Bluffing is one of the most important skills a poker player can have. Anybody can wait around for a big hand and hope to get paid off – that takes almost zero skill. But knowing what goes into a great bluff and how best to execute a +EV play with weak cards is a key differentiator between winning, losing, and breakeven players.
This video & guide is meant to be a Bluffing 101 overview. I breakdown the 4 key focal points to good bluffs, give some simple things to memorize, and a framework for approaching bluffing in EVERY session you play going forward. Enjoy!
Part of the reason why bluffing is so important is that your average hand misses more often than not. Even Ace King, the strongest unpaired starting hand, is going to be nothing but Ace-high on the flop about 2/3 of the time. So if most hands miss often and are essentially high cards and/or weak draws, it’s crucial that we know how to turn these spots into easy profits.
So let’s break down the 4 basics of bluffing & we’ll keep this as big-picture and simple as possible:
1. Breakeven Percentage (BE%)
Even if poker math scares you, the breakeven percentage (BE%) is very easy to understand. Simply put, the breakeven percentage lets you know how often your opponent needs to fold, given the size of your bluff, for you to make an immediately profitable bluff. The formula is:
BE% = $RISK / ($RISK+$REWARD)
Where the $RISK is your bet and the $REWARD is the pot. And to make your life easier I’ll give you the 3 that you should 100% memorize since they are the breakeven percentages for the most common bet sizes you end up using at the table:
- If you bet 1/2 pot, the BE is 33%
- If you bet 2/3 pot, the BE is 40%
- If you bet full pot, the BE is 50%
(You can proof any of these easily. If you bet 1/2 pot (say $40 into a pot of $80), then using the formula you take 40/(40+80) simplified to 40/120, which is 33%. Easy peasy!)
All this number means is that if your opponent folds LESS than the BE%, your bluff is outright losing you money. And if your opponent folds more than the BE%, your bluff is outright profitable – meaning even bluffing with a Pikachu & Charizard rate to make you money in the long run. (Related article: how can a bluff be breakeven?)
2. Folding Frequency (FF%)
Now the next piece of this puzzle is your opponent’s folding frequency (FF%). The BE% lets us know how often we need them to fold, and then we compare folding frequency to see if our bluff rates to be bad, good, or great. In short, we do well when the Folding Frequency is bigger than the BE%, and crush when that gap is sizable.
A quick way to get this folding frequency is to use a tool like Flopzilla when exploring hands away from the table. The more you use a tool like this when studying poker, the easier it is to make a strong hypothesis in real-time. Seriously, just mess around with Flopzilla for 15 minutes per day for a couple of weeks, and you’ll see big strides in your application.
So let’s set a problem up in Flopzilla. Say the steal preflop and the BB calls. We CB the flop and the BB calls again. And on the turn we fire a pot sized bluff after the BB checks.
In Flopzilla, let’s assume the BB gets to the turn with this range of hands – don’t worry if you disagree with it – it’s just used to highlight the process.
If we assume the BB would only give this pot-sized bet action with top pair or better, flush draws, and 8-out straight draws, we see they continue 30% of the time. This means they are folding the other 70% of the time, and since that 70% is higher than the 50% BE% (based upon our pot sized bet), this bluff is outright profitable.
The BB is folding too often and allowing us to make snap-profit with any two cards, including our 5-high that has no real hope of winning outside of our opponent folding. And honestly, you can find & crush lots of players who are super-tight on turns & rivers.
Heck, even if we thought the BB would give our bet action with middle pair or better, flush draws, and those 8-out straight draws, they are continuing 43% and thus folding 57%. 57 is still higher than 50, and thus our bluff is still outright profitable – just not AS profitable as the times the BB folds 70% of the time.
To reiterate, you don’t use Flopzilla when you play a session – but the more you review poker hands with this software while studying, the more of an inherent feel you’ll get. It may seem overwhelming at first, but getting +/- 10% in real-time is FAR better than randomly guessing with zero basis.
3. One Barrel Or Two?
Now the third basic of bluffing is focusing on outright vs. multistreet profit. Up to this point, we’ve only discussed the turn bluff from an outright profitable point of view. Essentially, “does my opponent fold often enough given my bet size so that I can turn my junky cards into actual profit?” If yes, bluff. If not…well…then we can go a step further.
And to do that, let’s actually back up to the flop.
While we could take the time to run this all again in Flopzilla and recalculate the BE% (which is 37% fwiw), let’s just take a broadstrokes look at this.
Say you think your opponent is only going to fold 25% of the time, but given the 37% BE, it’s clearly not an outright profitable bluff. Even though we LOVE outright profitable bluffs, if a bluff happens not to be outright +EV, we can ponder if a multi-street play would profitable.
For example, what if you assume the BB is the kind of player to give turn bets far too much respect, and as such, they only give turn bets action with two pair+. While this quality doesn’t represent every player, I’m sure you can think of one or two in your game who are like this.
Now while that player only folds 25% of the time to your flop CB, they are likely to fold 80% of the time to your turn bet on all but the worst of cards. This is a clear example of a flop bet that is not outright profitable, but a double barrel bluff that certainly rates to make you money. And this is all before considering the fact that our hand has some backdoor draws on the flop that can occasionally end up winning a huge pot.
4. Should You Balance?
The final piece of this puzzle is whether or not we need to be balanced. So not just thinking about our opponent, their range, and how often they are likely to fold – but “do we also need to think about what hands we represent and how our opponent might react to that?”
For instance, if we tend to be super aggressive bluffers we shouldn’t expect a strong thinking player to fold pairs very often against us (and they may even end up bluff raising us more as well!)
Truthfully, most players are so focused on their own 2 hole cards and the absolute strength of their hand, that balance is not a primary concern for me. Whether I bluff too often, a little too much, or never – the player who only focuses on their cards isn’t going to adjust their strategy one way or the other. So against players like this, bluffs are just mechanical exercises and I bluff every weak hand when it’s outright profitable.
In the less likely scenario that my opponent is thinking about my range AND will make correct strategic adjustments accordingly, then it’s unlikely that I’ll find many outright profitable bluffs (yet along very lucrative ones) and it’s also unlikely that they will make multi-street outright profitable bluffs easy.
Now, against these players I still need to bluff some percentage of the time otherwise I allow my opponent to fold too easily when I do bet – but I’m going to trim down my bluff ratio to something more reasonable like 1 value:1 bluff on the turn or 2 value:1bluff combo on the river. But again, this is under specific circumstances when my opponent can think and adjust properly – something that very few players do properly, especially in lower stake games.
And that is bluffing in the most simplistic nutshell possible.
Again, we need to memorize some simple BE% numbers, we need to improve our hand reading skills & start seeing how often they tend to fold in various situations, we need to consider the ramifications of running a multi-street bluff, and we need to consider the importance of balance and choosing how many bluff combos we want to fire with.
This may seem like overload at first, but I promise you, that if you study one bluff hand per day for the next few weeks, bluffing will become second nature.
Just remember that a profitable bluff doesn’t mean the bluff will work 100% of the time – it just means that you assume your opponent will fold often enough that you rate to make more money when your bluff is successful compared to the money you lose when your opponent happens to wake up with a strong enough hand.
Now if want to go further and deeper when it comes to bluff, and you’d like to see a bunch of high-level analysis on bluffs both big and small, I’m considering writing a book with the working title The Bluffing Blueprint. If that sounds up your alley and you’d like to see it get made, just visit www.splitsuit.com/bluff and sign up. If I get enough interest, I’ll commit to writing this for you – and if not, no harm no foul.