Making Moves in Poker - The Pure Bluff
Before we open this can of worms I want to talk to you about a very serious condition that is spreading like a plague through the poker community. This disease is a serious threat. It is not something to be taken lightly. If you fail to head this warning you could be attending a funeral in the very near future. And what do you write on the tombstone of your bankroll? In case you haven't heard about this epidemic, F.P.S. is the contagion in question. Statistically one out of every five poker players has this ailment. (Yeah, I made that up.) F.P.S. seems to have a variety of causes. It can be brought on by watching televised poker, reading too many poker books in too short a times span, genetic arrogance, male pride, and an array of other, seemingly, benign factors. Fancy Play Syndrome kills bankrolls. When we talk about "making moves" we generally mean that we are straying from the fundamentally correct play. When we talk about some of these plays it is important to understand that we are deviating from the standard play. We are not replacing our default plays with fancy plays.
I'm going to start with one of the most overused and actually misused tactics in NLH amongst beginner and intermediate players. Obviously, we're starting with the pure bluff. When you make a "stone cold bluff" you are making a bet into a pot that you are quite sure you will lose if you are called. You have no draw, no pair, essentially no hand. You are counting on your opponent folding. That's your plan.
By and large, bluffing is a chip leak. I think players lose more money by bluffing too much than by any other means. There are many factors that have to be weighed before deciding to throw out a bet with nothing. The most important is the playing style of your opponent. It's usually much more difficult to bluff a fish than it is to bluff a pro. You also want to limit most of your pure bluffs to one opponent or maybe two under extremely favorable conditions. Another critical factor is your table image. Does the player you're about to make a move on think you're a maniac? Does he respect your bets? Is he even paying attention to your play? Have you noticed him adjusting to his impression of you? Many of the players you will encounter playing small stakes games pay little attention to anything beyond their own hand. Of course, once you've established that your opponent is actually one who can lay down a hand, you have to devise and execute the move properly.
Most bluffs are made out of desperation. The player attempting the bluff has cornered himself. He's in a situation where he has nothing, and no chance to win in the event of a showdown. The amateur bluff set up might go something like this; I called a raise pre-flop, missed the flop and bet again. I got raised and called. The turn did nothing for me so I checked. My opponent bet and I called hoping to hit my ace on the river. The river came up short for me, now I have almost no chance of having the best hand so I'm just gonna go ahead and put all my chips in the middle. I'll move all-in and pray he doesn't call. Well, that's not it!
How to Sell a Bluff
Let's talk about the correct way to sell a bluff. Against a good player, you have to consider what he might have, and what he thinks you have. If your story doesn't add up you'll be called. Let's say raise on the button after a series of folds. You have an ace and a deuce, suited in spades. After the small blind calls, the big blind folds. The flop comes out 2d 5h 8h. The action is checked to you so you decide to go for a steal; you bet half the size of the pot. Your bet gets called. The next card to come off is the Jc. Now the board reads 2d 5h 8h Jc. That's no help to you, and you really don't know where you're at in the hand. Your opponent checks and you check behind him. Now, the last card is the Kh. Your opponent places a bet out that's about 2/3 the size of the pot. This is a situation in which you can consider a stone cold bluff. You might go ahead and put in a solid re-raise. It's very likely your opponent read your check on the turn as weakness and is essentially betting that you do not have a king or a two hearts. If your opponent is any kind of player, he'll have to rethink the entire hand and see if your story adds up. You raised before the flop from late position. That means you could definitely have a king in your hand. You made a pretty standard continuation bet on the flop, nothing strange about that, you might have done that with big cards or with a flush draw. Your opponent checked the turn and you checked right behind him; that should almost scream "he's got a flush draw!" Now the king hits and your opponent leads out only to be re-raised. I think you've told a pretty good story here. I'd buy it. Your opponent can only really call here if he himself has made a flush or if he puts you on a stone cold bluff. It's risky, but it's a play that you can consider making from time to time.
The key to bluffing in NLH is to use the correct bet sizes and bluff in the correct frequency. You should be bluffing in a frequency that is just high enough to allow you to get paid off on your big hands. Most poker theorists agree that your bluffs in NLH should actually break about even. Actually you should be breaking just a bit better than even when you include semi-bluffs (bluffing with a reasonable chance of improving to the best hand if you are called). The main reason we bluff is to set up our opponents for the future. We need to keep them guessing and we would like to get paid off well on our big hands.
If you are familiar with my writing you may have read my references to your poker career resembling a business. You're running a casino, and your casino makes a profit because the patrons are more than happy to put there money in against you with "the worst of it", a statistical disadvantage. Think of the money you will be using to bluff with as your advertising budget. If you're not making enough money on your big hands then you're probably not bluffing enough. If you are unable to steal blinds and can't pick up pots uncontested, then you're probably bluffing too much.
Bluffing is essentially used to add an element of deception to your game. You bluff so that players will not catch onto your solid playing style. Fundamentally correct poker doesn't call for a lot of bluffs. Bluffing should be used to deviate from your default, solid, game so that players don't label you a "rock". Once you're labeled a rock it will be difficult to get paid on your hands. The idea then, that arrives as a direct result from this line of thought is this; you don't need to bluff nearly as often against players who aren't paying much attention to your playing style. You really don't need to bluff against a group of calling stations at all. Your bluffs are designed to get your value bets paid off. If your bets are getting called with a high frequency you shouldn't be bluffing much at all.
If you're playing a tight aggressive style online you should be able to show a profit at small stakes with a "pure bluff" frequency of very nearly zero. What? Has Dead Money lost his Zombie mind? Is that shocking and unpalatable? It's the truth folks. When I play NLH cash games online at $1-$2 NLH or lower my bets are a mixture of value bets and semi-bluffs almost entirely. The only time you should be bluffing with a high frequency is when your table is extremely tight or when you are seated with some pretty solid players. So, what do I do when I'm sitting at a very tight table or one with good players? I find a different table. Problem solved. Until next time, Good "Luck!"
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