To catch a bluffer on poker, you must first be one


Deception has been described as an essential part of poker play. How good can you be at deception and reading deception? Probably not as good as you think.

Psychology has researched the ability to detect deception and most of us are no better than a coin flip. And how many times would you risk your stack on a coin flip? We try to develop our ability to read tells, but that’s hard, even for experts in reading nonverbal behavior. You would be much better off reading patterns of play than trying to get a read on a good bluff.

My advice is to not overestimate other folks’ bluffing and to make sure your bluffs tell a story that makes sense. When trying to get a read on a player, bluffing should be the last choice or interpretation, after you have ruled out everything else that’s possible.
The person who might be bluffing is controlling the flow of information. It could be a bluff, a semibluff, fake bluff or none of the above. So it’s the same when you’re bluffing: You control all of the information and assume opponents are making the same reads you would make, even if they’re not. It’s easier to bluff to a good player than an unobservant player.

Poker players overestimate their ability to catch people lying because we only know it was a bluff when we call and they show it to us. We don’t see our misreads or mistakes so we have a false sense of our abilities and this intermittent reinforcement just adds to our false confidence.

The Saints’ onside kick in the Super Bowl, for example, was a great bluff. They set up the storyline and the Colts never expected an onside kick at that moment. It was a game-changer. The Saints were willing to go all-in on this bluff, they weren’t read, and they won.
Ponzi scams also work because folks make themselves believe the tale; these schemes tap into the buyer’s greed.

Some folks say the best advice is to discount a decision that concludes your opponent is bluffing, but most don’t want to lose this tool from their box. So the best advice is to watch verbal and non-verbal activity. I researched other fields and found verbal clues might be easier to detect than non-verbal.

Some of the verbal clues to watch for are changes in behavior, something out of the ordinary. You can try to probe to get a clue. No response, delayed response, repeating your question, protest statements or overly detailed responses are things to look for.
On the non-verbal side: more face touching, feigned disinterest, change in body posture. Look for changes in the way people sit, fidget, get more relaxed or more upright in their seats.

Remember, though, appearances can be deceiving and experienced bluffer will try to hide changes and give off false tells.

There has been a good deal of study of “micro-expressions” that last only a fifth of a second and may leak emotions someone wants to conceal. But recognizing these takes a lot of skill.

If you read last month’s article you should know Avoiders are likely to never bluff, Adapters will bluff when the time and the story seems absolutely correct; Adventurers will try bluffs more often, and use semibluffs when they think they have a read, but will be willing to come off if convinced the opponent is not buying the story; Attackers bluff often and fail often (see for a full description of these personality styles).

You can get better at reading bluffs and bluffing by working at it. Here are some tips to get you started:

• Consider a bluff only after you have ruled out everything else.
• Don’t get overly confident in your ability to read a bluff.
• Watch and observe, you can’t tell a bluff until you know when they’re playing straight.
• Don’t try to bluff players who aren’t watching; they won’t notice.
• Watch body language. Mostly changes. Many liars avoid eye contact; some touch their faces a lot. But not always.

Learn all you can about tells and keep your head in the game.

— Dr. Stephen Bloomfield is a licensed psychologist and avid poker player. His column will give insight on how to achieve peak performance using poker psychology. Email questions for him at