The Art of the Semi-Bluff

Poker gaming chips stand on a table. (Photo by SEBASTIEN BOZON / AFP)

So you’ve got your ABC poker strategy pretty much figured out. You have your opening ranges locked down, and you’re comfortable betting for value, whether you’re in position or out of position. Well done. This simplified strategy will take you far in poker, especially when you’re playing at lower stakes.

Now it’s time to spread those wings. To maximize your results in poker, you need to start bluffing if you haven’t already. There are two ways to win, after all:

Have the best hand at showdown

Get your opponents to fold

The great thing about bluffing is how it serves both aims – if you do it right. The best bluffs are the ones where your hand has some equity if your opponent doesn’t fold; flush draws, straight draw, even low pairs can become big made hands on the turn and/or river. These are known as semi-bluffs, and they should be the first bluffs you add to your arsenal.

Tasty Textures

Before we start integrating those bluffs, let’s take a closer look at why they work. Let’s say we’re playing No-Limit Texas Hold’em – the Cadillac of Poker. You’re in the big blind with Seven-Five of Clubs, the button opens, you call, and the flop comes Nine-Six-Three with two Clubs.

You check, your opponent bets… and here we are with about as tasty a semi-bluff as there is. Why so tasty? If you raise your opponent here, there’s a very good chance they’re going to fold right away. There aren’t any cards higher than Nine on the flop, so it’s more likely those three cards are helping you rather than your opponent.

If the flop were Ace-Six-Three, maybe that’s not such a great bluffing opportunity; overall in this spot, you’re less likely to have an Ace because you didn’t raise pre-flop, which takes pocket Aces, Ace-King, Ace-Queen, and several other combos out of your range.

Your opponent, meanwhile, has all the possible combinations containing an Ace. That means your check-raise is less likely to generate a fold. Maybe it’s still a good bluff if you take everything else into consideration, but when you’re just starting to unleash these moves, you want to add the best semi-bluffs possible. Make sure the board texture is in your favor before loading up that cannon.

Belly Busters FTW The other side of the equation is the equity in your hand. If your opponent doesn’t fold, you want as much equity as possible; in this example with the Nine-Six-Three flop, you have a Club flush draw, and you have one of those tricky double inside straight draws, where either a Four (76543) or an Eight (98765) will complete your hand. Hey, maybe you’ll even make a straight flush.

That’s pretty good. It’s also very important to consider the value of blockers when you’re contemplating a bluff. Let’s change that flop again and make it Ten-Eight-Six. It’s possible here that your opponent has Nine-Seven suited for the straight, but less likely because you have a Seven in your hand.

You have the nut advantage, meaning if anyone has the nuts here, it’s probably you. That’s a quality semi-bluff right there – one that’s properly masquerading as a big made hand and can still get there if your opponent calls. As you get more comfortable with bluffing, you can start expanding your arsenal to include bluffs with less equity in your hand, like gutshots and three cards to a straight flush.

These can work well in the right spots, like the above examples where your opponent opens from a late position and the flop doesn’t contain any big cards. But the more marginal the spot is, the less value you’ll get out of it in the long run, so concentrate your efforts on mastering those tastier semi-bluffs – and may the rectangles be with you.