Mastering the Bluff

By James A. McKenna, Ph.D. | March 5, 2009

In order to successfully bluff in poker, you need to figure out what bluffs will work on what types of players. A good poker player knows the difference, but a bad poker player doesn’t care. Good players know that people can be bluffed while cards can’t. That’s why a show-down is a bluffer’s worst enemy. Players who are the targets of bluffs have traditionally been referred to as “pigeons” in poker. That may be because pigeons are unsuspecting players who make mistakes and invite being trapped. However, every player (even experienced ones) can become a pigeon at any given time.

The Four Modes of Bluffing

Poker players come to the tables with different playing styles. To simplify; some are aggressive, some passive, while others are tight or loose. By combining these traits, you will find four basic types of bluffs; dare bluffs, attack bluffs, sneak bluffs, and dream bluffs.

Dare Bluffs

A player will often bet rather than slow-play the best hand as a “reverse-bluff”. When a player is tight, expect them to ordinarily be aggressive when they do play. They are prone to be daring you as if to say, “Call that, if you don’t like money!” Their reverse bluffs are usually planned and their motto is, “Ready, aim, and then fire”. Such players are daring you to call them because they are certain that they have you beat. It’s a reverse bluff because they think they have the best hand, and are hoping you think they’re bluffing.

These players are also highly planned in their actions and they are aggressive when they play. That’s because they only play with potentially winning hands and will make you pay if you are chasing with a mediocre hand. Their dares, however, are not always obvious. Their dares are very often semi-bluffs – what they have is already good and there’s a chance of their improving if you call them.

Attack Bluffs

There are a whole set of players who are not so well planned in their bluffs. They are much looser players who bluff and keep the action going. These attack bluffers play impulsively and are usually thinking, “Ready, fire, and then aim”. An example of this is a “no fold ’em hold ’em” player who splashes the pot with a raise. If you are reading your players, you may already have pegged him as a loose player that likes to draw attention to his actions. You’ll often see such bluffing occur aggressively, with flare, and the bettor hasn’t even looked to see what he or she is betting into.

These players take risks more liberally, and will routinely bluff into over-cards. They can be a threat to the most seasoned of poker players – particularly if the loose player is catching their hands. Such attack bluffers will give you action and stay in longer than they should. However, these bluffers deserve a word of caution. They can modify their impulsive bluffs and may become more structured when needed.

Sneak Bluffs

Their system of bluffing is to slow-play and let their prey do the betting and find them. They believe that the way to trap a player is to lure them by feigning weakness and then surprising their opponents. While slow-playing is a choice that most players will use at times, it’s a way of life for these sneaky bluffers.

Often, in hold’em, you may be playing with fair cards and a player behind you just limps in. Or, perhaps, hesitates before he calls and seems to be doing it reluctantly. You may then relax and think, “OK, At least I’ve got him beat!” That’s exactly what this sneak bluffer wants you to think. This is actually when you should start to worry. This quiet player who likes to just call and hide behind the proverbial bush, probably already has you in his or her sights. It’s one of the hard bluffs to avoid since the player is seldom aggressive and plays a pretty tight game.

The problem this player has is that he or she is so structured that when they do bet, most people with marginal hands will fold like trained pigs. I asked a friend who is like this how
she handles her tight reputation. I wasn’t surprised to hear her say, “I take advantage of it. Sometimes when I’ve got lousy cards and I am is a good position, I’ll bet or check/raise with a stone-cold bluff!” I wondered if she was setting me up to call her next time that she had a great hand – because the truth is that these players rarely attempt stone-cold bluffs.

Dream Bluffs

These are players who play mostly as they fly – by the seat of their pants. They will cast nets and see what they can catch. Their bluffs are more from hunches about the value of their drawing hands or what they think their hand will become. So, their bluffs are more “on the come”. They will do little to influence play and pretty much let the cards play themselves. They are bluffing as if they are strong because they actually believe that they are going to win the hand. They are dreaming of the hand they are going to get. It can’t even be called semi-bluffing, because they are bluffing on their dreams and don’t even have something like a pair or a gut-shot-straight to build upon.

I was playing with a very friendly player who seemed to play a lot of hands. He was without doubt a calling station. People were filling up on his frequent calls. I began to wonder about how he was thinking as he played. So, I asked him when he showed his hand of Ace high, “that’s wasn’t even a semi-bluff. What were you thinking?”Well, I would have had him beat if I got another Ace!” So he was playing on a dream and chasing to the end.

In order to advance your bluffing skills, it’s time to know how different personality types will dare you, attack you, sneak around you, or be bluffing from their dreams. Experienced players will use all four modes and fit them to the personalities of their opponents. Just remember that hard line aggressive players will either bluff with a dare or attack with their bluffs. Tight/Passive players will either sneak their bluffs from behind the proverbial “bush”, or bluff on their dreams with hands they are hoping to get.

A potential pigeon is either tight or loose, or sometimes a hybrid of the two. When you have the right trap and you systematically use it, you can catch a lot of different kinds of pigeons. Some poker players are better at trapping and others are prime targets to be trapped.

Bluffing Tight Players

Tight players have a lot of structure in their play. To bluff such players will require traps or bluffs that take into account that they are not impulsive. Think of how fishermen use different lures. Some will fold if raised, while others will need convincing that your hand is better and you are coming over them not merely from your later position. At times, thinking can hurt your game. To bluff this kind of player requires getting them to think themselves into folding – which they’ll do frequently enough, which at times make bluffing an almost must.

There’s no doubt that bluffing works best on conservative players. For example, a tight player might check with top pair and bet on the turn after everyone checks behind him. When a player behind him raises that bet and another one re-raises, what would a tight player think? If all he has is top pair, a tight player might fold figuring one of the raisers has him beat. So, what’s the bluff? A showdown might reveal that the first raiser had a small pairs while the re-raiser only had middle pair. This player was convinced they were behind, which is why these players are ideal for being bluffed, particularly if their playing with scared money.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be cautious of tight players. Remember that many are passive in their approach, and when they themselves bluff, it usually has a sneaky aspect. As we’ve already said, sneak bluffs are planned by players whose system is to lay low and wait for someone to do their betting. Like the proverbial spider that spins its webs, these bluffers will use feigning weakness as their lures. They often do the opposite of what the “correct” play is, so make decisions accordingly. If you’re in a situation where you’re being called by a sneaky/tricky type, then slow down and be careful. Don’t fall for their bait, and their weakness may come in the form of checking, with the hope of laying the trap, leaving you with a free card to improve.

Bluffing Loose Players

While some loose players require bluffs that are passive (such as slow playing), others are more vulnerable to active ploys. It’s sometimes hard to tell the cops from the robbers in a poker game. That’s proof that there’s a lot of truth in the saying that, “It takes a thief to catch a thief“. A lot of cops know where to hide their radar-speed traps because they are speeders themselves. When players are moving fast and seem more impulsive, they will require bluffs or speed traps designed to catch them in the act.

When you think a player is just playing “power poker”, a quick re-raise with a strong hand will pay off with such aggressive and impulsive players. That’s because their non-thinking response is to call rather than fold, simply because they often get caught up in the emotions of the hand. They certainly don’t like to appear as if they’re being pushed around, so take advantage of this. But be sure that the player who appears to be loose really is. That could be his or her bluff.

Using Bluffs to Bluff

Some people will tell you that “You can’t bluff a bluffer” – and there is a lot of truth in this. However, a method designed to bluff poker players who may be bluffing is to bluff their bluffs (a meta-bluff). Such moves are used mostly by veteran poker players who know their opponents. Most experienced players realize that other veteran players are tuned into bluffs. So, they will use a bluff to bluff their opponent’s bluffs. They will come over them with another bluff, hoping that their opponents think that their bluff represents a real and better hand.

The fact is, though, that bluffers who play a solid game are much easier to bluff than bluffers who play too loose or don’t have a clue as to what you might have. The meta bluff is also a way to trap the trappers – but it’s best to reserve this kind of bluffing to when you’re convinced that your opponent’s actions are indeed a bluff. It would be a mistake to use meta-bluffs against less experienced players – straight bluffs would be enough.

Bluffing Insurance

The best insurance against being bluffed is developing the ability to read your opponent’s hands. If they are representing strength and you already have read them as weak, trust your reads. For example, I was playing with a young man who liked to chat on the side about what he thought people had. I noticed that he was pretty good and hit the mark on a number of occasions. This ability to “read” what others had was some insurance against his being bluffed. If he already had the person on a certain hand that wasn’t as good as his, he’d call. If, however, he put the other hand as better than his, he’d fold. The other advantage was the other players knew he was good at getting reads, so they were less likely to attempt to bluff him in the first place.

The key to mastering the bluff is to know your opponents. Without knowing the differences in players, your bluffs won’t be as effective and you’ll also fall victim to a bluffer. Remember that good poker players not only mix-up their play, they fit their bluffs to current conditions at the table and the personality of their opponents. Once you know your opponents you’ll know what bluffs they’re likely to use on you, and the different traps you can use against them – some designed to catch loose speeders or just casting nets to see what’s available.

By James A. McKenna, Ph.D.

Jim McKenna has been practicing psychotherapy for more than 40 years. He focuses his knowledge about people on poker players and is the author of two poker books on the subject.


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