The art of bluffing and raising in poker

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This column is dedicated to my poker buddy, Al. He is a fine young man (in his 90’s) and deserves to be a winner at the poker tables.

At his request, seated behind him, I observed him playing low-limit hold’em. Later, I told Al he did well at starting-hand selection. He hardly ever raised and never bluffed – important for winning.

Subsequently, he complained to me that he rarely enjoys a winning session. I reminded him it is essential to be selectively aggressive – 

raise when it is to your advantage; and to bluff on occasion. Al replied: “But, I never get hands I can raise or bluff with!”

How can we best respond to that statement? Certainly, your cards are an essential factor in deciding to raise or trying to bluff out an opponent. But, there are other factors also to be considered.

There are many good reasons for raising. For example, you might raise to thin the field so your made hand (A-A, K-K, Q-Q) has a much better chance of emerging victorious. (Note: With four or more opponents seeing the flop, your A-A becomes an underdog; and loses more often than not.).

Likewise, with a vulnerable hand – such as middle/low two-pair – raising can protect your hand by forcing out opponents that could catch a card to make your hand second-best. (We all hate to be rivered!)

When you catch a monster on the flop or turn, raising can build the pot size. Then you win more money. Bluffing is a way to use the raise to force out the “enemy” so you win the pot by default. A semi-bluff on the turn, gives you two ways to win that pot:

1: All your remaining opponents fold to your raise.

2: You catch one of your outs on the river to gain the best hand. Do that when you have lots of good outs, such as four-to-the-nut-flush.

If everyone folds to you preflop, your cards hardly matter when you seize the opportunity to steal the blinds from a late position, or steal the pot on the flop. The same applies to re-raising on a squeeze play.

Suppose you catch four-to-a-high-flush on the flop. You have 9 outs that translate to less than 2-to-1 card odds against making your flush on the turn or the river. You are in a late position; three opponents call an early-position bet. Then you raise; having already invested one bet, all four of them are bound to call for one more bet.

Your “money odds” are 4-to-1 – substantially higher than the card odds against you, giving you a Positive Expectation for that raise – bound to win in the long run.

Sometimes, it is wise to raise for information. How does my hand stack up against the opponents still in the pot? That lets you make better decisions. You can raise from a middle position to improve your betting – perhaps gain the virtual button. That would give you a significant edge over your opponents who must bet before you.

Often, there will be a maniac at your table. Seated to his left and holding a hand that satisfies the Hold’em Algorithn criteria, you re-raise after he makes his usual preflop raise. Faced with a three-bet, the players behind you often fold, so you isolate the maniac. Chances are your hand is a big favorite over his.

You might raise to get a free card on the next round of betting when the bets are larger. Your opponents respect your raise; so they all check to you. If your hand did not improve, you have the option to just check along for a free look at the next card. On the other hand, if you make a monster hand, consider check-raising to build an even bigger pot.

It’s also important when making your decisions to consider your opponents’ playing traits: tight, loose, passive, aggressive, timid, a calling-station, etc. And, always look for tells.

“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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