The semi-bluff explanation
The semi-bluff is a very useful tactic in online poker. However, for inexperienced players, it can also be a confusing concept – as is the concept of bluffing generally. Before discussing the advantages of executing a semi-bluff, we should first understand the distinction to be made between an outright bluff and a semi-bluff.
With a pure bluff – such as when we miss our flush draw on the River, have no hand at all, and make a play for the pot – there is essentially no (or a tiny) chance of winning should our bluff be called. A semi-bluff, on the other hand, means we might still win if we’re called.
For example, we might have Ac 6c and the Flop comes Kc 9c 4h. If we check-raised here this would be a semi-bluff because, while we probably don’t have the best hand at this point, a club on either the Turn or the River would give us the nut flush and (most likely) the strongest hand. Our bet is a bluff, but the potential of our drawing hand to leapfrog us in front is what categorises it as a semi-bluff. (Note that a semi-bluff can be made only when there is one or more cards still to come.)
A pure bluff, then, has zero equity in terms of the only chance of success being if it induces a fold. A semi-bluff has additional equity in the possibility that a hand can be improved by future cards. The degree of a semi-bluff’s equity depends on the chance of winning, and the better the equity, the more ‘profitable’ the semi-bluff.
For example, semi-bluffing with both the nut flush and nut straight draw means loads of equity and, effectively, can be seen more as a case of juicing up the pot rather than attempting a bluff per se. On the other hand, semi-bluffing with a measly gutshot straight draw is going to give us little equity in comparison and, consequently, is a far less attractive play.
If we consider
- Flush draws & open-ended straight draws
- Strong flush draws
- Open-ended straight draws
These are excellent candidates for a semi-bluff because such hands have very good equity against, for instance, a pair.
It’s important to distinguish between these favourable semi-bluff hands and those which much less justify making this play. These would be the aforementioned gutshot straight draw, and weak flush draws. The former doesn’t have a great chance of hitting and therefore offers low equity. Weak(ish) flush draws present a different type of problem when it comes to the semi-bluff, as there is a real danger that after being lucky enough to hit, we could come up against a bigger flush. Such a scenario needs to be factored in when assessing realistic equity. This is one of those things about online poker that comes with experience.
Note that when we have a lot of equity in a hand that can be transformed by many cards, we don’t necessarily want our ‘bluff’ to work! Given the implied odds, the probability of our hitting, it’s not entirely accurate from a practical sense to describe a semi-bluff as an actual bluff – in these cases it’s just as much a value bet, and one which we should be happy to see called.
Advantages of the semi-bluff
The semi-bluff is more than just a bluff. By turning on the aggression we’re also making an attempt to assume the initiative, which is always a useful change in dynamic and, compared with merely checking, is a preferable option. Remember that most players – especially at the lower levels of online poker – tend to go along for the ride when faced with aggression, too easily volunteering for the role of the passive participant. Consequently, when we’re ideally in position and we assume the initiative with our semi-bluff, it’s likely that our opponents will play their part and check to us, thus giving us some flexibility for the rest of the hand – either we can take the free card(s) or continue betting.
Semi-bluffing also serves to disguise our hands. In fact, taking a flush draw as an example, it’s often expected of us to only check when on a draw, so coming out betting can be useful in throwing the opposition off the scent which, in turn, can mean winning much more should we hit than had we checked.
To conclude, the semi-bluff is a very useful weapon to incorporate into our online poker armoury. As is often the case, it’s sensible to pick our spots and use the semi-bluff only when we have a suitable, equity-friendly hand, and when circumstances are generally favourable.