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. We will 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 as possible. Then, once we have the basics down, we will explore some preflop and postflop bluffing examples together.
Poker Bluffs & Breakeven %
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:
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?)
Will They Fold When I Bluff?
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 when 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.
Double Barrel Bluffs
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.
Balance Your Bluffs?
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.
Preflop Bluffing Examples
A bunch of theory about bluffing with seemingly abstract numbers can lead to confusion. So to clear things up, and fill in any knowledge gaps, let’s look at a collection of bluffing examples. We will start with some preflop bluffs since too many players implement a preflop strategy that misses many spots where extra aggression can be quite profitable.
Bluff Squeezes Preflop
The truth of the matter is that we are dealt garbage starting cards way more often than hands like KK and AA. But the good news is that we can turn those junky starting hands into easy profit with a good bluff squeezing strategy. Press play and let’s break it down:
First, what is a squeeze? A squeeze is a special preflop 3bet after the original raise got 1 or more callers. So if we take this hand where EP opens to $3, MP calls $3, and the CO folds…hero has an opportunity to squeeze.
If the CO had called as well this would also be a squeeze opportunity. But if both MP and the CO had folded it would NOT be a squeeze opportunity. The whole point of a squeeze is to 3bet and SQUEEZE out the dead money from the callers who likely have weaker hands.
Which brings us nicely to the considerations we want to analyze before squeezing. These considerations include:
- who the open raiser is and how they will likely react to a squeeze
- who the caller is, or callerS are, and how they will likely react to a squeeze
- who the players left to act are and how they are likely to react to a squeeze
- our squeeze size and how that influences the breakeven % and likely folds
- our hole cards
At first, this list may seem daunting with so many things to consider before making a simple squeeze. But in reality we want to be considering these things in EVERY hand…so this list should become second-nature and something you always consider before making any preflop action.
Let’s go right in order with our considerations and start with the open-raiser. Start by thinking about the hands he likely open-raised and then which hands he’d continue with if we squeezed. If he open-raises very tight, say 77+/AQ+ then he likely won’t fold very often against our squeeze. When we are bluff squeezing our major goal is to generate folds, and ideally to get those folds preflop so we can just pick up an easy pot and move onto the next hand.
The ideal open-raiser to squeeze is a player who will fold a large chunk of their open-raising range. So a player who open-raises 12% of hands and would only continue against our squeeze with JJ+/AK (3% of hands), is folding 75% of the time which is great for us! But if he’d only fold against my squeeze 50% of the time or less I’m not very likely to squeeze him with a junky hand.
Next, we want to consider who the caller is, or callers if there are multiple. What kind of hands did they call the open-raise with and how would they react if we squeezed? If he called the open-raise with hands like small pairs and suited connectors is he likely to fold against our squeeze or call? Of course we are very happy if he just folds preflop…again…allowing us to pick up an easy preflop pot.
But if he is going to call, how will he play postflop?
If he’s going to call the open-raise AND squeeze with 33 is he going to just check/fold the flop when he misses his set? Or is he fishy and he won’t ever fold anything postflop?
Against fishy callers I’m going to keep my squeeze range strong and value-heavy since a fish isn’t likely to fold preflop nor postflop reliably enough for me to bluff him.
As a general rule, I suggest being more and more selective as there are more and more callers. The more callers there are the more players we need to get to fold which can be very tricky to do. Focus on squeezing players who call preflop open-raises with setmines or drawing hands and will fold them to the pressure of a squeeze. If they fold those kinds of hands to a squeeze you can expect a very large percentage of preflop folds…which is the goal when making this kind of bluff.
Also take a quick glance at the players left to act in the hand. In this situation that’s the SB and BB. As a general rule I dislike bluff squeezing here with huge fish in the blinds. Because if that fish calls then 1. we didn’t get everyone to fold preflop and pick up an easy pot and 2. it then becomes likely that EP and MP will both call as well. With tighter players and unknowns I usually assume they will fold a very large percentage of the time…but be very selective with fish and players with zero preflop discipline. Checking the players behind you is just good practice and something you want to get in the habit of doing regardless of what preflop action you are making.
The last two things to consider are our cards and the actual size of our squeeze. To figure out the size I use the rule 3.5x + .5x/caller. So with 1 caller I will squeeze 4x the open-raise size, with 2 callers 4.5x the open-raise size, etc.
As with any sizing formula, this is really just a starting point. In this situation, a normal squeeze size would be to $12 (4 times the $3 open-raise size with a single caller), but always ask yourself if going larger or smaller would be more beneficial. If they will fold regardless of the squeeze size, couldn’t we get the squeeze away for just $11 instead? On the contrary, also consider spots where you may need to make your squeeze just a tad larger to generate those preflop folds often enough.
Just to simply understand how the bet size works into the profitability of the squeeze, we can figure out the breakeven % of the squeeze to ensure it will work enough of the time to be +EV. When analyzing a bluff squeeze I look for outright profitability, meaning that my opponents will fold often enough RIGHT NOW for my squeeze to be +EV. The breakeven % formula is simply risk/risk+reward. Where the risk is our squeeze size and the reward is what’s in the pot right now. So
If we expect to get folds at least 62% of the time preflop, this is an outright profitable squeeze! And of course if you risk less money you need less fold and if you risk more money then you need more folds to breakeven.
The last consideration is our hand. Most of the hands we are dealt will fit into the “bluff” category where we are very happy if everyone folds and we just pick up the pot preflop. And if we expect to get folds that often preflop then our hole cards don’t really matter much, right? Who cares if we have 85o, A3o, or Q9s…so long as we can bluff squeeze and pick up the pot we are happy!
Now some hands certainly play better than others. For one, if we get called preflop I’d rather have Q9s going postflop than 63o. But we can also consider how blockers impact their combos. A blocker is a card that limits how many combos of a certain hand villain can have. For instance, in this hand, we have K3s which blocks combos of AK from 16 down to 12 and blocks combos of KK from 6 down to 3. Hands like Ax and Kx are usually great hands to use because they limit the number of super-strong combos that open-raisers wouldn’t fold to a squeeze. And if we have to go postflop Ax and Kx have decent equity. Even against JJ our K3s has 31% equity (much better than the 12% equity of 82o or 18% equity of T7s).
While there are many things we want to consider before bluff squeezing, you may be surprised how many good squeeze spots you’ve been passing up. Good squeezes are an easy way to make money with hands you would otherwise fold. Practice looking for good bluff squeezes in your own games and go down that checklist to ensure you are making easy profit with those ugly cards.
We can use a very similar process when 3betting bluff hands preflop. While a squeeze requires multiple players to fold preflop (the original raiser AND all of the callers), a 3bet has fewer players to contend with.
This can lead to even better preflop bluffing opportunities, especially when you find players who are folding too often against the extra aggression. In fact, I make it my goal to find at least ONE hand per session where I don’t even look at my cards to fire a 3bet. Let me explain how that works:
Now if you do look down at your hand and find a tricky starting, like AJ, it’s good to think ahead a bit before doing anything. For instance, say that UTG open-raises and you are next to act with AJ. Here’s how I would choose my play…
Postflop Bluff Hands
Postflop play has extra nuance given the multiple ways you get to the flop, what the flop texture is, exact positions, etc. But since most starting hands connect with the flop rarely, bluffing is of the utmost importance.
Let’s go through two postflop bluffing examples and see how the major concepts we’ve already discussed get implemented on the flop, turn, and river.
Bluffing With Ace King Postflop
We’ll start by reviewing a hand from $1/$2 where Tony ran a huge bluff with Ace-King high. What began as an innocent 3bet preflop, turns into a ton of aggression when hero misses the flop and decides to get it all-in with just Ace-high. Concepts include hand reading, floating vs 3betting, and fold equity (or rather, when there is very little fold equity!)
Press play and let’s break it down…
In this hand, the player in seat 3 is described as extremely loose, whereas hero has been playing extremely tight. So when hero gets to a T93 rainbow board and continuation bets – I have to ask, “What’s your plan here? What do you think is going to happen?”
The more you think seat 3 is going to check/raise you, the less I’m in love with this. But if you think they are folding things like 44s or A6 suited or anything junky like that, I can totally be on board with the cbet. It just totally depends on your assumptions and also how aggressively they play things like straight draws, pairs, gutshots with overs, etc.
As played, villain check-raises and hero quickly puts in a re-raise.
Bluffing is crucial, but bluffing requires your opponent to fold often enough, either now or later. Given the texture and size of the check-raise, it would likely have been better for hero to avoid the bluff. Remember, knowing when NOT to bluff is just as important as knowing when TO bluff!
Bluff With A Busted Flush Draw
Drawing hands are exciting on flops and turns, but more often than not, they don’t complete by the river. Knowing when to turn that busted straight or flush draw into a bluff will help you create a +EV plan of attack on the river, and also on earlier streets.
Press play and let’s break down this hand with A♠2♠…
Hands like this require some solid hand reading skills. Hero in this hand put their opponent on a range that included many two pair combos. If that’s the case, those two pair hands likely won’t feel confident calling the river.
But if my assumption is right, and villain actually has many Jx hands that aren’t J♣X♣, this might be another -EV bluff for the size.
However, a conversation about overbetting the pot is certainly in order. Even though the larger bluff size would require more folds from villain, if he folds Jx hands because he fears you have clubs – that can still be profitable. Don’t quit on a bluff just because a normal size might not work. Consider other sizes, both large and small, before conceding the pot.
Now if you want to go further and deeper when it comes to bluffing, 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 😃