The concept of bluff is often misunderstood by the casual observer or low limit poker player. For these people a bluff is a last resort to win the pot or a mandatory bet to conceal weakness when a draw comes up empty.
The true professional never bluffs by those definitions because neither offers enough justification and consideration of the chances of success. Professionals make informed decisions while beginners invent justifications to salvage their own ego or defend pot losers. To illustrate my point, examine the thought process behind the amateur compared to the professional in an example.
The amateur has a straight and flush draw in seven card stud that misses but pairs his high card. Up until this point, he has just called. He is facing a higher pair that checks to him. He bets because it is the only way he can win the pot. The only chance that he has of winning the pot is if he has a very tight image and the pot is so small relative to the bet that it is not worth the opponent’s call.
With any pot at all, the other player is almost forced to call for value. The professional would have played the hand differently. If his opponent is smart enough, he will raise, check raise, or bet out on the threat of straight or flush by the third up card. If the next card reinforces that threat in any way, he will play as if the hand was already made. Unless his opponent has three-of-a-kind or aces up, he will probably drop before the last card.
Aces up is mentioned because it is possible that the player had aces concealed and the professional either saw an ace up or had two aces counted elsewhere. High card outs are almost always part of the thought process and professionals will not get involved early if they do not have a high card advantage.
One of the strengths of the professional is that he plays draws that have high cards to hit that are better than his opponents. Included in his calculations, the professional has selected this play to make against a particular player because that player will lay down his hand. He gains that knowledge from observation, understanding of the player’s motives and goals, and consideration of his own image being consistent with the play.
If a professional’s opponent is not very bright, he will call to minimize his losses to raise when he has the best of the remaining cards relative to the bet and pot. The draw must make sense from the odds of success compared to the size of the pot.
Most professionals are not willing to play head’s up in a situation that returns less than even odds, especially if there was no way to win the pot with a take-out bet. If the last card is a bust, the chances of a fold by his opponent are so slim that the best play is to save a bet and not show down the hand.
The laydown supports the strong image of a professional. The only time a bet with a missed draw would make sense against a loose opponent is when his pair is larger than the opponent’s pair or when he has two pair against a pair and a check.
In summary, a professional always weighs all of his possibilities before entering a hand. Does he have the best hand, the best draw? If he is on a draw, how many cards necessary to that draw are gone? How many people can he face and still maintain this edge? Can he reduce the number of opponents? How many bets will it cost to stay? Can he see cards for little money if he can’t eliminate players? What are the likely hands held by this opponent? Are any of his opponents on short money or in danger of going all in? If he has to go to the river, whom does he want to face? What are the odds of having the best hand, taking the pot without the best hand, concealing starting cards to try the same play later?
And, these are just general guidelines. The more information that goes into the decision, the better the average result is likely to be. So when a professional makes a move on the end, it may look like the same as the beginner’s play to the uninformed observed but it is not. The observer must possess the ability to make the play before he can appreciate the complexity.