Steal This Pot

The Poker Bluff

Poker Bluffs"Opportunity makes a thief." -- Francis Bacon

A great deal of an excellent poker player's profit comes from "cunning, fraud and flight." Those are the three means Paul Goodman said young men could use to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. Thinking about the words in the context of draft avoidance helps understand how they apply to poker.

Of those three, I believe flight is the most important, since folding is the most common poker action. But today we are going to talk about fraud. Fraud can be used in bluffing, semi-bluffing, misrepresenting, deceiving, and manipulating. A lot of the ways you can use fraud can be boiled down to one word: stealing. Steal bets, steal pots, steal position, steal initiative -- excellent players take edges wherever they can find them. They create their own opportunities. They even take the opportunities that others should take.

This is an “all the market will bear” situation. There are some game types where stealing more is the right thing to do, while in some games stealing less is correct. There are no absolutes. You just need to know that you have to steal some value, some times. If you only win pots when you have the best hand, your only chance of beating poker is by playing against truly dreadful opponents. At the same time, if you try to win all the pots where you don’t have the best hand, you’ll be sleeping in the street in no time. The point is to “steal” an appropriate percentage of the pots you couldn’t win by showing down.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking “steal” equals “bluff.” Bluffing is just one way to steal in poker. You can “steal the button” by making a bet or raise with a weak hand so that you get the most advantageous position in later betting rounds. The clichéd “free card” raise is an attempt to steal a free ride for a betting round. “Stealing the blinds” can occur when a player raises with a mediocre hand because it looks like he will not be called by anyone. In HiLo games you can “steal half the pot” several ways, like by raising out other players when you hold a hand that has mediocre high value and mediocre low value but is unlikely to get scooped by one opponent.

But pure bluffing will always be the flashiest, most adrenalin-pumping action in poker. Effective bluffing results in some of the most critical income a player can create.

So, when should you bluff? The very first way to answer that is: don’t bluff when most people bluff! Most people bluff in all the wrong situations. Most people bluff from last position. Most people bluff in big pots. Most people bluff in games where it is often true that nobody has much (like Holdem or Lowball). Most people bluff after they raised before the flop. In all these situations you may as well stick a flashing light on the pot that blinks '211 in progress.'" While a bluff might sometimes be appropriate in these situations, usually they are all wrong. Bluffing is a deception. You are trying to look like you got sumthin’ when you got nuthin’. So, normally it isn’t a good idea to bluff when people are expecting you to bluff. Normally it isn’t a good idea to bluff in situations where the opponent would at least think about bluffing!

You should tend to bluff in situations where your opponent would never think to bluff. After all, what matters is what your opponent thinks, not what makes sense. Bluff from early position. Bluff small pots. Bluff in hands where you have shown weakness rather than strength. Find situations to bluff in Omaha8, where most people think bluffing is impossible. Bluff when you take three cards in draw, not when you take one. Bluff when your opponent will think: “Naah, he wouldn’t bluff here.”

Perhaps the two worst bluffs in poker are to bluff when you have low cards showing in Stud8, and to bluff in Lowball when the big blind draws two and you draw one in last position, head-up. These are also two of the most common bluffs in poker. I think players bluff in these situations because they just seem so unfair. Start with four low cards in Stud8 and then brick-brick-brick. Take a one card draw to A234 and catch a 4. Bluff. Crazy. It’d be cheaper to set fire to some cash instead.

Remember, bluffing is part of "fraud." That is its category. Fraud involves tricking, deceiving. So don’t be bluffing when your opponent expects it. Don’t be bluffing when your opponent would bluff. Fraud in poker is like stealing in the rest of the world -- except for advertising value, it only pays when you get away with it.

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