How to play

Poker Bluffs: learn when and how to bluff

Should you bluff in poker or not? Here, we talk a bit more about this classic poker tactic, including:

Poker bluffs and semi-bluffs

Bluffing is perhaps the most famous and most misunderstood aspect of poker. For a start, until the river it’s not really a pure poker bluff as your hand could theoretically improve (so, technically, you’re on a semi-bluff).

Bluffing pre-flop is mostly about stealing blinds (and re-stealing against other players who’ve already raised). But even this isn’t really a semi-bluff when so much of a hand’s value comes with the flop.

Continuation betting

Most people know that continuation betting (following a pre-flop raise with a bet no matter what) is a good move 80-90% of the time. This kind of bluff is pretty textbook – unless there’s a draw-heavy flop (like 10-J-Q suited) and you miss, in which case you might want to think again.

The turn is where most people tend to wobble. So if you play aggressively with big hands, draws and a few bluffs, you’ll give your opponents a hard time. Check-raise is a good move here, and often underused – but you’ll need to set your image up with a few good hands, or other players will catch on fast.

Likewise, don’t try to check the turn and bluff the river. The range of hands you could pull this off with is, in reality, so small that you won’t be fooling anybody.

Bluff to value bet ratios

By the river, you’re down to two options: value bet, or bluff. If you played the turn well, you could have a variety of hands at this point. So if your hand isn’t strong enough in its own right, you need to work out if you’re in a position to bluff.

A good ratio to bear in mind is for every two times you value bet you should bluff once. But remember this is an art, not a science, and it depends on the situation – and your opponent’s style of play.

Reading the situation

Here are some key questions you should ask yourself before bluffing.

  • What does my opponent have? What do they think I have?
    Bluffing – and poker - is all about reading your opponent's hand and disguising your own.
  • What type of game is it? How many players?
    Your bluff is more likely to work when there are big bets at stake (like in no-limit games) and fewer players to face you down.
  • What’s my position?
    The later the position, the more bluffing becomes an option. Out of position, it’s easier to end up in trouble.
  • What's my table image?
    Tight-cautious players can get away with (and tend to be the target of) bluffs more than if you’re fast and loose – or have been caught bluffing.
  • What hand am I representing? Can I carry it off?
    Against someone good, you need to represent a specific hand and play it convincingly, down to your last chip if you have to.
  • Am I getting in too deep? Is it a trap?
    Before trying to trick someone else, make sure they’re not doing the same to you. Especially if you can’t afford to find out.
  • Am I making the right size bet?
    Bet too little and you’ll get called – so get your image right, know what hand you’re representing, and act confidently.
  • What are the stack sizes?
    Big stacks can bluff and call bluffs easily. Short stacks will if they’re desperate.
  • What's the board like?
    Lots of draws or small cards are not going to help your bluff. But a scare card (the ace your opponent doesn’t like), could be your ticket.

Want to get some practice? Try some of our 1 on 1 tournaments. Once you get the hang of bluffing in poker, raising and calling on two cards, you’ll realise how much fun playing on instinct can be.

Know your opponent

Meet some common player types who may – or may not – be ripe for a bluff.

  • Mr or Ms Clueless. As the saying goes, "If they don't know what they're doing, how can you?" These guys are way too unpredictable to risk chips on. Leave well alone.
  • The bully. An extreme version of the loose-aggressive player, this type will pick on weaker players, either as a tactic, or because they have more ego than brains. Decide which and act accordingly.
  • The A-Z game player. This is a usually-great player who not only has a B game, but also a C, D, E, F and G game. You need to spot when someone’s below par and find a way to take advantage of it.
  • The on-tilt player. This player is visibly off the rails, whether it's down to alcohol, a bad beat or fear of the high stakes. Play whenever you have a hand and, chances are, it’ll pay off eventually.
  • The ABC or ‘textbook’ player (more common in limit games). This player is solid but predictable, so respect their plays and try to wrong-foot them by thinking and playing outside the box.
  • Instinct vs maths players (usually found in no-limit and limit games respectively). The first relies on gut feeling in almost all situations, while the other puts their faith in the numbers. In either case, you’ve got an opportunity to exploit their blind side.
  • The young gun. People say players often get more restrained with age, so you might want to bear the age of your opponent in mind.
  • The gambler, or ‘action player’. Unlike a bully or loose-aggressive type, this player is here for the thrill. Be patient and they’ll most likely give you the money in the end.
  • The recreational player. This player’s just here for fun (or to learn), and considers losses as payment for the experience. It’s fairly easy to win money off them, but treat them with respect – you want them to keep showing up, after all.
  • The chameleon. This is the ultimate opponent, with no obvious pattern to their play (and no single strategy that’ll help you beat them). Be sure to watch and learn – but don’t try and fool them as they’ll probably be one step ahead.

As you move up the levels, you will start to come up against more solid players, with individual flaws you can take advantage of, for example:

  • If a player limps and folds to a raise too often, raise more to steal their money
  • If they are overly aggressive pre-flop, re-steal by re-raising them with a wider range
  • If they’re not continuation betting enough, steal the pot on the flop
  • If they do it too much, raise them or call with weak holdings and 'float', hoping to steal later in the hand

Ask a top player what they’d do in a given situation, and more often than not they’ll say, "It depends." Poker games are made up of situations and players, and as such, there are no hard and fast rules about when you should bluff.