You can succeed at bluffing in most poker games

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Writing in Poker Player Newspaper (March 24, 2014), Mike Caro questioned the wisdom of bluffing. Mike is a brilliant poker guru, but no one is always right.

Caro claims bluffs lose money. Besides, he questions, “How do you know that bluff succeeded?” It’s hard to argue against Mike, but I will.

Let’s start by offering a rational analysis directed to his question, “How do you know that bluff succeeded?”

Suppose your opponent folded every time you bluffed – 100 percent of the time! Would you still insist you lost money by bluffing? If your bluffs succeeded only 25 percent of the time, then I could agree with Mike; i.e., you probably lost money by bluffing. So, what percentage of your bluffs must succeed to put you ahead? How about 50 percent or 70 percent of your bluffs?

Speaking for myself, using the Esther Bluff tactic in $4-$8 limit games (that’s low-limit), 75 percent of my bluffs are successful: My opponent(s) fold and I take the pot. I estimate break-even for bluffing is when your opponents fold 30 percent of the time.

That’s because usually you risk one or two big bets versus “earning” the whole pot, including all the bets before your semi-bluff on the turn and/or river bluff. Even if I was off on my estimate, 75 percent provides me with lots of margin.

While Mike forecasts doom for bluffers, there are poker “experts” who claim you cannot bluff in low-limit games. Perhaps that’s because they only think they know how to bluff effectively. In any case, my bluffing results appear to disprove that assumption also.

Mike asks: “Isn’t it likely that my target would have lost to me even if I had not bluffed?” Good question. If you don’t get to see his hole cards before they are mucked, how do you know he would have beaten you had he called your bluff?

I can only respond by telling you sometimes my opponents have shown their hands – a small pair or Ace-high – as they folded. Those hands would have beaten my failed King-high flush draw. The only way I could take that pot was by bluffing! (Never show your hand unless you are called!)

Special bluffing skills: Making a big bet helps; so does the Esther Bluff. Look for tells. It is important to carefully select your bluff targets before you leap! Tight and timid players are your best candidates for bluffing – unless he holds a very strong hand. How has he been betting this hand? Beware of lots of honor cards on the board.

It is almost impossible to bluff out a calling-station; once he pays to see the flop, he is prone to call all the way to the river. By then the pot is big enough to warrant his calling to see the showdown. And, of course, you cannot bluff out a player who has already bet all his chips – all in!

Eventually, no matter how skilled you are, your bluff is bound to be called. Sometimes an opponent actually has a strong hand. Once you are caught bluffing, then it is more difficult to pull off further bluffs – at least for a while.

That’s OK; then you are more likely to be called when you flop a monster hand; so you win more chips than you would have otherwise. After a while, you can resume your bluffing when it is appropriate.

Speaking of which, another example of when not to bluff is when a tight player has previously raised the pot. Expect him to have a strong hand, and not likely to succumb to your bluff on a later street. A “maniac,” who enjoys raising and re-raising, often is an unlikely bluff victim – unless he has previously shown he will fold when bet into or raised.

Bluffing too often also is a big mistake. The more you bluff, the more suspicious your opponents become. Then, they are more likely to call your bluff. As a general rule, on average, plan to bluff – if the situation warrants – no more than twice an hour. Lots of luck.

“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].

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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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