To bluff in poker, your story needs to make sense

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Ah, the thrill of the bluff. Putting your opponent on a hand that’s better than yours and executing that well-timed bluff to push him off his hand and rake in those chips that would’ve gone to him if the cards had been shown. This is no simple continuation bet, but a planned series of events where you tell a believable story with your betting and convince your opponent he just simply must be beat.

That’s fun right? Many people actually just love to bluff. They like to fire chips into the pot and hope to win with sheer aggression. Sure, this works sometimes, but not against your most savvy opponents. If you fall in love with the bluff and like to try to run over your opponents, you better tell the right story with your betting or you will find yourself heading to the rail scratching your head thinking, “Man! How could he call that bet?” If you are overly aggressive and bluff too often, your opponents are going to start to notice. More important, you have to ask yourself if you’re telling the right story with your betting. If the story is not cohesive then even some of your not-so-savvy opponents may pick up that something “just isn’t right here” and that curiosity will lead them to pick off your bluff.

I recently played a hand online where I ignored this advice and made a bet on the river that wasn’t consistent with my betting story. If I had been on my “A” game and thinking clearly about how the hand was played, I would’ve cut my losses and moved on to a more profitable situation. I’ll tell you how the hand played out and then what I did to put the pieces together – including hitting up my opponent for advice. Yes, folks, take your ego out of the game and do everything you can to learn.

The game was a six-handed $100 buy-in with one rebuy and one add-on. It’s a daily tournament that typically attracts some of today’s best players. It’s particularly appealing because so many people try to play it with only $100 or they play it too fast like it’s a normal rebuy, so there ends up being a lot of dead money in the prize pool. It also becomes a very deep-stacked tournament, thus increasing its appeal to the skilled players.

About three hours into the tournament we were at the 250-500 level with a 50-unit ante and I was sitting on a very comfortable stack of more than 76,000. I was first to act, but since we were playing a six-max tournament this essentially meant I was in middle position. With the {8-Spades}-{7c I made my standard raise to 1,250. The small blind, who I knew to be a very strong player, was my only caller. He started the hand with about 33,000. The flop was {q-Clubs}{10-Clubs}{5-Hearts} and my opponent checked. Being heads-up and in position, I make a continuation bet (c-bet) here just about 100 percent of the time. So I bet 2,100 and my opponent called.

The turn brought the {9-Hearts} and my opponent once again checked. I picked up an open-ended straight draw and decided this was a good spot to take a free card and exercise some pot control. This is a fine line to take in this spot, but I also really need to be thinking about what I’m going to do on the river in case I miss. I didn’t really have a plan for that except I thought I could represent any club on the river, so a bluff might work if he checked.

The river was the {a-Diamonds}. My opponent thought for a while and then led into this 7,900 pot for 3,995. To me, this looked like a blocking bet and that my opponent may have actually been on the flush draw with an ace in his hand or maybe even have a queen, setting his own price for a showdown. If this was the case, he probably was willing to call that much, but doesn’t want to face a bigger bet. Knowing my opponent is very good, I thought he was capable of laying down such a hand if I came over the top.

So I raised to 13,500, trying to make it appear as a value raise because it won’t look like I’m threatening his stack and may look like I actually want the call. My opponent went into the tank and eventually called with {k-Clubs}{q-Spades}! How could he make that call? Turns out it’s actually not that hard to make that call when you take time to think about the hand the way my opponent did. I contacted him on a popular online forum site and asked him to explain his thought process.

Here’s the way he put the hand together, which is how I think I would’ve put it together if I were looking at it from his point of view AND playing my best game. Neither of which I did in this hand.

When I checked that turn, my opponent can safely rule out K-J, which would be the nuts at that point, because if I held the nuts, I would certainly bet for value and to price out the two flush draws. He intentionally led into me an amount that would look like a blocking bet for two reasons: If I had a better hand than his, I would almost certainly just call (since I don’t have the nuts and he knows this), and if I raised him he would almost be assured it’s a bluff because he knows I’m a solid player and unlikely to raise him on the river without the nuts.

Say I had a hand like Q-Q, 10-10, A-Q, A-10 or A-A. Once he led into me on the river knowing I don’t have K-J, I can’t raise him with any of these hands because I don’t know that HE doesn’t have K-J. I would just have to call with these hands or I would be making a big mistake. I WOULD have bet the turn with K-J and I would ONLY raise on the river with a winning hand if I had K-J. My story didn’t add up and my opponent was able to call my bet with a high degree of confidence. Notice he didn’t raise me; that would just be foolish. There’s no reason to risk the rest of his chips in the rare case he was incorrect and I played the K-J poorly or raised in a spot I shouldn’t.

He made the call based on what’s likely the case after reading my the betting story. My betting story told him I was bluffing and props to him for making the correct call.
When you’re attempting bluffs, make sure you’re really paying attention to what story you’re telling and what story your opponent is telling. A very important lesson from this hand centers around evaluating whether your opponent could have the nuts. Also be aware if your betting story has effectively ruled out the nuts from your hand.

If you’re able to rule out that your opponent is holding the nuts and yet they raise you on the river, you will find they are more often bluffing than raising for value. All of the betting in a hand tells a story. Pay attention to the story and you will be able to make better-timed bluffs and more educated calls. Decide to Win!

— Lee Childs is founder and lead instructor of Acumen Poker. He also is a Lock Poker Pro and an instructor with the WPT Boot Camp. Check out his site at
www.acumenpoker.net.