You’re sitting in the hijack at a 6-max No-Limit Hold’em cash table, playing online poker for real money at Ignition. Here come your hole cards: Eight-Four suited, both Hearts. Not exactly a premium hand – but you’re feeling spicy, so you open anyway. The big blind calls, and the flop comes King-Five-Three with two Hearts and a Club. You continuation bet, the big blind calls. Turn is a Nine of Clubs. You bet again, the big blind calls. River is a Six of Clubs. You’ve got absolutely nothing – but you go all-in! And your opponent folds!

 

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Congratulations: You just ran a sick poker bluff. There’s nothing quite like getting your opponent to fold and surrender all those chips when you’ve got a trash hand. In fact, if you want to be a winning poker player in the long run, you have to put moves like this in your arsenal. But as always, there’s a time to bluff and a time to just muck your cards. This guide will show you what bluffing is all about, and how to develop poker bluffing strategies that will pay out handsomely in the long run.

 

What Is a Poker Bluff?

The word bluff is a familiar everyday term in the English language, but it first came to us from the Netherlands. Its use can be traced back to 1791, and probably comes from the Dutch word bluffen, which means “to brag” or “to deceive.” The word bluffen was later applied to card games where players with a weak hand can trick their opponents into folding; in fact, brag itself was a British version of one of these games, a precursor of modern poker that was played in the 1700s.

There are multiple ways to deceive your opponents in poker. For example, you can slowplay a strong hand and fool your opponent into thinking you’re weak. But that’s not a bluff – it’s the opposite. Bluffing is specifically when you bet or raise with a weak hand, hoping to get your opponent to fold a stronger hand. And there are many different kinds of bluffs you can run at the poker table.

 

What Is a Pure Bluff?

Bluffs can be categorized by their strength, much like the standard poker hand ranking list from High Card to Royal Flush. The weakest of all bluffs is the pure bluff, also known as the naked bluff. This is when you bet or raise with a hand that doesn’t have any outs, meaning it can’t draw to a made hand that can beat your opponent.

Of course, if you’re already on the river and you haven’t made your hand (like in the above example), then every bluff can be considered a pure bluff. But even then, some bluffs are stronger than others – as we’ll explain shortly.

 

What is a Semi-Bluff?

Once your bluffing hand actually has some equity behind it, you’re moving into semi-bluff territory. This is a hand that is probably weaker than your opponent’s, but if they don’t fold, you still have a chance of drawing to a better made hand by the river. Classic hands to semi-bluff include open-ended straight draws, where you have four consecutive cards to a straight (preferably your two hole cards, plus two on the board), and flush draws, where you have four cards of the same suit.

There’s some debate over whether weaker draws like gutshots (where you have four outs instead of eight or nine) and backdoor draws (where you only have three of the five cards you need) can be considered semi-bluffs. The same goes for combo draws like straight flush draws where you have 14 outs or more, and your hand probably has more equity than your opponent’s, even if they happen to be ahead at the moment. Don’t worry about this debate too much – it’s just words. The important thing to grasp is the concept that you have two ways to win with a semi-bluff:

  1. Get your opponent to fold; or failing that
  2. Make the better hand by the river

 

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When Should I Bluff?

Now it’s time to employ a little strategy. If you play real money poker and you never bluff, your opponents will eventually get wise and stop paying you off when you bet or raise. Poker wizards have done the math, and they’ve proven what the old-school rounders always knew: A healthy balance of bluffs and value bets will deliver the biggest rewards.

Picking and choosing the right times to bluff is the tricky part. If you’re relatively new at this game, one of the best poker tips we can give you is to bluff sparingly. Treat this weapon with great care because bluffing can cost you dearly if you don’t do it correctly. Let’s start with pre-flop play, because that’s easy – don’t bluff. Use a linear range, opening your strongest hands from early position, then widening your range as you move around the table. Do this with your 3-bets and 4-bets as well.

Once you reach the flop, stick with the stronger semi-bluffs when you’re ready to get tricky. An open-ended straight draw gives you eight outs, and a flush draw gives you nine outs; if your opponent doesn’t fold, your chances of completing by the river with either of these hands are about 1-in-3. You won’t be playing Game-Theory Optimal (GTO) poker by any means with this strategy, but as a beginner, minimizing mistakes should be your focus.

 

Double-Barreling and Triple-Barreling

So let’s say you’ve got a flush draw on the flop and you decide to bluff. Your opponent calls. Now what do you do on the turn? A second bet might get your opponent to fold – this is called a double-barrel, as in the barrel of a gun. Or they might call again, or even raise you on the turn. It’s a sticky situation.

Again, if you’re a beginner, we recommend you keep it simple and try not to think about too many things at once. For now, focus on the turn card itself. If it’s a blank, i.e. a card that doesn’t connect well with the rest of the board (or complete your flush), go ahead and double-barrel. Remember, the whole idea behind the bluff is that you want your opponent to think that you have a made hand. If the turn card does connect with the board, abandon ship for now and check instead – unless you make your flush. Then go ahead and bet for value; you could slowplay, but that’s for more advanced players.

If you bluff both the flop and the turn and you still can’t get your opponent to fold, you could fire that third barrel on the river if you don’t make your flush, just like the scenario we brought up at the start of this guide. But we encourage you to pump the brakes and check instead if you’re a beginner. By the time you get to the river, the pot should be pretty big, and making big mistakes in big pots is a great way to drain your bankroll. Save that triple-barrel bluff for when you’ve got some more experience under your belt.

 

Bluffing 102

Okay, now it’s finally time to take the training wheels off. You’ve played poker for a little while, you’ve gotten comfortable with semi-bluffs, and you have some sense of what you’re getting yourself into. Let’s take a deeper dive into the art of bluffing. There are tons of good spots for intermediate players to run more speculative bluffs; the key is to target opponents who have wide ranges and are more likely to fold.

The simple check-raise bluff on the flop with a gutshot or backdoor combo draw (three cards to a straight flush) is the easiest of these to pull off. If you call a late-position open from the big blind, you can often get your opponent to fold by check-raising, since their chances of connecting with the board are relatively small. And if they do continue, a double-barrel or even a triple-barrel will have more chance of success against their weaker range. Plus, you still have outs to make a better hand.

Your bluff will have even more chance of success if you take blockers into account. In the above example, the board was King-Five-Three-Nine-Six. There are two ways your opponent could have a straight here: Eight-Seven (making 98765), or Four-Deuce (making 65432) – although they’ll be more likely to call from the big blind with Eight-Seven. But wait: You have both an Eight and a Four in your hand. You are blocking your opponent from holding some of the combinations that would have you beat. This could be a great spot to run a triple-barrel bluff.

It could be. If you’re an expert, you’re probably shaking your fist and saying something like “But the big blind has way more of those small cards in their range than the hijack. Plus, they’re more likely to hit that backdoor Club flush. And why were you opening Eight-Four suited in the first place?” Very good – you’ve been playing this game for a while, haven’t you? There’s a lot more to running a really sick bluff than what we’ve mentioned here thus far. But this is a great place to start if you want to get better at poker. Keep working on those bluffs, and we’ll see you at the tables.

 

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