By Rolf Slotboom
People who don't know much about poker often think it's a bluffing game. They have seen some Hollywood-movies or heard stories about players winning huge pots with nothing and bluffing out the best hand. The fact of the matter is that bluffing can sometimes be an important factor in poker (especially in pot- and no-limit poker), but that most of the time solid play gets rewarded and the best hand will win the pot.
Bluffing is often referred to as "the act of the desperate". When you have nothing to show in the end, you'll have to bet to have at least some chance to get the money. On the other hand, not many things give greater pleasure to poker players than making your opponent fold the better hand. If you are able to win pots because of the way you play, rather than the cards you hold, the skill factor in poker gets rewarded, rather than the ability to wait patiently for the best hand (which, as you should all know, is very important in just about every poker game).
There are some people who hardly ever bluff; there are people who bluff all the time. The first group of players can't expect to be paid off on their good hands (and thus make less money than they potentially could), the second group loses money because people will just check to them and let them bluff off their money. Somewhere in between, there must be some kind of "optimum bluffing point". What's more, the importance of bluffing is not equal in all poker games. Let's take a look at two of the most popular (and, in fact, my favorite) poker games: limit hold'em and pot-limit Omaha. Bluffing in limit hold'em.
People often say that there is no bluffing in limit hold'em, that it's a showdown game where the best hand wins, that bluffing here equals throwing away your money. There may be some truth in this, especially for the low limit hold'em games. In the higher-limit games ($10-20 and up) the bluff is an important factor however. A large percentage of the pots at the higher limits is won without a showdown, thus giving the bluff a better chance to succeed.
In limit hold'em, a large percentage of the pots can be called the "default pots", when no one has a real hand. The first one to become aggressive can expect to pick up the pot and this might just as well be you. Excellent candidates for steals are ill-coordinated flops like K83 or flops with a pair and no draws possible (for example 833 rainbow). You might be able to steal a few pots per session, and knowing that there is hardly a player at the higher limits who figures to make more than one big bet per hour, this adds up to a lot.
Still, it's important not to overdo these kinds of steals and to sometimes bet your good hands on flops like these as well (for example, your AJ on a JJ6 rainbow flop). If people catch up on what you're doing, they will start re-stealing or calling you down (setting you up to bluff off your money), thus making your attempts unsuccessful. Against coordinated boards (two of a suit or straight draws possible) you never bluff, period. You might decide to semi-bluff or bet a rather weak hand to try to get heads up against a probable draw, but you never bet to pick up the pot when you can expect your opponents to like the flop. Bluffing on the river is hardly ever successful in hold'em, unless you can convince your opponent the river has made the hand you had been drawing for (for example, you have T9, the flop comes J83 with two hearts and on the river comes a third heart; by betting here you might make your opponent fold a winner), or if you think your opponent has a weak (or busted) hand himself.
Most of the time, bluffing on the river in hold'em only works if you can make your opponent think you've got a made hand (rather than a draw) by betting all the way. Let's take the same flop, Jh 8d 3h, and once again you're in there with T9 (I don't recommend you're in there with this hand too often, but that's not the point here). If you come out betting with this hand on the flop and the turn as well and you've got only one opponent left, he might be in there with a hand like QT or the nut-flush draw for example and fold without much thought if the river hasn't helped him and you keep betting. That is: by semi-bluffing early in the hand you have paved the way for a bluff on the end. If you just call all the way with your draw and then suddenly bet on the river when the board doesn't seem to have changed that much, your more skilled opponents will become deeply suspicious and call you with hands as weak as one pair or even ace high. Conclusion: bluffing in limit hold'em can be done occasionally, but the situation has to be right and also your image has to be right. If people tend to see you as the famous Rock of Gibraltar who wouldn't dare steal a pot, your bet is more likely to win the pot than if people suspect you might be in there with nothing.
Bluffing in pot-limit Omaha.
In pot-limit Omaha a lot more bluffing is possible, still it's more of a semi-bluffing than a bluffing game. In this game it's often the big draw that becomes aggressive on the flop, rather than the made hand (in fact, if the flop comes Jh 9d 3h and the J9 faces a bet by Kh Qd Td 8h and the bettor shows his hand to him, the J9 is going to fold without a shred of doubt even though he has got top two pair and the bettor only has king-high). Because draws can be so powerful in this game, playing like this is hardly ever considered semi-bluffing anymore, let alone bluffing. Bluffing on the river is possible every now and then, although in the big pots one or all players involved will be all-in on the flop or turn most of the time, and decisions are therefore made early in the hand rather than at the river.
If the money is deep, a big bluff on the river is possible, even if you suspect your opponent has a very good hand. Example: flop Kh Tc 3h, your opponent bets the pot, you (in early position) call with Ah Jh xx. Turn: Jd. You figure your opponent for a very good hand (top set, three kings) but decide to represent the nut straight you might very well have (after all, you must be in there with something to call a pot-sized bet on the flop, right?) and bet the pot. After some hesitation, your opponent calls. If the board rags on the river, a good-sized bet might very well win the pot for you, even though you're up against a very good hand. Every time you think the nuts might not be out there, your bluff has a good chance of success. Another example of a bluff that might very well work in pot-limit Omaha is the "bare-ace play". The flop comes three of a suit (or even better, two of a suit, you bet, get called and on the turn comes the third card of that suit); if you have the lone ace of that suit you might be able to win the pot because in this game people know better than to call with a non-nut flush (you, of course, should know which players are and which players aren't capable of folding the king-high flush).
Don't overdo this play, however, better that you don't make people even think you know about its existence. This play works best when you've also got a set in addition to your lone ace: if someone decides to call you down with a flush, you might be able to win the pot by improving to a full (in fact, you would be semi-bluffing here, rather than bluffing). Some words of caution: always be aware of your and your opponents' stack size. If some of them (or you yourself) are close to all-in, no one is going to fold a made hand and you're basically giving away your money. Also, you've got to be a hell of a guy, a real strong character, to pull off a big bluff on the river. It can be tough for you when you try to bet your opponent off his great-but-non-nut hand, and he starts staring you down for a long time, trying to figure out if you are strong or are in fact only representing strength. Take care, guys, and good luck.