Bluffing (Part 1)

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.

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?

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 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 – or more precisely the possibility that one might be bluffing – 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 misdirection 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 – when the cost of bets double – is another form of bluffing.

There’s also the semibluff. That’s a term coined by noted poker theorist David Sklansky, who defines it this way: “…a semibluff 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 semibluff, 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 – it’s only a few of them to be sure – 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.

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 Qd 4d 3c. 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 Ad 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 10h 9h. Baldwin had run a naked bluff, winning a $92,000 pot with absolutely nothing – not even a draw. That turned the tide and Bobby Baldwin became the 1978 World Series of Poker champion – although whether he won it or stole it right out from under Crandall Addington’s nose is subject to interpretation.