Some bluffs are better than others

Dara O Kearney
Dara O’Kearney

It doesn’t matter what you bluff with, because it’s a bluff, right? This is a flawed line of thinking a lot of amateur players use to justify playing junk hands and going broke with them. The reality is that there are better hands to bluff with than others, even if the gameplan is to not see a showdown.

A stone cold bluff is when we make a brazen attempt to take down a pot with a hand that has no place being there. It is what we see when somebody attempts to ‘own’ the table with 7-2 so they can show it down (slightly different if they are playing the 7-2 game with an extra financial incentive to show it down). We give a name to this type of bluff in part recognition of the fact that there are better, or ’warmer’, hands to bluff with than others.

Natural bluffs

You will hear these hands called ‘natural’ bluff candidates. That is a hand which either has a chance of improving if called or at least makes it more likely our opponent’s have something they can fold, by virtue of card removal.

Perhaps the most natural bluff candidate of all is the semi bluff. Let’s say with have AQ of Hearts and the board comes KJ3, two Hearts. When we ‘bluff’ we make a better hand fold right there, but if they call there are a lot of cards that can give us the best hand at showdown.

In truth, when our hand has such high equity like in this example, it is hardly a bluff at all. We are instead value betting our equity, because against a lot of hands, especially single pair hands, we are the favourite to win. This is a mistake amateur players make, they hold 22 in a spot like the one above and think they are ‘ahead’ and their opponent got lucky bluffing, when in reality the big draw is a monster to win.

Lesser draws work well as natural bluff candidates too. A gutshot or a backdoor straight/flush draw are often good hands to bluff with because we can take down the pot, but when called we can turn monsters or draws that we are happy to bet another street with. These types of hands have the benefit of being well disguised so when we do hit, we have a good chance of getting paid off. Weak bottom pair type hands work well as bluffs too, because they can hit disguised trips or two pairs. We are still happy and hoping to take down the pot there and then, however.

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Blocker bluffs

Dara O Kearney
Stone cold bluffs are rarely a good idea

The other type of natural bluff candidate is when we hold a blocker to another hand. There are a few ways blockers can impact the hands we bluff with.

One example is when we block a nutted type of hand. For example, let’s say by the river there are three Hearts and we have Ax with the Ace of Hearts. We haven’t made a hand, but it’s not possible for our opponent to have the nut flush because we have the Ace of Hearts. In a deep pot against a thinking opponent, we have the potential to take our opponent off an otherwise strong hand.

In my book Poker Satellite Strategy we also pointed to a preflop example of when blockers help you take down pots uncontested. We showed that in the late stages when ICM pressure is huge, it is more profitable to open shove or 3-bet shove with A2s than it is Pocket Jacks. This is because when ICM pressure is significant, the range of hands a player can profitably call with shrinks and is weighted towards Ax hands and big pairs. If we think they will only call with AK and QQ+ on the bubble, when we have JJ there are 34 combinations of hand that call us, but when we have A2s there are only 27, because we block AK and AA. So bluffing with a rag Ace reduces the number of hands that could call us by about 20%.

Media depictions of poker often leave the false impression that bluffing is a much bigger part of the game than it actually is, which often sends a lot of players down bad roads thinking they need to take down pots with rags half the time. The reality is poker is more a game of value betting and equity, but with this in mind, there are better hands to bluff with than others.

You can get advice like this every month in Dara’s free strategy newsletter (with a current focus on PKOs and 3-bet pots) which you can join right here.

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