poker is characterized by bluffing. Every move that a poker player makes at the table should have one of two possible meanings: the obvious and the deceptive. When a player bets, is he being aggressive with a strong hand, or is he bluffing with a weak hand? To some, this is the essence of poker.
Guidelines on how to deal with bluffing are difficult, because there's nothing cut and dried about it.
It varies with each opponent you play against, and it also varies with the table. Some games just don't have a high volume of bluffing (which I would say signals an opportunity to introduce them to it). We'll focus on three guidelines: the type of game, the mathematical aspect, and the psychological aspect.
Type of Game
Some games just don't have bluffing.
It may be that the game is too friendly or too loose. If the game is friendly, you may not suspect that much bluffing is going on. In this case, considerably drop the probability that you're being bluffed. If you're up against a big bet, consider that it's likely a strong hand. If the game is loose, then don't even try bluffing, it's a waste of your time. If you can't fold everybody, then the bluff fails and you've lost your money. Bluffing only works in games tight enough that a bet could potentially fold the other players.
In our last article, we talked about building player profiles.
If you've included probability in your profile, then mathematics is important (ie. that player is bluffing roughly 10% of the time). It works like this. When you're asked to call a bet that may potentially be a bluff, compare the size of the bet with the size of the pot that you are playing for. If the bet is $1 and there is $20 in the pot, that's a 20:1 payoff. Now, compare that payoff to the probability that the player is bluffing. If you believe there is a 1:10 chance that the player is bluffing, then you would be correct to throw $1 in a pot as small as $10 and certainly one that is as big as $20. Don't feel like doing math at the table? That's fine, just remember this guideline: don't allow yourself to be bluffed out of a big pot. If the pot is big, consider calling the bet even if your opponent may have a strong hand. You don't want to miss a big payoff because you were bluffed out of the pot.
This is the most important one of all. Bluffing is psychological. The player is effectively "lying" about his hand, and the question is whether or not you believe it (with money on the line). There is no simple advice for this. Players with better instinct are less likely to be bluffed out of a pot. They will either 'sniff' it off their opponent or sense it from their opponent's playing style. The most relevant advice here stems from our last article on building player profiles. If you've never seen a player bluff, then you have no reason to suspect that he would. But, he might be. And, if you fold, you may never find out. Only instinct can detect bluffing, and only experience can build instinct. Follow the letter of my last article on studying your opponents, and over time, you should develop some instinct. If you can do it cheaply, one way to respond to a potential bluff is to re-raise. This will typically fold a bluffer. If he calls your bet or raises back, suspect that he may have a hand.
And now you have all four lessons that I learned from my last game. Don't sit down at the table without a gameplan of how you intend to play. Mind your level of intoxication based on how seriously you take the game. Study your opponents at every chance and develop mental player profiles as you go. Finally, know when to call, fold, or raise a bluff. Had I mastered these four concepts (lessons that may be straightforward to some that have already seen money lost from them), I am confident I would have given my opponents a better run for their money.