Semi-Bluffs: Two Ways to Win

Annette Obrestad

The previous article in this series discussed two examples of pure bluffs: floating (calling a bet with nothing with the intention of stealing the pot on a future street if your opponent shows weakness) and probe bets.

In today's article, we'll take a closer look at the more conventional of the bluffs, the semi-bluff.

Semi-bluffs are basically bluffs with backup (outs). In contrast to a pure bluff, where you can only win the pot if your opponent folds, with a semi-bluff, you have two ways to win the hand. You win when your opponent folds or you can win if your hand improves.

Position Counts: In Is Better Than Out

As is the case in most contexts in poker, position is an important consideration when planning a semi-bluff. Semi-bluffs are often more successful when they are attempted from in position.

They're even more effective if you have significantly more money behind, as opposed to when you attempt a semi-bluff with an all-in bet. It's often fear of having to call another large bet rather than fear of the original bet itself that causes many players to fold to a semi-bluff.

Sebastion Ruthenberg
Sebastian Ruthenberg: semi-bluff with flush and inside straight doesn't do the trick.

When you're out of position, your options are more limited. Essentially, you can choose to bet or not. If you're called, you'll have to act first on the next street and could potentially face a difficult decision - namely, whether to continue betting or abandon the bluff (assuming you haven't hit your hand).

Alternatively, when you're in position, additional options are at your disposal. Not only do you have the benefit of seeing how your opponent has acted before making your initial move, but if you bet (or raise) the flop and are called, most opponents will tend to check the turn, thus providing you with the option to check behind (if you so desire) and see a free river.

This is a major benefit. It allows you the opportunity to make your hand (by seeing the river) and potentially win a pot that you may not have been able to win if you were acting first (out of position).

Furthermore, the bet-check-bet pattern described above can also be employed with vulnerable hands such as top pair. Doing so tends to minimize your losses if you're behind, or maximize your profitability when you're ahead, as it puts doubt into the mind of your opponents, leading to more calls on the river.

(Overly) Common Uses and How to Maximize Their Value

The most common semi-bluff is betting with a flush draw. For most players, this is a routine, almost automatic play. The next-most-common example of a semi-bluff is betting with an open-ended straight draw.

While players still use these two examples frequently, with some success, there's nothing particularly deceptive about them and most good players are able to spot these types of bluffs fairly easily.

As a result, the effectiveness of these semi-bluffs is somewhat limited, both in terms of the number of pots you'll be able to steal and your ability to get paid off if you hit your hand.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't continue to semi-bluff in these situations, but you can make a potentially profitable adjustment when you do. Specifically, aggressively value-betting your big hands when the board has an obvious flush or straight draw possibility can be a very profitable play - especially if you are known to frequently semi-bluff.

In fact, overbetting the pot is often a good way to go, as this will make many opponents suspect you're betting on the come. Consider the case where a flush draw is present on the flop and an opponent leads out with top pair, top kicker or even an overpair. If you raise, your opponent will be forced to make a decision, often for all their chips.

Raising As Opposed to Betting (On Both Flop and Turn)

Another benefit to having position when contemplating a semi-bluff is that it allows you to add two additional weapons to your arsenal if your opponent bets into you - namely, the semi-bluff raise and the delayed semi-bluff raise (simply smooth-call the flop and then raise the turn whether you've made your hand or not).

Both of these moves, though not for the faint of heart, are good examples of power poker. All top players are familiar with both of these plays and are willing to use them in the right situation.

Chad Batista
Chad Batista: Kc-Jc semi-bluff backfires.

Other Opportunities to Semi-Bluff

In my experience, two of the best (most profitable) times to semi-bluff are when you've flopped either a double gut-shot straight draw or a gut-shot straight draw. Of course, combining either of these draws with overcards or a back door flush draw makes them even more valuable.

The reason these draws are more valuable is simple. Your opponent is far less likely to be able to put you on the actual hand you have. Consequently, this added element of deception means you're far more likely to get paid off when you hit your draw than you would be if you had made a semi-bluff on a flush draw.

The Beauty of Semi-Bluffs

For the typical player, employing semi-bluffs with the correct frequency and in the proper situations will improve profitability dramatically. Semi-bluffs help to vary your play and keep your opponents guessing, both of which are important benefits. Having position when you attempt a semi-bluff affords you more options in the play of the hand in addition to allowing you to win more and larger pots.

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