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THE ART OF THE BLUFF

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Bluffing is poker’s magic elixir. It’s the sleight-of-hand where high art and drama reside. It’s the place where myths are made. After all, what’s a western movie without a poker scene with one player trying to bluff another out of a big pot? This is the first of a four-part series on bluffing. Not only will we show you how, when, and why to bluff, we’ll also tell you about some of the most famous bluffs in poker history.

 

To those who do not play poker, or who have only a nodding acquaintance with it, bluffing is where they focus most of their attention when they think about the game.

 

Does this conversation ring a bell?

 

Non-Player: “You’re a professional poker player? Wow; you must have a real poker face.”

 

Professional Poker Player: “Why do you say that?”

 

NP: “Don’t you need a poker face because you have to bluff all the time?”

 

PPP: “Actually, bluffing is only a small part of the game, and good players don’t really bluff that often.”

 

NP: “Hmmmmmmm, It’s not like that in the movies.”

 

PPP: [shrugging his shoulders with the resigned weariness of one who’s had similar conversations far too many times] “Well, few things really are.”

 

What Is Bluffing, Anyway?

 

Ask most poker players to define bluffing and they’ll tell you about betting a weak hand with the hope of driving other players out of the pot. After all, without bluffing, poker would be a boring game. Bets would be made, and the Unique Casino best hand would win. Always.

 

Since the cards figure to break even in the long run, without the possibility that someone is bluffing each player would have the same expectation, and when all was said and done, no one would win any money.

 

But there are winning players and those who lose most of the time.. And it’s often bluffing ¾ or more precisely the possibility that one might be bluffing ¾ that goes a long way toward separating the wheat from the chaff. Bluffing, after all, is merely a form of deception. And deception is an essential component in winning poker.

 

After all, if your opponents always knew what you had, they’d be tough to beat. Deception is the art of keeping others off balance. Like a mis direction play in football, or a baseball player hitting behind the runner into an area vacated by the infielder on a hit-and-run play, deception is a required skill for any poker player.

 

DIFFERENT KINDS OF BLUFFS

 

Betting – or raising – with a helpless hand is only one form of bluffing. It’s not the only way to bluff. The process is reversible too. Rather than acting strong with a weak hand, one can act weak when holding a powerhouse hand in order to lure opponents into a trap.

 

Betting or raising on the inexpensive betting rounds in order to get a free card later on in the hand ¾ when the cost of bets double ¾ is another form of bluffing.

 

There’s also the semi-bluff. That’s a term coined by noted poker theorist David Sklansky, who defines it this way: “.a semi-bluff is a bet with a hand which, if called, does not figure to be the best hand at the moment but has a reasonable chance of outdrawing those hands that initially called it.”

 

With a semi-bluff, as opposed to a bluff with a helpless hand, a player has two ways to win. His opponent might think the bluffer has the hand he’s representing and release his own hand. If the opponent calls, the bluffer might catch the card he needs and beat his opponent that way.

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF BLUFFING

 

There are some players ¾ it’s only a few of them to be sure ¾ who never bluff. Once you learn who they are, playing against them is easy. If they bet once all the cards are out, you can safely throw your hand away unless you believe that your hand is superior to theirs. If it is, you should raise.

 

Others are habitual bluffers. When they bet, you have to call as long as you are holding any reasonable hand. Although habitual bluffers will also make real hands every now and then, the fact that they bluff far too often makes your decision easy. By calling, you’ll win far more money in the long run than you would save by folding. Stay tuned. There’s much more to come about bluffing in the next three issues. In the meantime, look at how Bobby Baldwin bluffed Crandall Addington out of a big pot during the finals of the World Series of Poker.

 

Famous Bluffs: Baldwin versus Addington

 

During the 1978 World Series of Poker no-limit hold’em championship Bobby Baldwin, then a professional poker player and now President of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, was matched up against San Antonio real estate investor Crandall Addington for all the marbles.

 

Addington was heavily favored at the time, having about $275,000 in chips to Baldwin’s $145,000. Baldwin bet before the flop and Addington called. The flop was Q¨4¨3§. Baldwin bet $30,000. What could he have? A flush draw or straight draw was a possibility. So was a pair of queens.

 

Crandall Addington called without a moment’s hesitation, a sure sign he also had a good hand. The A¨fell on the turn, making a straight and a flush distinct possibilities. Baldwin made a $95,000 bet, adding it to the $92,000 already in the pot, and leaving himself with only a few remaining chips if he lost the hand.

 

Addington went into deep thought. If Addington called and won, Baldwin would be nearly broke, and he would almost surely be the winner. If he called Baldwin’s bet and lost, the tables would be turned and Baldwin would then be favored to win the event. If he folded, he would still have a substantial chip lead on Baldwin and still be favored to grind him down as the tournament wore on.

 

Addington folded. As Baldwin gathered in the pot, he tossed his cards toward the center of the table. They were the 10©9©. Baldwin had run a naked bluff, winning a $92,000 pot with absolutely nothing ¾ not even a draw.

 

That turned the tide and Bobby Baldwin became the 1978 World Series of Poker champion ¾ although whether he won it or stole it right out from under Crandall Addington’s nose is subject to interpretation.

 

KEEP ‘EM GUESSING

 

What should you do about players who bluff some, but not all of the time? There’s no easy answer. Opponents who bluff some of the time are better poker players than those found at either end of the bluffing spectrum. Better players, of course, will be able to keep you guessing about whether or not they are bluffing. And when you’re forced to guess, you will be wrong some of the time. That’s just the way it is.

 

Of course, you might be able to pick up a tell and know when your opponent is bluffing, but that’s not too likely in most cases. The sad truth is that players who keep you guessing are going to give you much more trouble than predictable opponents.

 

In most low-limit games, players bluff much too often. After all, when you are playing fixed limit poker all it can cost is one additional bet to see someone’s hand. And the pots are usually big enough relative to the size of a bet to make calling the right decision.

 

Here’s an example. Suppose the pot contains $90, and your opponent makes a $10 bet. That pot now contains $100, and the cost of your call is only $10. Even if you figure your opponent to be bluffing only one time in ten, you should call. By calling, you’d lose a $10 bet nine times, for a loss of $90. Although you’d win only once, that pot would be worth $100. After ten such occurrences, you’d show a net profit of $10. As a result, you could say that regardless of the outcome of any particular hand, each call was worth one dollar to you.

 

THE THREAT OF BLUFFING

 

The threat of a bluff is just as important as a bluff itself. A good player ¾ one who bluffs neither too often nor too infrequently, and seems to do so under the right conditions ¾ has something else going for him too. It’s the threat of a bluff. Does he have the goods or is he bluffing? How can you tell? If you can’t, how do you know what to do when he bets?

 

These answers are not come by easily. And even top-notch players are not going to have a terrific batting average in most cases. As a result, the threat of a bluff combined with the bluff itself, is designed to help a player win some pots that he would otherwise lose, and to win more money in pots where he actually has the best hand.

 

After all, if you have the best hand and come out betting, your opponent won’t always know whether you’re bluffing or not. If there’s a lot of money in the pot, he’ll probably call. That’s the less costly error. After all, if he were to throw the winning hand away and relinquish a big pot, that’s a much more costly faux pas than calling one additional bet.

 

Bluffing and the threat of bluffing go hand in hand. A bluff can enable a player to win a pot he figured to lose if the hands were shown down. The threat of a bluff enables a player with a good hand to win more money than he would if his opponent knew he never bluffed.

 

A BALANCED APPROACH TO BLUFFING

 

A successful poker player has to adopt a middle ground strategy. This means that sometimes you’ll be called when you bluffed and lose that bet. Other times you will release the best hand because an opponent successfully bluffed you out of the pot.

 

Neither is enjoyable. Just remember that making errors is inevitable when you deal with incomplete information. One can call too often or not enough. One can bluff too often or not at all. And the only way to eliminate errors at one extreme is to commit them at the other.

 

THE BLUFFING PARADOX

 

Very cautious players, who never call unless certain of winning, will avoid calling with a lesser hand, but will often relinquish a pot they would have won. Players who call all the time will capture just about every pot they could possibly win, but will find themselves holding the short straw far too often when the hands are shown down.

 

The paradox is that good players will make both kinds of errors some of the time, in order to avoid being a predictable player at one or the other end of the bluffing-calling spectrum.

 

After all, there’s a relationship between risk and reward. If you are never caught bluffing, you are either the best bluffer in the history of poker or you are not bluffing often enough. If you are caught almost every time you bluff, you’re bluffing much too frequently.

 

If you call all the time, you will never lose a pot you could have won, and if you seldom call, your opponents will learn that they can win by betting and driving you off the pot unless you have a very strong hand.

 

Bluffing, after all, is much like mom’s advice: “All things in moderation.” There’ll be more moderately sage advice next issue, but for now, here another of poker’s more storied bluffs; this one related by English author Al Alvarex, in “The Biggest Game In Town,” a wonderfully accurate and insightful look at the World Series of Poker.

 

Famous Bluffs: Jack Strauss and the seven-deuce

 

The late Jack Strauss, who won the 1982 World Series of Poker, was a man known for his creativity, flair and imagination at the poker table, as well as his willingness to risk all he had if he liked the odds. Once, in a no-limit hold’em game, Strauss was dealt a seven and a deuce of different suits.

 

It’s one of the worst starting hands in the deck ¾ one the overwhelming majority of players would throw away without a moment’s hesitation. But not Strauss; not this time. “I was on a rush,” he said, “so I raised.” One player called. The flop was 7-3-3, giving Strauss two pair, albeit with a kicker that couldn’t even beat the board. As Strauss bet again, he realized he had made a mistake. His opponent, who did not hesitate as he reached for his chips, raised Strauss $5,000. Strauss realized his opponent had a big pair in the hole, and the logical move would have been to give up the bluff and release his hand.

 

But Strauss called, which must have caused his opponent to question whether he, indeed, had the best hand. The fourth card was a deuce. It paired Strauss’ other hole card, but it was worthless since there was already a communal pair of threes on the board. Strauss fired out a bet: $18,000. As his opponent paused to consider whether Strauss had a hand or was bluffing, Jack Strauss leaned forward, saying: “I’ll tell you what, just gimme one of those $25 chips of yours and you can see either one of my cards ¾ whichever one you choose.” After another long pause, Strauss’ opponent tossed over a single green chip and points to one of the two cards that were face down in front of Jack Strauss. Strauss flips over the deuce. Now there’s another long pause.

 

Finally Jack Strauss’s opponent concludes that both cards were the same, and that Strauss made a full house ¾ deuces full of threes ¾ and throws the winning hand away.

 

“It was just a matter of psychology,” Strauss was reputed to have said later. But to most observers it wasn’t psychology at all. It was magic, pure and simple.

 

NOT ALL BLUFFS ARE CREATED EQUAL

 

Not all bluffs are the same. Some work better in one situation that others, so let’s look at the various kinds of bluffs and distinguish between them.

 

BLUFFING ON THE END WITH A HOPELESS HAND

 

This is the classic bluff of movie lore. You’re up against an opponent, or possibly two of them. You have a hopeless hand. Perhaps it’s a straight draw that didn’t materialize. Maybe it’s a busted flush draw.

 

If the hands were to be shown down, you know you couldn’t possibly win. So you bet. “Nothing ventured,” you think to yourself, “nothing gained.” If you’re bluff is called, you’ll lose a bet you would have saved had you checked. But checking, of course, is tantamount to relinquishing your opportunity to win the pot.

 

If you bet, there’s always the chance that both your opponents will fold. If you’re not called, you’ll win the entire pot. Suppose that pot contains $100 and the cost to bet is $10. Your bluff doesn’t have to succeed all of the time ¾ or even most of the time ¾ for it to be a good decision.

 

If it fails nine times and succeeds only once, you will still be a winner in the long run. You’ll have lost an extra $10 nine times, or $90, but you will win $100 on one occasion, for a net win of $10.

 

Not a spectacular profit, perhaps, but enough to prove that bluffs only have to succeed every now and then to be worthwhile.

 

THE HIDDEN BENEFITS OF GETING CAUGHT

 

Bluffing won’t succeed all the time. Observant opponents will notice when you are caught bluffing. Once others realize that you do not have a legitimate hand each time you bet, your good hands will attract more calls than they would if you left your opponents with the impression that you never bluffed at all.

 

That’s one of the benefits of bluffing. Not only will you be able to steal a pot every now and then, but a failed bluff or two will serve as potent advertising. As a result, a player who bluffs every now and then can expect to make more money on his good hands too.

 

BLUFFING WITH MORE CARDS TO COME

 

Imagine that you’re playing hold’em and you raised before the flop with KQ, and two other players call. Suppose the flop is J4. If you come out betting on the flop, you have any number of ways to win this pot. Your opponents could fold, and you’d win right there. But even if one or both call, you certainly shouldn’t mind. After all, any of the nine hearts in the deck will complete your flush. Moreover, any of the three kings or three queens will give you a pair that is probably superior to whatever your opponents are holding. In addition, there are three tens in the deck (exclusive of the 10©, which completes your flush) that will give you a straight draw.

 

A lot of good cards are in that deck, and you are rife with potential. When you couple the chances of making the best hand on the turn or the river with the possibility that your adversaries will fold if you bet, you are probably an odds-on favorite to win the pot one way or another.

 

SEMIBLUFFING

 

When you bluff with more cards to come, you usually have two ways to win. The bluff might succeed on its own merits, causing an opponent to lay down the best hand. In addition, you might catch the card you need on a succeeding round and actually make the winning hand. Poker players call this semibluffing, a term coined by noted poker theorist, player, and author, David Sklansky.

 

Simply stated, a semibluff is a bet made on a hand that is probably not the best hand at the time of the bet, but has the possibility of improving to that status. If the bet causes everyone else to fold, it succeeds as a bluff; if it does not, the hand might still improve on future rounds. The chances that the bluff will succeed on its own merits coupled with the chances of the hand improving are what make the semibluff such a strong tactical weapon.

 

Bluffing with more cards to come is a better idea when you have a couple of ways to win. When you bluff with a hopeless hand and there are more cards to come, you’ll usually cost yourself money in the long run. Since bluffing only works when used judiciously, you’re better off restricting your bluffs to opportunities where you have a couple of ways to win: your bet causes your opponent to release his hand, or he calls and you still have an opportunity to win by catching the card you need to make the best hand.

 

REVERSE BLUFFS

 

Checking a very strong hand in order to lure your opponents into a trap is the flip side of betting a hopeless hand. A reverse bluff , when it works, will cause your opponent to do the betting for you. In fact, he will generally be wed to his hand until you snap him off with a well-timed checkraise.

 

No one did this better than Johnny Chan; and no one did it under more daunting circumstances. Read on, and see how Johnny Chan reverse-bluffed Erik Seidel at the World Series of Poker. It was a big, gutsy bluff. But the rewards were big too: a second consecutive world championship.

 

Famous Bluffs: Johnny Chan versus Erik Seidel

 

In this “reverse” bluff, Johnny Chan bluffed Erik Seidel into thinking he held the best hand, lured him into betting, and won a $1,600,000 pot during the final stages of the 1988 World Series of Poker.

 

Chan had won the World Series the previous year and had been on a roll ever since. Here he was 12 months later, with a chance to win back-to-back titles. But he’d need some magic to accomplish it. Seidel, a former commodities broker from New York City left Wall Street for the life of a professional poker player, and now he had a big chip lead on the defending champ.

 

At this point in the tournament, the blinds were $10,000 and $20,000. Chan called Seidel’s big blind, making the pot $40,000. The flop was Qª10¨8¨. Seidel bet $50,000. Chan called. The turn card was a complete blank, and both men checked. The fifth and final card was another blank. Chan checked.

 

Seidel held a queen in his hand, giving him top pair, albeit with a weak kicker. He thought for a moment that Chan might have a queen with a better kicker. But by checking on the turn and on the river Chan passed up his final chance to bet! Seidel then pushed all of his chips into the center of the table, certainly a sizable enough bet to cause Chan to release any slightly better hand in the event that Seidel had misread him. Seidel thought his all-in bet would prevent Chan from calling with hands such as a queen with a better kicker, or two small pair.

 

Seidel had, in fact, misread Chan. And not by a little, but by a lot. Chan smiled as he turned over his hand. Johnny Chan had flopped a straight with the J§9§.

 

Had Chan not bluffed, more than likely Seidel would have folded in the face of a bet from his adversary on the turn or the river. But Chan did bluff. In fact, he did it twice, once on the turn and again on the river and he reaped a handsome reward: his second consecutive World Championship.

 

BLUFFING AND POSITION

 

In most instances, acting last ¾ after you’ve had a chance to see what your opponents do ¾ is a big advantage. But when you’re bluffing it’s often advantageous to act first.

 

If your opponent checks and you bet, he’s likely to realize that you are trying to take advantage of the fact that he’s shown weakness. As a result, he is more prone to call ¾ or even raise, if he’s a very aggressive player ¾ with marginal hands.

 

But betting from first position conveys the image that you really do have a strong hand. After all, you are betting into someone who could have a really powerful hand. Your opponent, of course, will realize that and be more willing to release a marginal hand than he would be if you bet following his check.

 

BLUFFING MORE THAN ONE OPPONENT

 

The odds against a bluff succeeding increase exponentially as you add additional opponents to the equation. The more opponents, the more someone is likely to call “.to keep you honest.”

 

Suppose you were facing a single opponent and thought that your bluff would succeed one-third of the time. Those aren’t bad odds, particularly when the money in the pot exceeds the odds against a successful bluff. Suppose the pot contains $90 and the price of a bet is $30. If this situation were to repeat itself and your estimate of successfully bluffing was accurate, you would bet $30 twice and lose, but you’d win $90 the third time. In the long run, this is an opportunity with a positive expected value.

 

But what happens if you add a third player to the mix? Once again, you figure that your chances of successfully bluffing the additional player are one chance in three. The presence of a third player will, of course, increase the size of the pot. Let’s assume that the pot now contains $130.

 

Although the size of the pot has increased arithmetically, the chances against your bluff succeeding have grown geometrically. In fact, your chances of a bluff that will succeed one-third of the time against each opponent have decreased to one-ninth of the time when you consider both opponents together.

 

There’s no magic here. We’re simply multiplying fractions. One-third multiplied by one-third is one-ninth. While the size of the pot increased, it has by no means increased to a point where it offsets the very long odds against successfully bluffing two opponents.

 

THE IMPLIED THREAT

 

Bluffs work best against a small number of opponents. The fewer the better. Three is almost always too many, and even running a bluff through two players is difficult.

 

There is one exception, however. Assume that there are no more cards to come. If you are first to act and are facing two opponents, you canbluff if you think that the last player to act was on a draw and missed his hand.

 

Suppose you are playing hold’em and there were two suited cards on the flop. If the third opponent simply called on the flop and the turn, chances are he might have had a blush draw that never materialized. If that’s the case, he is very likely to release his hand against a bet on the river, even if he suspects that you’re bluffing. When all is said and done, he might not even be able to beat a bluff.

 

But the player in the middle has a lot to worry about. If you bet not only does he have to worry about whether you have a real hand, he also needs to concern himself with the player to his left. Even if the player in the middle has a marginal hand ¾ the kind he’d call you with if the two of you were heads-up ¾ he might release it. After all, he has two concerns: Your hand might be stronger than his, and the third player might also have a better hand.

 

When your opponent in the middle is a good player ¾ good enough to release a marginal hand rather than stubbornly call “.to keep you honest” ¾ you might use the implied threat of the third adversary to force the man in the middle to shed his holding.

 

Ten tips that will help you become a better bluffer follow. All were culled from this four-part series. And after that you can read about one last big-time bluff. It’s one I was fortunate enough to watch unfold in person, from the press row at the 1997 World Series of Poker.