Embracing the Semi-Bluff

In any given hand of poker, there are two ways to win: at showdown or by getting your opponents to fold. This simple fact is the very reason why semi-bluffs are so useful and important. They allow the bettor to gain the benefit of both possible win scenarios. Today, we will discuss the semi-bluff, including when it is most useful and why it is useful. When we are done, hopefully you will have another tool in your poker arsenal to take to the tables.

What is a Semi-Bluff?

If you’ve played any amount of poker, you know what a bluff is, but some players may be unfamiliar with the term «semi-bluff.» Put simply, a semi-bluff is when you make a bet or raise without a made hand, but with the possibility of making a hand on the next card. It’s not an out-and-out bluff because there is a possibility that you may end up with the best hand. It is not a value bet, though, because at the time of the bet, your hand is weak.

When Should I Semi-Bluff?

In order to effectively semi-bluff, you need a hand that can take the lead after the next card. In other words, you need a drawing hand, most typically a straight or flush draw. You also need to time your semi-bluff so that you do not make it when your opponent is holding an already-made hand. If your opponent has a hand worthy of a re-raise, then semi-bluffing does not work because (a) you do not get the benefit of a possible fold and (b) you increase the size of the pot to the benefit of your opponent and his made hand. Two examples may help.

Scenario #1

In this scenario, you are in the Big Blind with 9c 8c in a ring game. A tight player in Middle Position calls the big blind. A loose player in Late Position raises 3x the BB, which is his typical bet whenever he holds any high Ace or mid-to-high pairs, a pattern you have learned from carefully observing him in hands when you were not part of the action. The Small Blind is new to the table and decides to call. You decide to call because of the amount of money in the pot and the relatively small raise from a loose player. The tight Middle Position player calls as well. The flop comes down Ah Ac Jc. You now have a flush draw. The S. B. checks, and the action is to you.
Is this a good time for a semi-bluff? Nope. That flop could have easily hit for the Middle Position or Late Position players, both of whom could be holding a high Ace or even AJ for a full house. In this case, there is little chance that you are going to get three folds (from the SB, MP and LP players), so you already lose half the benefit of a semi-fold. By betting, all you are doing is pumping the pot, likely for the benefit of the player with a high Ace or A. J. Heck, for all you know, you are facing a player with Kc Qc, so even if your flush hits, you may be behind. Here, I would recommend a check, with the hope that you can see a free card. Semi-bluffing is not an advisable option.

Scenario #2

In our second scenario, you hold the same cards, 8c 9c. The action folds to the Small Blind, and he makes a minimum raise. You call and see a flop: 7h 6c 2d. You have an open-ended straight draw. Your opponent checks to you.
Is this a good time for a semi-bluff? Damn right! Your opponent has already shown some weakness with his small pre-flop raise and post-flop check. You have an open-ended straight draw and two overcards, but if none of your cards hit by the river, you have an incredibly weak hand for showdown. By betting here, you may be able to pick up the pot with nothing more than Ten-high. For instance, if your opponent decided to min-bet with Kc Qc preflop, he is likely to fold to a flop bet, since he missed the flop entirely. When he does fold his KQ, he will be folding the better hand, because all you have is Ten-high to his King-high. Thanks to your semi-bluff, though, he does not know that. On the other hand, your opponent may call your semi-bluff. That’s fine too. You may hit your 5 or Ten on the turn or river, giving you the nuts. Yet, by betting now, before your card hits, your opponent will likely ignore the possibility that you were on a draw. He is more likely to think that you had top-pair or something similar. Your semi-bluff has (a) pumped the pot, (b) aided in deception, and © set you up to make more money on later betting rounds if you hit. What if you are called and your card doesn’t come? Well, you may want to fire a second bullet, since your opponent likely does not put you on a draw. Otherwise, you can check for another free card and hopefully hit on the river. What if you are raised? Well, that all depends on the size of the raise. If you still have pot odds to draw, go for it. Consider implied odds, too, since your opponent is likely check-raising with a strong hand like 77 (a set). If he does have a hand like 77, when you hit your straight, you will get paid handsomely, all because of a semi-bluff.

Now Go Semi-Bluff

Now that we have discussed the basic idea behind semi-bluffs, you should be ready to add it to your arsenal. It’s a valuable tool, because it can win you money without a hand and it can build pots when you are about to make a hand. And remember, your opponents can semi-bluff, too. So be wary when a situation above presents itself and your are playing the role of the opponent. Now go semi-bluff.

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