Bluffing is one of many poker terms we use in everyday life
Even people who don’t know how to play poker are aware of the bluff element because the word itself conjures up thoughts of edge-of-the-seat brinkmanship and nerves of steel. The concept crops up in movies all the time, and is a media favourite when politics, for example, causes tense international stand-offs.
No wonder, then, that poker fans can find the subject of bluffing so difficult to get their heads round. There are so many factors to consider. So many questions. When should we do it, how often, how big a bet is enough to get the job done, is there a tipping point like a ratio of potential reward to risk..? It’s a veritable mental minefield…
Because bluffing is such a well-known and integral part of the game, it’s easy to get it all wrong for a long, long time. It’s a common problem that’s by no means a conundrum just for new players.
A typical example with which we can all relate is the early stages of a multi-table tournament. We’re eager to get ahead of the curve, boost our stack to well above average – preferably a big stack – and leapfrog the field to sit at the top of the pile and aim for the money. It’s the most natural kind of thought we could have from the moment the first cards are dealt. And it follows that, given our mission is to get our hands on our opponents’ chips by any means necessary, bluffing is a perfect chip-winning ‘tool’ in that it doesn’t even mean having to wait for both premium cards or the subsequent favourable conditions we need to accompany them. Bluffing would seem like the ultimate corner-cutter…
However, that’s not how poker works. If it were that easy we’d be bluffing all the time and dispensing with all the other effort required to get results. The truth is that, during the earlier stages of a tournament, the pots tend to be too small in relation to the size of players’ stacks to justify the risk. With such a long journey ahead (hopefully) the potential gains during early blind levels promise insufficient incentive to justify the level of betting which an opponent would have to consider too high to continue. Remember that the whole point of a bluff is to push someone out of a pot that our hand alone isn’t strong enough to contest – otherwise, it wouldn’t be a bluff! Consequently, what often happens is that we risk too significant a chunk of our stack for a reward that doesn’t significantly improve our situation.
Let’s look at a typical scenario
We’re in a Freezeout tournament (so no second chances!) and, after a couple of levels, we still have our 1000-chip starting stack intact. We haven’t been playing anywhere near long enough to have any properly reliable reads on the opposition, not least how they react to big bets, whether they seem willing to take risks and so on. In other words, we’re playing pretty much in the dark on that front.
There’s a three-player pot developing to the point that 600 chips are in the middle of the table and they’re up for grabs but, unfortunately, we didn’t strike lucky on the Turn and we have absolutely nothing. Consequently, we’re contemplating whether we should bluff because it’s our only chance of getting our hands on those tasty looking chips. It’s a toss-up between keeping our powder dry, leaving us with a totally workable stack of around 800, or committing ourselves. The problem with this common situation is that the gain would be far less helpful than the negative of finding ourselves down to a couple of hundred chips, being essentially less than a fifth of the current average, and with the prospect of the Blinds increasing severely restricting our flexibility – in other words, a poorly timed, incorrect and unsuccessful bluff here would effectively leave us in push/fold territory, and we’re barely a couple of levels in!
The main aim at this stage is to stay alive with a decent stack in order to be sufficiently armed when big hands crop up, rather than jeopardise this with risky bluffs with limited potential reward but a serious downside. It would be a totally different dynamic in a rebuy tournament, where we can simply start afresh with a second investment, but here we have only one ‘life’ and that needs to be respected.
We also need to consider that someone has a decent hand. Moreover, some players enter a multi-table tournament intending to either progress quite quickly or accept early elimination so they can do something else with their time. These players are not satisfied with plodding along without taking their chances, and may well call our bluff with a small pair or even A-high because they are losing the same amount of money whether they leave after two minutes or 20 minutes.
All things considered, during the early stages of a tournament it’s not worth jeopardising our chances through an unnecessary bluff when we’re anyway doing fine and the gain would merely add chips to our stack rather than catapult us into the stratosphere. After all, if we start a 150-player freezeout tournament with 1000 chips we will need to have amassed around 16000 to have an average stack on the final table…