Ahh, bluffing in no-limit Texas hold’em…the most incorrectly used and down-right abused facet of most players’ poker game. We’re sorry if we’ve offended you 15 words into this guide, but we’re here to speak the truth. We aren’t here to make you feel like roses and rainbows; we’re here to help you build a stronger poker game.
Bluffing tends to be a lot more challenging than some people give it credit for. Knowing how to do it, when to do it, who to do it against, and why you’re doing it are all things you have to figure out and get to work together in perfect harmony if you want to pull off a successful bluff. Sure, you can get lucky with a random and mindless bluff from time to time, but for the most part, it’s basically like lighting money on fire.
In this guide, we’re going to walk you through everything you’ve ever wanted to know about bluffing and then a whole lot more. If you listen to our tips, you’ll no longer be wildly bluffing with no rhyme or reason. You’ll be bluffing with expert calculation and running over the game-winning pots that you should never have.
Bluffs NEED to Tell a Story
While the strategy tips on this page aren’t necessarily in order of importance, this is easily the most important. We want to start with a story to help illustrate our point. This is a true story of a conversation that occurred between one of our staff writers and one of their students.
Student: I can’t believe this guy called me! He raised pre-flop, and I decided I was going to run a bluff on him because he had been opening way too many pots. I 3-bet him to 5x to try and get him to fold, and of course, he calls. The flop came out, and it was A – A – 5. He checked, and I bet 100% of the pot. The guy still called! The turn was a 9, and I went all in. THE GUY CALLED ME DOWN WITH 1010!!! How did he call me there? I clearly had a big ace.
Instructor: Well, what hand were you representing?
Student: I was representing that I had AK.
Instructor: Would you have 5x raised him pre-flop if you actually had AK?
Student: Well, no. I would have bet less to try and keep him in.
Instructor: Would you have bet 100% of the pot on the flop if you flopped three aces?
Student: Well, no. I would have bet less to try and keep him in the pot.
Instructor: Sooooo, you played a hand 100% differently than you would have with AK, but you wanted the other player to magically believe you had AK?
This story is beautiful because it illustrates one of the biggest flaws people have when it comes to bluffing. They think that the secret to a successful bluff is pushing more chips in the middle. They think that the bigger the call is, the harder it is going to be for their opponent to make. This may be true against a complete amateur but fails miserably when you try it against a thinking player.
These oversized bets are actually going to make things easier on the other player to call you down. The problem that is illustrated is that the bluff did not tell an accurate story. Imagine if the student has only 3-bet to 3x pre-flop as they normally would with AK. Then, if they bet half the pot on the flop as they would with three aces, their opponent might still call. But, when they shoved all in or bet again on the turn, their opponent would be in a nasty spot. They could still make a hero call with the 10s, but most likely they’re going to fold.
Why are they going to fold? Because you told a perfect story. You told them you had AK and then did everything exactly the same as you would if you had AK.
Your bluffs HAVE to make sense. It might seem counterintuitive to bet less in some spots, but it actually works out better against thinking players. Now, you don’t want to go crazy and bet tiny amounts. If you bet 1/8th pot on the flop, and 1/8th on the turn and river in our example hand, you’re probably going to be getting called. You still need to put some pressure on your opponent, but the bet size should be within the range of what you would actually bet if you had the hand you were representing.
What’s the best way to do this? If you’re planning on representing a specific hand, imagine that you have that hand. Make all of your decisions pretending that you have that hand. If our student had pretended in their mind that they had AK, they would not have recklessly slammed chips in the middle with no rhyme or reason.
We wish we could come to where you are right now (in a non-creepy way, of course) and tell you just how important this is to a successful bluff. You can get away with wild bluffs from time to time, but that’s only because you’re lucky. You either are doing it against an opponent who doesn’t think, your opponent happened to have absolutely nothing, or you accidentally told a story you didn’t realize you were telling. Successful bluffs tell the right story at the right time.
Choosing the Right Time
So, we’re all on the same page now that our bluffs need to tell a story. But, that’s just the first piece of the bluffing puzzle. The next step will be choosing the right time to pull the trigger on a bluff. Are there times that are more profitable to bet? Are there times that you should look to avoid bluffing completely? Yup!
While there are a lot of factors including your image and your opponent that we will go into momentarily, we want to talk specifically about game conditions and which are better or worse for bluffing. The rule of thumb is that the more your opponent has at risk, the better the bluffing opportunity will be.
For example, let’s say it’s the first hand of the tournament and you all have hundreds of times the big blind. You have massive stacks. Is this a great time to bluff? Probably not because people have chips to throw around. An opponent can call you down incorrectly and only lose a small portion of their stack. What about late in the tournament when it’s right on the money bubble? Is this a great time to bluff? You bet it is. A lot of players will be tightening down and trying to squeak into the money. They’ll be so concerned about busting out and getting no money that you can rob them blind.
The buy-in of the tournament in relation to your opponent’s net worth also play a big role in choosing the right time to bluff. If you’re playing against a millionaire in a $10 tournament on the bubble, that’s probably not the greatest time to try and run a bluff. If you’re playing in a $10k against someone who won a satellite into the event, that may be a great time to bluff on the bubble.
While this may seem like common sense, you’d be shocked at how many people will just bluff because they “haven’t played a hand in a while” or “they haven’t bluffed in a while.” Please don’t be that guy or gal. Bluff in spots when the timing is for the bluff to work.
Choosing the Right Opponent
We touched briefly on this in the section above, but we wanted to dig deeper into this. While picking the right time to bluff is important, picking the right opponent to bluff against is even more important. If you don’t choose wisely, it doesn’t matter how great of a story you tell; you’re going to get picked off.
So, what makes an opponent a good candidate to bluff? They have to be bad, right? Not the case, actually. When you run a bluff, its success is contingent on your opponent believing the story you are telling. If your opponent is not a good hand reader or is too much of a novice to pay close attention to what you’re representing, then they’re never going to believe your story (because they won’t understand it).
A lot of novice poker players only pay attention to what they have. If they have a hand, they call. If they don’t have a hand, they fold. Trying to run over an opponent like this when they have a hand is suicide. They have to be good enough to make a fold. If they aren’t good enough to make a fold, then they will never fold. Yes, it sounds like we’re beating a dead horse, but people constantly try and bluff people who aren’t smart enough to fold a hand.
So if a bad player is not the right person to bluff, then it must be a really good player, right? Well, wrong again. Why would you try and bluff a great player unless you absolutely had to? This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ever try and bluff great players; it just means they should not be your prime targets. Personally, we only like to go after players like this if we don’t have another stream of income at the table. If we are picking up chips at the table without picking on the sharks, we’re ok with that. Don’t poke the bear, right?
So, if it’s not bad players and it’s not good players, then who is the prime target for running a bluff on? The answer is your middle of the pack players. These are the players who are good enough to make a fold, good enough to make a read on a hand they are playing, but not a wizard who can see through your soul.
You also need to make sure that you are only bluffing opponents who care about the game. The drunk guy that is calling everyone down? Please don’t try and bluff him. The rich guy who is playing low stakes for fun? Don’t try and bluff him. There is a reason that bluffs never work at play money tables. If the person does not care about losing the money or if there is no money to be lost, then the bluff has little chance of success. They’ll call you down in a heartbeat without ever thinking twice just to see what you have.
Check Your Image
The last piece of the puzzle here is analyzing your image before you go and run a bluff. If the table thinks that you’re playing crazy, it might not be the time to try and run a wild bluff. If the table thinks you’re super tight, you’re much more likely to get away with a bluff. Notice that we said if the table “thinks” you are playing crazy. This does not have to be you actually playing crazy.
For example, let’s say you get dealt three big hands in a row. You raise and win big pots without showdown. Are you playing crazy? Nope, but what does the table think? All they see is you winning a bunch of pots in a row and players LOVE to assume that you’re doing it by pushing everyone around. Even though you are playing snug as a rug, the table is going to assume that you are a maniac. This is ESPECIALLY true if you start a new session by winning a bunch of hands.
The egos in poker are so strong that people can’t stand ever to think they are getting bluffed or taken advantage of. Because of this, people will be more likely to call you down lightly if they think you might be pushing them around. We’ve had players that we’ve only played the stone nuts against assume that we were pushing them around. They refused to fold to us for the entire rest of the game.
Did we try and bluff them? Heck no! We waited until we had a hand and bet big and they paid us off every single time. Just remember, it’s all about your image and what the table thinks of you. Whether they are right or wrong is irrelevant. You could win no pots and some guy or gal at the table could make a comment that you look like a maniac. The rest of the table is going to hear that and assume that you are. You need to be aware of this stuff and react and adapt accordingly.
You should also be aware of what players at the table are paying attention. If a player makes the maniac comment, but someone isn’t paying attention, you have to assume that they haven’t passed judgment on you yet. If this sounds like a lot to pay attention to, that’s part of the game!
Pure Bluffs vs. Semi-Bluffs vs. Converted Bluffs vs. Merges
Now that you know how and when to bluff properly, you should just come out guns blazing with bluffs when you can, right? No, no, no. Bluffing is something that needs to be done in heavy moderation. You also need to realize that there are multiple kinds of bluffs that each should be done with differing levels of frequency. The four main types of bluffs are semi-bluffs, pure bluffs, converted bluffs, and merges.
A pure bluff is probably the one you think about when you hear bluff. It’s the hands when you hear about someone going full ham with 7-2 off and winning a huge pot. That is a pure bluff. There is no chance of that person winning the hand unless they get their bluff through. These bluffs are the ones done when the player’s hand does not connect with the board at all. They could have no cards for all they care.
A semi-bluff is one where you are bluffing with the chance to improve to the best hand. For example, let’s say that you flop a flush draw and elect to continuation bet. While you may not think of this as a bluff, it actually is. You’re betting and all you have most likely is a high card and maybe a pair. It’s not a pure bluff, though, because if you hit your card, you can improve to the best hand. This is the definition of a semi-bluff. A lot of people semi-bluff all day long and don’t even realize that they are actually bluffing.
Semi-bluffs can be less obvious in the form of backdoor draws. For example, if you have AKs on a 10-9-2s board, you may choose to continuation bet as a bluff. Some might think this is a pure bluff, but in fact, you do have some equity in the hand. If you turn a jack or a queen you have a straight draw, if you turn another spade, you have a flush draw, or if you hit one of your overcards, you may have the best hand. While this is still a bluff, it’s a semi-bluff because getting your opponent to fold is NOT your only way of winning the hand.
Converted bluffs are times when you miss your hand or miss your draw and elect to turn your hand into a bluff. For example, let’s say you flop a flush draw and you semi-bluff the flop and the turn, and then you miss the river. At this point, you have a decision to make. You can give up and abandon your semi-bluff, or you can convert your semi-bluff into a pure bluff and try and win the pot.
Merges are interesting. We weren’t really sure where to include them. A merge is a new poker term that came about in the past few years and has been argued back and forth whether or not it is real, or just something people say to cover up that they are not sure what they’re doing. A merge is when you bet a hand that could be the best hand but also could be getting a better hand to fold.
For example, let’s say you have third pair on a board where a flush missed on the river. If you decide to bet the river, you could have the best hand if your opponent missed their flush. You also could be bluffing and get an opponent to fold something like second pair. This is called merging.
Now that you understand all the different types of bluffs, which are the best and how often should you do them? Well, the answer is, of course, going to be that it depends. It will depend on the game, the situation, the opponents, your image, etc.
Here are a few general guidelines that you can use, though. Pure bluffs should be few and far between. Running a crazy bluff with no chance of winning any other way is pretty wild and usually is not a great recipe for success. If you do happen to run one of these, make sure it’s at the absolute most perfect time against the best candidate possible. Semi-bluffs, on the other hand, should frequently be used. They are great because your opponents will fold often, they don’t usually take a lot of money to commit to, and when you hit your hand, you’re going to have a much bigger pot to win.
Converted bluffs are going to always be on a case by case basis. You’ll need to weigh the risk versus the reward and most importantly your opponent’s range. If you think that you are more likely to get away with your bluff or that it is a profitable play, in the long run, you should pull the trigger. If you think the likelihood of success is low or it’s a negative expected value move in the long run, then you should probably lean towards not pulling the trigger.
Merging is something that is very widely debated and is strictly going to be a case by case situation. There will be times that it’s best to check and use your hand as a bluff catcher instead of merging and betting. There will also be times where there are plenty of hands that you can’t beat but will fold to a bet. In these situations, you’re going to want to merge your little heart out.
Finding the right balance of bluffing enough without bluffing too much is going to be a feel thing. It’s going to require you to constantly be vigilant of the game conditions and constantly assessing what you can and can’t get away with.
Getting Caught Is Good
Umm, getting caught while bluffing is good? If that’s the most insane thing you’ve ever heard, we’ll ask you to bear with us for a second so we can explain. What we are saying is that if you are never getting caught bluffing, then you aren’t bluffing near enough. You need to be bluffing with a high enough frequency that it doesn’t work 100% of the time. Basically, you need to be pushing the boundary as much as you can to make sure that you’re getting away with as much free money as you possibly can.
Imagine the analogy of driving a fast car as a race car driver. Let’s say you go 90 mph and you do pretty well in races. Well, is that the fastest you can go and the best you can do in your races? The only way you’ll know that is if you push the envelope a little faster. Maybe the next race you try going 95 mph. If everything goes smoothly, then you know you can go faster. You should keep pushing things faster and faster until your engine finally blows. Once you hit that point, you’ll know that you’ve found the max speed you can go.
You need to do the same with your bluffing. Find out how fast people will let you run away with their money without making them blow your engine.
Putting It All Together
Hopefully, by now you are pretty well versed in what you need to do to successfully bluff in no-limit Texas hold’em. While it may seem fun to bluff all the time, it’s definitely not part of a winning strategy. Controlled and calculated bluffs can work wonders, though. Just remember to make sure that you are doing them at the right time, against the right opponents, and with the right image. And for the love of everything on the Earth, promise us that you’ll make sure that your bluff tells a great story and makes sense.