Optimal Conditions for Bluffing

September 5, 2013 Change100 Poker psychology

Topping most short lists for “Bluff of the Century” is the bluff that, in many ways, started it all. Ten years ago, while playing heads-up with Sammy Farha for the 2003 WSOP Main Event bracelet, Chris Moneymaker opened Ks-7h for a 2.5bb raise and Farha called with Qs-9h. Farha made top pair on the 9s-6s-2d flop and checked over to Moneymaker. Moneymaker checked behind. The 8s on the turn put three spades and a potential straight on the board. Farha fired 300,000 into the 210,000 pot and with only king-high and a one-card flush draw, Moneymaker raised to 800,000. Farha called and the river landed the 3h, a blank that missed all potential draws. Farha checked, and in a spectacularly gutsy move, Moneymaker moved all-in. The cagey veteran pro used all the tricks in his book trying to coax a reaction out of Moneymaker, but the amateur remained still and stone-faced. After an eternity in the tank, Farha gave up his hand. Even if there weren’t hole card cameras to confirm, Moneymaker’s deep exhale told the viewer everything we needed to know: he just got away with a big one.

Moneymaker’s bluff was genius not only for it’s sheer gutsiness, but also because the conditions were absolutely perfect to make such a move. Bluffs are so often called “ill-timed” for a reason. They’re made under the wrong conditions and tend to materialize when a player gets lost in a hand and makes a desperate move to win the pot despite the fact that their story doesn’t necessarily add up. In the hand with Sammy Farha, not only did Moneymaker craft a convincing tale, but he waited for the perfect time to tell it.

Have the right image

First and foremost, the object of a bluff is to not get called. And in order to not get called, you’ll need a pretty solid table image. If you’ve been playing a lot of hands and showing down terrible holdings, everyone with half a brain and bottom pair is going to call you down. However, if you’ve cultivated a tight image and shown down a monster hand or two, your opponents will be more likely to fold to you. At that point in his match against Farha, Moneymaker had the benefit of a tight image, but even more importantly, he was an amateur playing his first Main Event. Moneymaker knew that (a) Farha vastly underestimated him and (b) understood how important the money was to him; therefore, he wouldn’t expect Moneymaker to put his tournament life on the line with only king-high.

Be in position

If you think playing a weak hand from out of position is tough, try betting at the pot with absolutely nothing. In order to run a successful bluff, you need the advantage of having more information than your opponents. By bluffing from late position, your opponents will have already reacted to the board and you’ll be able to assess the situation from there. When Moneymaker decided to semi-bluff the turn with the 800,000 raise, he already had the following pieces of information:

— Farha only called his preflop raise; he did not reraise from the big blind

— Farha checked a 9-6-2 flop with two spades

— Farha overbet the pot from out of position when a dangerous turn card fell

Moneymaker knew it was extremely unlikely Farha had a monster hand. Since he didn’t three-bet preflop, an overpair to the nine-high board was unlikely. Since he didn’t lead out on the flop, a big draw was also unlikely. Farha was either controlling the size of the pot or planning to check-raise, a plan that was foiled when Moneymaker checked back.

When the 8s came on the turn, it put a potential straight and a potential flush on board. Farha might have liked his top pair on the flop, but it shriveled up in a hurry on the turn. He made an overbet, putting 300,000 into the 210,000 pot. When Moneymaker decided to raise in this spot, he sensed that Farha was trying to push him out of the pot and not let him draw any further in case he did have a spade or a seven (turns out he had both). If Farha did have a big made hand at this point, wouldn’t he want to bet for value, instead of scaring his opponent away?

The board is scary and you believe your opponent’s holding is weak

It is a lot easier to sell a monster hand when the board supports your story. When Moneymaker raised to 800,000 on the 9-6-2-8 board with three spades, he was representing a huge hand. And because of the texture of the board, there were a ton of hands that were really believable for him to have given his action up to this point—A-X of spades, K-X of spades, J-T, T-7, or even 9-8. Moneymaker believed Farha’s holding was weak enough that he’d have a tough time calling a half million more on this board. However, if the turn card was a total blank, Moneymaker’s plan probably wouldn’t have worked.

In this case, the blank ended up coming on the river when the 3h fell for a final board of 9s-6s-2d-8s-3h. The straight and flush draws Moneymaker picked up on the turn both missed, but it was also a card unlikely to have improved Farha’s hand. The importance of position came into play again on the river when Farha checked to Moneymaker, enabling him to move all-in. Moneymaker had nothing but king-high, but since he believed Farha’s hand was too weak for him to call a shove, he was able to pull off the Bluff of the Century and induce a fold.

When you’re contemplating a bluff, ask yourself these questions before putting your chips at risk: (1) Do I have the right image? (2) Am I in position? (3) Is my opponent capable of folding on this board? And if your opponent is a calling station that never folds? Well, don’t bluff him! It won’t work. You’re wasting your money. Save your bluffs for opponents who are capable of throwing away a marginal-to-strong hand.

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