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Psychology and Bluffing

I wish I could write anything useful on the subject of poker psychology, but I cannot. I have read literally thousands of pages on the subject. It is interesting for a poker addict to read about this type of player and that type of player and what their habits are and how to detect them, but from a practical standpoint it is all bosh. Poker psychology is a matter of special aptitude. You have it or you don't. If you have it nobody needs to teach you and if you don't have it nobody can. All I have ever been able to say on the subject is this: If you are being consistently outguessed, you aren't going to be able to do anything about it. It is no disgrace to lack the knack, but there is no remedy.

Fortunately, it is possible to be a consistent winner in a poker game even if one or two other players surpass you in the intuition (or whatever it is) that gives one player ascendancy over another. If you have better technique (knowledge of the game and application of that knowledge) and if you are more conservative (which means playing only when it is mathematically sound to do so) you can still beat the intuitive player who tosses his chips away in curiosity or overoptimism. If the majority of the players in the game are equal or superior to you in technique and can also outguess you, that simply is no game for you to be in.

Part of what I said about psychology can be applied also to the art of bluffing, and it is an art, never think it isn't; but bluffing does lend itself to a considerable amount of advice and standard rules, which I will discuss here.

First, and most important, you have to bluff sometimes. I know that some players are temperamentally unsuited to bluffing and find it repugnant, but it is a necessary part of the game. If you never bluff, that fact soon becomes noticed and you do not get called on your good hands. If you never get called on your good hands, you are unlikely to win.

The literature of poker takes a standard attitude toward bluffing. "Bluffing is advertising," it shouts. "When you bluff, expect to lose; your reward is that you will then get called on your good hands."

I have always agreed with the conclusion but I have never been able to stomach the premise.

In my opinion, every bet you make in poker should be made for one purpose only: To win the pot. I admit that bluffing is a losing game at best, because in poker the best hand usually wins the pot, but I still feel that every bluff should be so designed as to have the best possible chance to win.

My advice on bluffing policy is as follows. At the start of the game or session, do not bluff. If you are getting called on your good hands, continue not to bluff. After two or three cases in which you do not get called, begin to bluff. After two cases in which you have bluffed and have been caught, stop bluffing until again you find that you are not being called on your good hands.

Scientific bluffing requires a knowledge of position, which I will discuss next. Most of all, however, it requires a certain amount of conscious thought. It is not a matter of inspiration.

Plan your bluff in advance. Imagine a particular hand that you would like to hold and imagine the most skillful way you could play that hand. Then, assuming that you hold the hand you wish to represent, bet throughout as if you had that hand. The most frequent bluff by far is also the most futile bluff. A player draws one card to a straight or flush possibility, fails to fill, and stubbornly bets anyway. This is a bad bluff for a liberal player. It is a good bluff only for a conservative player who almost never draws to a straight or flush possibility, and even
that player must be careful not to bluff into a hand that may comprise two fairly high pairs, because his one-card draw will usually be figured for a two-pair hand. He will get a call that is not suspicious but quite valid.

The next most frequent bluff, and almost as futile a bluff for a good player, is the one in which a player with a single pair represents three of a kind by raising before the draw and drawing two cards, after which he bets. If it is a planned bluff, he may have a two-card draw to a flush or straight rather than to a pair. Before considering this bluff, make sure that if you actually did hold three of a kind you would play them in exactly the same way. A bluff must almost always be planned from the start of the hand. If it is based on a later impulse, it will hardly fool a good player because he will find some inconsistency in the way the hand was played at the start.

This brings us to another cliche of poker, but it is a valid one: It is easier to bluff a good player than a poor player. For example, a poor player will often stay in on a low pair and draw two cards to the low pair and an ace kicker. Don't try to bluff him by drawing two cards. He will be too suspicious of an unsound act that he is capable of doing himself.

Always most effective among bluffs is the pat-hand bluff. It is most effective if you have simply played without raising when you are close to the opener or when there is obviously a chance that several players may stay or even raise after you. For this kind of bluff, if you do get a later opportunity you must raise and, if the pot has previously been raised, you must reraise. It is logical with a pat hand to try to suck in as many players as possible, and if there is any false note—if you would not have played a genuine pat hand in exactly the same way—it is a bad bluff.

The pat-hand bluff is fortified by an occasional instance in which you stand pat with three of a kind or perhaps with aces or kings up. The odds are 9 to 1 against improving three of a kind, which usually will win without improvement anyway, and 11 to 1 against improving aces up, which also will usually win without improvement, so if you have been caught with one or two pat-hand bluffs you help to keep the opponents guessing by repeating your action when you have a fair hand that will probably win on its own. But the important thing to remember is that all these stratagems are designed to keep the opponents guessing and not to be an integral part of your effort to win.

The basic objective in poker is still and will remain the effort to win as much as possible when you have the best hand.

You will often hear it said that bluffing depends largely on the stakes in the game—that you cannot bluff successfully in a low-limit game and that you can bluff successfully in a high-limit or table stakes game. There is not a great deal to this.

Perhaps, in a wide-open low-limit game along relatively poor players, it is hard to get away with a bluff when there is perhaps $15 or $20 in the pot and all you can bet is $2. But in a good game, this does not necessarily apply. A good player doesn't want to throw away any chips, no matter how few. The mathematical considerations that apply to staying in the pot do not apply to calling a final bet. If there are $20 in the pot and you can draw cards for $2, you are getting odds of 10 to 1 and your chance of improving is likely to be considerably better than that. But when it comes to calling a final bet, there are no odds. Either the player has what he represents or he hasn't. If he has what he represents, any chips put in the pot are money thrown away. The difficulty in bluffing in a good game is that a good opponent is all the more likely to read your bluff and call whether the pot is big or small.

The big-bet bluff does usually win, simply because it isn't worth while for a serious player to call it. If you bet a $50 or $100 stack to win a $10 or $12 pot, you will get away with it more often than not. The difficulty is that even if your bluffs are not detected, you are going from time to time to run into a hand that is good enough to call on its merits and not on suspicion, and in such cases you are likely to lose back more than you pick up in that succession of small pots.

Bluffing in stud poker is different from bluffing in draw poker, in one important respect. In stud .poker, your bluff must represent some particular hole card with which you would have played as you did.

A bluff in stud poker can be either a planned bluff or an unexpected bluff that develops from the end situation.
In the planned bluff, the player represents a certain hand throughout and never deviates from the course he would have followed if he had actually had that hand.

In the unplanned bluff, the player winds up with a losing hand but suddenly realizes that he would have played the same way on a different, winning hand. He then bets as though he had that winning hand. For example, A has 6 in the hole and 6-Q-8-A showing; B has king in the hole and J-10-K-5 showing. A bets and B drops. This is a semi-bluff, because A might actually have the winning hand (but if he has, he will not get a call anyway). B is justified in figuring A for an ace. If more than one ace has shown, this bluff may lose; if A has raised previously, the bluff should not be attempted. If B is a poor or a wild player who doesn't do much thinking, the bluff will probably lose.

When you are trying to spot another player's bluff, you have to depend on your judgment of the player more than on anything else; but one principle to keep in mind is this: You can't always trust the man who bets or raises but you can nearly always trust the man who calls. Suppose you are C, third man to speak. A, the first man, bets; B calls. Before worrying about beating A, pause to wonder if you can beat B. He isn't bluffing.
I will have more to say about bluffing from time to time in the future. At this point I want to repeat a statement that may not have received enough notice when I said it the first time. You are unlikely to be a winning poker player if you never bluff. You must bluff from time to time, win or lose. But whenever you bluff, try to win.

 
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