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Poker Psychology and Deception: Time Your Bluffs

Bluffing versus Semi-Bluffing

By Jim Feist


Bluffing can take many forms. You can pretend to be cautious even though you have an exceptional hand, or you can come out firing away with a less-than ideal hand, all with the intent to shake up and trick opponents.


PokerAllInThe NBA Playoffs are in full swing along with the baseball season, which means participants aren’t telling the truth. I don’t imply that players and coaches are lying. Rather, they are trying to throw off the opposition. The art of a baseball pitcher is all about trying to fool the batter. NBA coaches watch game film and then make changes to their lineups and styles to try and throw off the other team’s preparation. The purpose of all this deception is to gain an edge.

Players, coaches and even poker players are constantly trying to throw the opponent off their game to gain even the slightest edge. Many times these edges don’t amount to anything. A coach calls a timeout to set up a last season shot and it fails. Another time a coach might find the matchup on the basketball court he wants… but then his player goes 0-for-10 shooting. But eventually the extra work and attention to detail will pay off—on the scoreboard or the money you can chalk up at the poker tables.

Poker offers endless examples of deception. You don’t throw physical curveballs at opponents, like baseball pitchers, but there are plenty of mind-game curveballs that can be thrown. If you’re facing an all-in from a player you play against often, go ahead and call a bit more often than you would against someone you rarely face or someone you might never face again. You want your opponents to both fear your all-ins and also fear pushing against you, which allows you to win more uncontested pots.

Remember that poker is a game of mathematics, skill and psychology. If you sit around waiting for the best hand, you’ll be waiting a long time—and your money will run out before that “perfect hand” arrives. The best players use all the weapons in their arsenal.

Two key psychological weapons in poker are bluffing and semi-bluffing. Both are centered on the art of deception. Bluffing can take many forms. You can pretend to be cautious even though you have an exceptional hand, or you can come out firing away with a less-than ideal hand, all with the intent to shake up and trick opponents.

Bluffing is more useful in a no-limit game than in a limit game. In a no-limit game, a players’ entire stack is at risk with each hand, while in a limit game players know they can only lose so much if they call. It’s better to utilize bluffing as a weapon in high-limit games. For instance, betting at the flop with a high card on the board puts it in the minds of your opponents that you already have a pair; or raising with a flush draw out implies you might be in line for a potential pot-busting flush.

Semi-bluffing is used in poker, as well as in sports by coaches and players. A basketball player can make a cut in an attempt to draw a double team freeing the ball handler to exploit somewhere else on the court or make a pass to an open man. In football, a receiver can trick the defense into thinking a reverse is coming, only to have the quarterback hold the football and make a play somewhere else. The players are originally involved in the play at the start, only to have the play develop elsewhere.

At the tables, semi-bluffing is bluffing when you are close to having a great hand, but not all the way there. For instance, you ante up when you have one or more cards from being a straight, a flush or a straight flush, also known as a drawing hand. If you wager with this hand, you are bluffing, but you also have a reasonable probability of gaining a strong hand on later betting rounds. Semi-bluffing is a good technique to utilize in no-limit games.

While baseball and basketball are about matchups on the field, poker is a game of people and situations. There’s only so much planning you can do before taking a seat at the poker table. It’s essential to make so many of your decisions as you are playing, which requires quick thinking and flexibility. This comes through trial and error, so don’t be afraid to attack the tables with confidence. Taking your lumps and making mistakes is actually a good thing—as long as you file them away and learn each lesson.

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