Bluffing is an important element in poker, but the way people think about it can vary wildly.
Some people think bluffing is simply taking unnecessary risks. Not surprisingly, these tend to be the more conservative players.
And while some poker players do in fact bluff too much, there are also others who think they bluff enough but they actually don't. Even more interesting, is sometimes people think they're bluffing when they're actually not.
Doug Polk said once, and I've always loved this line, that "If you never bluff, poker won't just be boring, it will be unbeatable".
He's right. If you never bluff, good opponents will pick up on this and very quickly exploit it.
Let's have a look at how to bluff, when to bluff, and how to do it successfully.
First and foremost, and this is the golden rule of bluffing, you should bluff more early in the hand and less later in the hand. Let's say that again so it sinks in. You should bluff more early in the hand and less later in the hand.
The reason for this, is that when we look at our equity vs an opponents calling range, we have the most equity preflop, but less on the flop, turn, and river.
Lets say we have a suited connector and that it'll have about 30-40% equity preflop against most of the hands your opponent will call our raise with. With that level of equity, you can play more of these "weak" hands relative to the number of actual "strong" hands that you would be raising for value. But, as we get closer to the river card, your bluffs will have less and less equity against the range that your opponent will be calling multiple streets with. So, the further we get in the hand the less equity our bluffs are going to have.
By the time we get to the river (if we do), at this point, you have to decide if your hand is a bluff or if you're betting for value.
As a rule, if you hand has decent equity against a hand that your opponent could call you with, then it's not a good spot to bluff. So if you think there's a chance your opponent could call you with a worse hand, bluffing the river wouldn't be a smart play.
Another thing to consider, is the pot odds your opponent will have in the event you do decide to bluff.
Let's say you've bet $100 on the river and there's $100 already in the pot. You're giving them 2-1 pot odds for a call. This means to you need to be bluffing 1/3 of the time to make your opponent balance his calls. Here's another way to think about that. If your value range had 40 hands in it that would be betting for value, then your bluffing range should have 20 hands in it as well.
The idea here, is that you want your value bet to bluff ratio to be precisely what your opponents pot odds are. You have two value bets for every bluff. This way, it doesn't matter what your opponent does. You're making a play that can't be exploited and you'll make money in the long run regardless of your opponents decision to call or fold.
Remember that bluffing requires planning. If you're just bluffing because it "feels" right in the moment, you're making a mistake. Every hand you play should start with a plan preflop, and making adjustments on each street as more information is available to you.
Let's say you bet a flop of [Qs][Jd][2c]. You could have lots of semi bluffs which can turn into value hands on the turn or river. Think hands like backdoor flushes, straight draws like K10 or T9, or even a broadway draw like AT with an overcard. These are reasonable hands to bluff with on that flop. And, if they don't improve on the turn or river, can still be effective bluffs anyways.
But deciding what to bluff isn't always easy. Let's use a flop of [Kd][7c][2s] as an example. While you can still have backdoor flush draws, those are less likely to improve than the hands in the last example. This flop also leaves the very real possibility that you have zero showdown value at the river, so you'll want to be careful on how you proceed - and always keeping the golden rule in your mind.
Every scenario is different, and when bluffing looks like an option, you should make sure you think it through and apply the proper bet sizing and equity guidelines we looked at today.
So, don't be afraid to bluff. Just think it through and don't barrel off like a madman!