Bluffing in big pots

The ability to bluff big pots effectively is one of the key skills that separate good players from great players.

It is no accident that the games played at the highest stakes feature some of the most daring bluffs: big bluffs are a central part of the game.

Most players mix up their play well for small bets – they’ll bet out or raise with nothing on the flop with about the right frequency – but most players don’t mix up their play well on big bets. Some players never mess around when they put in really big money on the turn or river. Other players can never resist the big bluff when they see a lot of money in the middle. Striking the right balance between value bets and bluffs when you are putting big money in the pot is crucial to playing top-level poker.

When you are playing against world-class competition, bluffing too often is a bigger mistake than not bluffing enough. You will get called very often and you will look to everyone like you are spewing chips. You will wonder why they are calling you so often, but the reason will be somewhat simple: your opponents will be getting 2:1 odds on a call (if you are betting the size of the pot) and they will infer based on your betting frequency that you’re bluffing more often than that.

How can they infer that you are bluffing too often? Roughly speaking, if you are balancing your big bluffs properly, you will be betting for value about two-thirds of the time and you will be betting as a bluff about one-third of the time. Hands that you will bet big for value on the turn or river come up quite rarely. It’s not often that you make a straight, a flush, a set, or some other huge hand that merits a big bet on the river for value. If you’re betting big on the turn and river very often, your opponents will correctly guess that you’re bluffing too often.

Bluffing too often can be a huge mistake, but I think that not bluffing often enough in the truly big spots is one thing that prevents great players from becoming world-class. You’ll never hear someone say of Phil Ivey, Tom Dwan or Patrik Antonius “he’s never messing around in that spot.” They can be bluffing in any spot. As the pot gets very big, their bluffs will be less frequent, as they will be trying to represent very thin ranges, but their bluffing frequency will never be zero in any spot (other than some trivial ones where it’s only appropriate to raise with the nuts).

Most of your big bluffs will occur when you have position on an opponent. This is especially true for big moves on the river. If an opponent checks to you on the river, it’s likely not a check of strength. With one pair hands, people will often call on the flop and turn, but not on the river. Their “check-call, check-call, check” line often tells you that they have a big pair but no better. Some inexperienced players will fold to a pot-sized bluff way too often in this spot, and will not adjust their behavior even when they begin to suspect that you are bluffing them often. Against these players, you are obligated to keep stealing until they adjust.

Once again, the ability to pull off a big bluff is a crucial element in poker. Do so with the correct frequency, and you’ll raise your game to the next level.

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