Understanding Optimal Poker Bluffing Strategy in No-Limit Hold’em
June 23, 2015 Leave a Comment
One of the most fun, and thrilling aspects of playing poker, is pulling off a successful bluff on an opponent.
While bluffing is exciting to do, we must realize the optimal timing, and balance for bluffing our opponents. There are certain opponents we don’t want to bluff, and there are other opponents we can bluff relentlessly, without fail.
If we are able to balance our table image correctly, we can create optimal situations for ourselves to pick up pots with well timed bluffs.
Developing The Confidence to Bluff
As I have developed my poker mindset over years and years of practice and experience, I have become more comfortable pulling off massive bluffs in situations where I know I can get my opponent to fold a high percentage of the time.
In order to feel comfortable and confident in pulling off these bluffs, I must be playing at a stakes where my entire bankroll is not even remotely close in danger of being affected, in a tangible way, from a single hand.
For me, if the chips don’t feel like money, I am more inclined to risk chips to maximize my potential for winning additional chips.
Technically, (in a cash game) if I believe my opponent will fold to my bluff more often than not ( “perceived”50%+ chance my opponent will fold, based on my read of the possible hand range of my opponents), I am apt to take a shot at the bluff.
We play poker with chips, not with money.
The money comes as a result of accumulating as many chips as possible by employing an optimal poker strategy that gives us the best opportunity to experience a profit in the long-run.
I am more willing to take big risks at bluffing in cash games, rather than tournaments, because tournaments are not won and lost on a single hand. In cash games, we can always add more chips if our bluff gets called and lose. In tournaments, if we are unable to rebuy, we are completely eliminated from the game.
Before we get into details of optimal poker bluffing strategy, lets take a look at one of the greatest bluffs in the history of poker:
In this hand from the 2003 WSOP main event final table, Chris Moneymaker pulls off a successful bluff against one of the top professional poker players in the world, Sam Farha. Sammy Farha has a strong hand, but simply cannot find a way to call Moneymaker’s big bluff on the river.
I believe Sam Farha assumed Chris Moneymaker (a complete amateur at this time), was simply not capable of making a huge bluff in such a big spot in this tournament. The two players are heads up for the title of main event champion, and Sammy feels that Chris more often than not has a monster hand in this spot. Sammy knows that he even if he is wrong by folding, he will still have a lot of chips left against a nervous amateur.
All in all, Chris Moneymaker picked a great spot for a bluff, and had a lot of heart to execute it. Most players might check the river after trying to bluff raise the turn in this spot, but Chris followed through with his “story”, causing Sammy to fold.
Moneymaker would eventually upset Sammy Farha, and win the main event title, creating what was known at the time as “The Poker Boom” due to the “Moneymaker Effect.”
Identifying The Different Playing Styles of Our Opponents at The Poker Table
There are generally four different types of opponents you will encounter in a poker game. These playing styles are defined as:
- Tight Aggressive (TAG)
- Loose Aggressive (LAG)
A typical tight-passive player generally doesn’t play many pots and will often just call pre-flop when they find a hand they like. They will play so tight that when they do play, everyone else folds. So, when they have a good hand they can’t make any money. This type of player is sometimes labelled as a ‘rock’ or a ‘nit’ and the general style of play can also be referred to as ‘weak-passive’.
They are easy to bluff and will frequently fold to scary board cards, such as an Ace. The really timid players can also be paralyzed with fear and won’t take shots. This is because they tend to play with a fear of losing.
Observant players who have identified a weak, predictable player will always be on the lookout for situations that can be exploited simply because the tight-passive player folds too frequently to aggression.
The Loose Passive
Loose-passive players like to limp into lots of pots.
They will call raises “just to see a flop” and will remain in the hand whenever they hit any of it, however marginal. They seldom take chances or become aggressive in their plays and they tend to be “calling stations” when they do.
Their whole approach to playing poker is to watch and let others do the risking. Many beginners or even players who’ve played for a long time can fall into the trap of just calling, calling and calling.
This is especially true in low buy-in games. They are very obvious to spot and are easy targets.
Unlike the tight-passive players, you’re not going to be able to bluff them – you never want to bluff a calling station! But when you do pick up a hand that is fairly strong, you should bet for value and milk as much out of them as you possibly can.
The Tight Aggressive (TAG)
The tight-aggressive player generally doesn’t play many pots. They are selective and generally only play the best starting hands.
Unlike the tight-passive players, a tight-aggressive player will play their cards strongly. They are patient and wait for the best opportunities to strike but they are not afraid of betting.
The best tight-aggressive players are often labelled as ‘sharks’ because a tight-aggressive style is frequently effective, regardless of the game variation or betting structure.
Most observant opponents will avoid clashing with a tight-aggressive player since they’ll assume that they have the best hand and will fold under the pressure.
The Loose Aggressive (LAG)
The loose-aggressive player tends to raise or re-raise a wide variety of hands pre-flop and will often bet on most flops.
They can be extremely difficult to read because they play such a wide range of hands.
In no-limit hold’em there are some very skilled players who employ a loose-aggressive style of play to great effect. They use their chips as weapons and are constantly applying pressure on their opponents.
They will bluff a high percentage of the time, and are extremely difficult to develop a counter strategy to play against.
However, at the extreme end of the loose-aggressive scale is the ‘maniac’ who seemingly raises without rhyme or reason. The maniac’s tendency to overplay his hands means you will almost surely show a profit in the long run against this type of player. via
What Type of Opponents Should We Bluff & When Should We Bluff Them?
The Loose/Passive Opponent
The perfect type of opponent to bluff is an opponent who is scared to put money into the pot without a super strong hand. These opponents will play very tight and snug throughout their session, and will only get involved in pots when they have a strong hand.
Certain opponents will literally never put money into the pot unless they have top pair or better on the flop. These are the easiest opponents to bluff because more often than not, unpaired hole cards will not make any pair on the flop.
Even if these opponents make bottom pair, they will be hesitant to commit a lot of money without improving their hand.
Most of these weak opponents play a style known as loose/passive, meaning they play very loose pre-flop by calling raises with a variety of hands. When these hands don’t amount to much on the flop, they are quick to give up (passive).
On the contrary, strong, solid players generally play a loose/aggressive style that makes them difficult to read because they are constantly betting and raising. These solid players will be doing the betting (aggressive), instead of simply calling bets from other opponents (passive).
If we want to be successful in our poker bluffing strategy, we must employ a loose/aggressive style to make it difficult for our opponents at the table to generate reads on us.
Tight/Passive & Tight/Aggressive
These opponents are similar to the loose/passive type, except they only see flops with strong starting hands instead of a wide variety of hands. As an example, a loose/passive opponent might make a call of a raise pre-flop with Q-9 offsuit, the tight/passive and tight/aggressive opponents will, more often than not, fold this hand pre-flop.
The loose aggressive opponent is not an easy target for bluffing, but we can still effectively bluff this type of opponent in certain situations.
Lets take a look at Phil Ivey pull a world-class bluff on Lex Veldhuis a notoriously loose/aggressive opponent:
This is the classic case of two loose/aggressive opponents going after one another. Phil Ivey is able to find Lex’s breaking point, and wins the aggression battle by taking down the pot pre-flop. This type of maneuver with a hand as weak as Phil’s is not recommended, as we will be very behind in the hand if we get called on our all-in.
This is a good situation for Phil to bluff because it is tough for Lex to really represent a strong hand in this spot.
Phil knows that Barry is going to fold his initial raise to his re-raise a large percentage of the time. Lex understands that Ivey is 3-betting Barry with a very wide range of hands in position on the button.
Lex tries to take advantage of this by 4-betting Phil from his straddle, with a nice sized raise. Lex leaves himself enough money behind to consider folding, and Ivey takes advantage of this by shoving all-in.
Lex can only call in this spot with super premium hands, and Ivey is successful here as reading Lex to be weak. Phil doesn’t like to be pushed around, and when he has a lot of chips in front of him, he is willing to risk them in marginal situations to outplay his opponents.
Note that effective stack sizes are extremely important in this hand. Lex has about $200,000 in front of him, and Phil has him covered. The blinds are $400/800, so each player (Lex and Phil) have effectively around 300 big blinds before the hand is dealt, creating a dynamic that Phil Ivey can exploit with his all-in play.
Lex’s straddle creates the dynamic of playing a larger pot pre-flop, and he got exactly what he wanted, only to be outplayed by the master, Phil Ivey.
In this type of leveling war between two super aggressive opponents, the player who can put their opponent to a decision for all of their chips is more often than not, the winner of the hand. Super-aggressive players rarely have a super strong hand when the raise and re-raise, so the possibility of getting another super aggressive opponent to finally fold with the last raise (the all-in raise) is very high.
What is the Optimal Bluffing Frequency?
The optimal frequency for attempting bluffs on opponents is completely dependent on a variety of situational factors.
A few questions to keep in mind when deciding to make a bluff:
- What is my knowledge of my opponent’s potential hand range?
- Is this an opponent I have identified as weak, and capable of folding a wide range of hands to my bluff?
- How often have I been betting and raising this session?
- How often have my opponents shown aggression towards me?
- How often have these opponents shown aggression towards me when I have shown aggression first?
- Is this opponent a thinking player, or is he playing a robotic ABC style that I can exploit on a variety of flops/board textures?
- What is my current emotional state?
- Is my current emotional state dictating my potential action in the hand, or am I deriving a logical conclusion of action that is absent of current emotion?
These are just a few questions you should ask yourself before you come to a conclusion that you should try to bluff an opponent.
I will leave you with another great example of a well-timed bluff by poker pro, Daniel Negreanu:
Daniel is a master of communication at the poker table. He is able to convince his opponent in this hand that he has him beat, even though he knows for sure he is beat. Daniel figures he can get a large portion of this opponents hand range to fold to a river raise, and he executes perfectly.
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Good luck at the tables! 🙂