The ability to deceive your opponents is crucial in sports—and in poker
By Jim Feist
Poker is a game of mathematics, skill and psychology…and the best players use all the weapons in their arsenal.
As a longtime poker player who also studies and wagers on sports on a regular basis, I understand the art of deception. Football teams use deception constantly. Dallas Cowboy great Tom Landry used to have his tight end come to the line of scrimmage on one side, and then when the quarterback hollered “set” to get his linemen into position, the tight end would quickly head over to the opposite side of the line, either to double team a talented pass rusher or serve as an extra blocker on a run heading his way.
Wide receivers move their head on a cut in one direction, then zip back instantly the other way. Linebackers and safeties will often walk up to the line showing blitz, then pull back into pass coverage the moment the football is snapped. All these things are meant to confuse the other player or team.
Poker offers endless examples of deception as well, though the movements are far more subtle. It’s a game of mathematics, skill and psychology. You don’t sit back and wait for the best hand, because if you did that, you might wind up waiting for a long time. The best players use all the weapons in their arsenal.
Three key psychological weapons in poker are bluffing, semi-bluffing, and slow playing. All are centered around the fine 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 deceive your opponents.
Bluffing is more useful in a no-limit game than in a limit game. In a no-limit game, a player’s 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 best 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 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 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 another area of 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 yet. For example, 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’re bluffing, but you also have a respectable probability of gaining a strong hand on later betting rounds. Semi-bluffing is an effective technique, especially in no-limit games.
Slow playing is when the cards that are shown aren’t exceptional, but you hold an outstanding hand, such as two kings or a pair of aces. Your intent at this point is to trick your opponents into thinking you have something unremarkable, when you’re actually sitting on a very strong hand. The purpose, at first, is to not scare anyone out. It’s all about building up the pot while knowing the odds are very much in your favor, based on the cards you already see.
While football and basketball are about matchups on the court and coaching strategy, poker is a game of people and situations. There’s only so much planning you can do before grabbing 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 being flexible. And 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. All of this begets winning—and turning a consistent profit—over the long haul.