The ins and outs of successful bluffing
By Jack Clayton
Lying gets a bad name – and it should. Nobody likes to be fooled, told untruths or doubt what someone tells them. Trust is like a China plate; once it’s cracked it’s impossible to get it back to its original state. I once asked a Vegas casino manager about the stories of gamblers who run up debts and then try to run out of town and how they dealt with broken promises. His reply: “It’s not a worry. Most people pay their debts.”
That’s true of human nature. Most people want to get along, be honest with others, pay their debts to build trust and have that respect reciprocated. When it comes to human competition, though, there is an element of bending the truth that is not sinister, but a normal part of the games. We don’t refer to it as lying, but a much friendlier term. It’s called bluffing.
It takes many forms and is present wherever there’s competition. A baseball runner on first base makes a move that he’s trying to steal second, then stops and goes back to the bag, a ruse to throw off the pitcher. A football player receiving a punt will look up in the air and wave his arms as if he’s about to catch the pigskin, only to have the ball land 30 feet behind him. The bluff was made to distract the opposing players to where the football really was, an attempt to get the best field position for his offense.
At the poker tables, bluffing is a skill, a major part of the game. It’s so intricate that its uses can reveal the differences between beginners, intermediates and experts. For instance, let’s say a pair of clubs is revealed in the flop along with a heart, your opponent bets $30 and you call. Then the turn comes, a diamond. The opponent bets another $30 and you call, so you’re letting the opponent know you want to stay in the game.
Then the final river card is revealed and it’s a club. The opponent puts down another $30 but you break precedent by upping the bet to $100. If it was a Hollywood movie, the music would rise and everyone would freeze eyes wide as the moment of decision had arrived. The impression in the minds of everyone at the table is that you have a strong hand, probably a flush of clubs. If you do, you’re in excellent shape. But if you don’t, you are bluffing, giving the impression you got exactly the card you wanted.
So when to bluff? This also has many levels. To start with, you have to show the other players what type of player you are, or at least the kind of player you want to be that day. If you attack each game like a Wild West outlaw, throwing chips around like it was Halloween candy, your bluffs really aren’t going to work because everyone can see you are in it to play every hand. Your timed bluffs won’t be taken seriously.
If you play a conservative, careful game, folding often (a tight player), when you finally do step up with raises, other players will think you have a strong hand. That means when you pick a spot to bluff you’ll be in a better position to succeed. If enough players drop out, you have a chance to pick up the pot without letting on that you were even bluffing, another edge you can carry along to the next round. Bluffing is not just about one big score, it’s about crafting an image, picking sound spots and winning over an extended stretch.
As a rule, it’s better to have only one opponent to bluff against. Don’t bluff an opponent who calls too much, or those who you identify as novices, as chances are they won’t know a poker bluff from a hillside bluff.
In addition, keep track on the recent plays of everyone at the table. Some players don’t have the confidence to play correctly and will let emotion (tilt) drag them down quickly. They’ll give away their stack with any kind of draw. From your end that means they won’t make good targets if you’re bluffing. Conversely, a player who’s had a good day or just took a large pot might be a good target for your bluff, as they are in defensive mode, looking to preserve what they just won. The risk averse are more likely to fold than to pursue your bluff, putting the edge in your column.
It’s also wise to have options when considering a bluff. If you hold a 9 and 10 of diamonds and the flop contains a 7 of diamonds, you don’t have a quality hand yet but there is the possibility of two more diamonds popping up or an 8 and jack. This is called a semi-bluff. It’s better to have two or three options available rather than a pure bluff.
Finally, think about the size of your bet when pondering a bluff. If the pot is, say, $100 and your opponent has checked, that provides insight that they have a weak hand. As a general rule, a wager of half the amount ($50 in this case) on your part is enough to force the other guy’s move. If he folds, you collect. If he calls then the ball is back in your court to make the next move depending on your cards and intentions. If you’re aware the opponent is a cautious, tight player, then perhaps even a lower amount ($20 to $30) could be enough to get the job done. The point is, don’t risk too much when bluffing because you may be forced to cut your losses and fold. It’s better in that example to risk $20 to $50 to see what your opponent does than $75 or more.
So, yes, lying shows poor character in all walks of life and is not worth the trouble it causes. But bluffing is an honest and multi-layered edge used by respectable competitors on the athletic field and at the poker tables.