In the card game of poker, to bluff is to bet or raise with an inferior hand, or with a hand believed to be inferior. The term is also used as a noun: a bluff is the act of bluffing.
A pure bluff, or stone-cold bluff, is a bet or raise with an inferior hand that has little or no chance of improving. A player making a pure bluff believes he can only win the pot if all opponents fold. The pot odds for a bluff are the ratio of the size of the bluff to the pot. A pure bluff has a positive expection (will be profitable in the long run) when the probability of being called by an opponent is lower than the pot odds for the bluff.
For example, if after all the cards are out, a player holding a busted drawing hand may decide the only way to win the pot is to make a pure bluff. If the player bets the size of the pot on a pure bluff, the bluff will have a positive expectation if the probability of being called is less than 50%. Note, however, that the opponent may also consider the pot odds when deciding whether call. In this example, the opponent will be facing 1-to-2 pot odds for the call. The opponent will have a positive expectation for calling the bluff if the opponent believes the probabability the player is bluffing is at least 33%.
In games with multiple betting rounds, to bluff on one round with an inferior or drawing hand that might improve in a later round is called a semi-bluff. A player making a semi-bluff can win the pot two different ways: all opponents fold immediately or by catching a card to improve the player’s hand.
For example, a player in a stud poker game with four spade-suited cards showing (but none among their downcards) on the penultimate round might raise, hoping that his opponents believe he already has a flush. If his bluff fails and he is called, he still might be dealt a spade on the final card and win the showdown (or he might be dealt another non-spade and try his bluff again, in which case it is a pure bluff on the final round rather than a semi-bluff).
Bluffing may be more effective in some circumstances than others. Bluffs have a higher expectation when the probability of being called decreases. Several game circumstances may decrease the probability of being called (and increase the profitability of the bluff):
- Fewer opponents who must fold to the bluff.
- The bluff provides less favorable pot odds to opponents for a call.
- A scare card comes that increases the number of superior hands that the player may be perceived to have.
- The player’s betting pattern in the hand has been consistent with the superior hand they are representing with the bluff.
- The opponent’s betting pattern suggests the opponent may have a marginal hand that is vulnerable to a greater number of potential superior hands.
- The opponent’s betting pattern suggests the opponent may have a drawing hand and the bluff provides unfavorable pot odds to the opponent for chasing the draw.
- Opponents are not irrationally committed to the pot.
Optimal bluffing frequency
If a player bluffs too infrequently, observant opponents will recognize that the player is betting for value and will only call with very strong hands or with drawing hands when they are receiving favorable pot odds. If a player bluffs too frequently, observant opponents snap-off his bluffs by calling or reraising. Occasional bluffing disguises not just the hands a player is bluffing with, but also his legitimate hands that opponents may think he may be bluffing with. David Sklansky, in his book The Theory of Poker, states “Mathematically, the optimal bluffing strategy is to bluff in such a way that the chances against your bluffing are identical to the pot odds your opponent is getting.”
Optimal bluffing also requires that the bluffs must be performed in such a manner that opponents cannot tell when a player is bluffing or not. To prevent bluffs from occurring in a predictable pattern, game theory suggests the use of a randomizing agent to determine whether to bluff. For example, a player might use the colors of his hidden cards, the second hand on his watch, or some other unpredictable mechanism to determine whether to bluff.
David Sklansky (1987). The Theory of Poker. Two Plus Two Publications. ISBN 1880685000.
David Sklansky (2001). Tournament Poker for Advanced Players. Two Plus Two Publications. ISBN 1880685280.
David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth (1988). Hold ’em Poker for Advanced Players. Two Plus Two Publications. ISBN 1880685221.
Dan Harrington and Bill Robertie (2004). Harrington on Hold’em: Expert Strategy For No-Limit Tournaments; Volume I: Strategic Play. Two Plus Two Publications. ISBN 1880685337.
Dan Harrington and Bill Robertie (2005). Harrington on Hold’em: Expert Strategy For No-Limit Tournaments; Volume II: The Endgame. Two Plus Two Publications. ISBN 1880685353.