will have invested – and lost – two big bluff-bets. Thus, when your bluff succeeds, you gain 4.5 big bets vs. a loss of two big bets when called. You must win approximately 30 percent (2 divided by 6.5 times 100) of your bluffs for break-even.

Note

If there is a raise before the flop, and the same players stay to see the flop, the break-even is somewhat lower (2 divided by 7.5 times 100).

Then, from your winnings, we subtracted 10 percent (also an estimate) to account for opponents with weaker hands than yours. You would have won in a showdown, so those bluffs should not be counted. On this basis, a 40 percent break-even would seem to be a good estimate and fairly conservative. In practice, break-even is probably much lower.

Advice

Once you have been caught in a bluff, it is wise to hold off on bluffing for a while – perhaps 20 to 30 minutes. Recalling your bluff on the earlier hand, your opponents are more likely to be suspicious and decide to call your bluff-bet.

On the other hand, while playing tight at that point, they are more likely to call you when you raise with a monster hand – so you win bigger pots than otherwise.

“The Engineer,” a noted author and teacher in Greater Los Angeles, is a member of the Seniors Poker Hall of Fame. Contact George at [email protected].

About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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