You raise preflop and unexpectedly get multiple callers. Now you see a flop and totally miss. Should you c-bet the flop multi-way, even though you have a weak hand? Should you bluff on flops with multiple players? It certainly feels weak to keep check-folding Ace-high and weak pairs, but what goes into making a +EV decision here?
Let’s break it down…
Multi-way pots are more common in smaller/weaker games, although they can happen at any limit and you need to have a plan of attack for them. With more players to the flop it can be difficult to bluff, but there are still +EV bluffing opportunities when you know what to look for.
How Often Will They All Fold?
Since we are looking at this spot through the lens of bluffing, we can assume our major focus is getting our opponents to fold often enough. Ideally, your opponents will fold enough right this moment to make your bluff outright profitable. That is not to say that we only look for outright profitable bluffs, but they are my first focus.
There is actually a formula for estimating how often EVERY player will fold. Simply multiply all of their folding-percentage together and you get the percentage chance that you will pick up the pot uncontested.
As an example, say V1 will fold 70% of the time to your CB, and V2 will fold 40% of the time.
70% * 40% = 28%
So you can expect your flop bluff to pick up the pot 28% of the time.
An important consideration is just how many players you have to bluff through. The more players that are involved in the hand, the less often you should expect to pick up the pot with just a flop CB. For instance, say you are on the flop against 4 players. You think each player would fold a large chunk of the time, say 80%. Plugging the numbers in you see:
80% * 80% * 80% * 80% = 41%
So you can expect your flop bluff to pick up the pot 41% of the time.
Play with this formula a few times away from the table to develop an intuition and ability to quickly calculate this in real-time.
Knowing the folding formula is great. But you need to know how to estimate each player’s folding-percentage to get a more precise output.
The first part boils down to hand reading skills. While not the easiest skillset to learn, it is certainly one of the most powerful skills you can develop as a poker player. There are a few major questions I ask myself when trying to estimate a player’s folding-percentage:
- What is the bottom of their continuance range?
- Does that create many or few folds?
- Would my bet size change things?
If the answer to #1 is “top pair” then the answer to #2 is almost certainly “many”. If the answer to #1 is “bottom pair and gutshots” then the answer to #2 is almost certainly “few”.
Even if only one player out of all the players seeing the flop gives action liberally, it can be difficult to generate enough immediate folds to make it an outright profitable bluff. Of course, you could still consider firing multiple barrels – but focus on outright +EV bluffs first.
The third question is something most players overlook. Keep in mind that you have options outside of betting half-pot and two-thirds-pot. Consider what a pot-sized bet would do to their folding frequencies. If a pot-sized bet would generate a ton of extra folds, it could easily be a more profitable size than just defaulting to half-pot.
Bet sizing is crucial and can change two major things. First, it can influence each player’s folding-percentage. Second, it changes the breakeven-% which is the building block of simple bluffing math. The formula for breakeven-% is:
Breakeven% = Risk / (Risk + Reward)
Where risk is how much you are betting for, and the reward is the size of the pot you are fighting for BEFORE your bet.
The common ones you need to know are:
- A half-pot bet has a 33% breakeven-%
- A 2/3 pot-sized bet has a 40% breakeven-%
- A full-pot sized bet has a 50% breakeven-%
- A 2x pot-sized bet has a 67% breakeven-%
When making outright profitable bluffs, you simply want the aggregate folding-percentage to be higher than the breakeven-%. If that is the case, fire away. If that is not the case (which honestly, is the more common outcome), continue reading…
Playability On Future Streets
Outright profitability is always my first focus when bluffing. But since that will not always be the case, it is a good idea to think ahead and plan for future streets.
I will preface this by saying that barreling relies heavily on poker math and hand reading. Most things in poker do. So if you are still building those skillsets, please proceed with caution before firing off your bankroll on turns and rivers without a +EV plan of attack.
If my bluff CB will not generate enough folds to be outright profitable, I ask myself the following questions:
Is there a huge gap between required folds on the flop and expected folds?
If I bluff for 2/3 pot on the flop (thus requiring at least 40% folds to make it outright profitable) and only expect the aggregate folding-percentage to be 15% – I need to make up that gap by winning the pot often enough on future streets. If I do not anticipate making up that gap often enough, checking the flop begins to look more attractive.
If my flop CB gets action, is it likely from 1, 2, or more players?
If my flop bluff is going to get called by multiple players, can I realistically expect them to fold if I continue bluffing turns/rivers? Everything you read above would still apply on the turn and river (in terms of hand reading, aggregate folding-percentage formula, breakeven-%, etc.)
If the turn is a brick, can I bluff the turn and generate enough folds?
This is a primary focus for me when bluffing the flop. If my opponent would float the flop liberally but only continue against a turn bet with top pair or better, chances are I can expect many of folds when I continue bluffing. This is even better when it happens on bricks since bricks compose a large density of turn cards for most flop textures.
If I improve on the turn, can I value bet?
Sometimes our bluffs actually end up improving on the turn. When that happens, are you able to value bet it? For instance, if I CB the flop with Ace-high and the turn is an Ace, would my opponent continuing calling with second-best hands? The more implied odds there are, the less valuable turn bluffing may have actually been.
If I bluff the turn as well, can I expect many folds on the river?
There are plenty of opponents who call flops and turns liberally but are much more cautious on the river. Players who call with any pair and any draw trying to improve, but will only give the river action with top pair or better, are prime candidates to triple barrel bluff. Their gap between the hands they got to the river with and will actually call your river bet with is large and thus leaves opportunity for profitable bluffing.
Answering these questions can seem daunting at first. Flopzilla becomes your best friend when trying to find answers, and the more you use the tool the greater your intuition will become.
One final consideration for me is the amount of equity I have on the flop. The more equity I have, the fewer folds I require (at least right this moment) since I have ways to win the pot later in the hand. Equity is another way to fill the gap that I discussed in the first point.
The opposite is also true. The less equity my hand has, the more focused on outright profitable bluffs I need to be since I cannot rely on my hand improving and winning the pot.
Is Check-Folding Really Too Weak?
Players who describe things as being “too weak” are typically more focused on the ego than the math. A profitable play is a profitable play, whether or not it is thought of as “weak” or “strong”.
Does it suck check-folding Ace King-high on the flop in a multi-way pot? Yes.
Can it be the most profitable play? Yes.
When you have the opportunity to bluff CB consider all of your options. Sure, there are obvious ones like “bet” and “check/fold”. But other lines are also available. Everything from check/shove to check/call + donk turn is up for discussion and exploration.
Never box yourself in and limit your options, especially when studying poker away from the table. If you only allow yourself to either bet or check/fold, you will find yourself unbalanced and easily exploitable when there are solid players involved in these pots.
So do not focus on check/folding being weak. Focus on exploiting and avoid being exploited.
If I raise with AK preflop, get called by 3 fish, and the flop comes T96 – I feel very confident that I am not being exploited when I check/fold. The aggregate folding-percentage would be super low in this spot and these players are not thinking about exploitation.
However, if I raise with AK preflop, get called by 2 regs, and the flop comes J42 – I could easily get exploited by constantly check-folding. The reason for this is that my checking range would normally be very weak and my betting range would be predictable as well. Good players will use this and make my life hell whether or not I check or bet. THIS is the kind of situation you want to avoid.
The good news is that smaller poker games are not dominated by strong regs who understand when and why to apply pressure to your entire strategy. Most games are filled with beginner players who, at best, have a basic understanding of the game. Do not overthink these spots. Just focus on the math, consider outright profitability, and future plans become more important as the outright folding-percentage drops on the flop.
Study these spots away from the table to develop your intuition and explore lines beyond just check/fold and bet.
And remember, if you are constantly finding yourself in multi-way pots you may want to reexamine your preflop strategy. Improvements in preflop aggression and raise sizing can diminish the number of multi-way pots. This is another topic for another time, but it is a crucial part of the equation that is overlooked too often.
Did you like this article? This is actually a complete chapter from my book Unfolding Poker which answers tons of questions that I commonly get from players just like you. Grab your copy today and get even more answers on everything from when to fold overpairs to how do I put fish on a range?