How to Avoid Making a Bad Bluff

Brad Booth
Brad Booth's HSP bluff on Phil Ivey is rated by some as the 4th best TV bluff of all time.

There is nothing more rewarding for a pro than calling down an amateur making a bad bluff; and there's nothing more upsetting to an amateur than getting called.

An amateur thinking at a basic level will often make a bad bluff thinking it's a strong move. But bluffing well is an advanced skill requiring a very deep understanding of the game.

The stronger your opponent, the more advanced your bluff methodology must become.

One Hand, Two Stories

When there's a car accident at a busy intersection, there is no shortage of witnesses for the police to talk to. Remarkably, even if the accident only happened a short time ago, each eyewitness will have a different take on what happened.

Even though every witness saw the exact same event, they all saw it (or remember it) differently. This is typically referred to as "Eyewitness Recall" in forensic psychology. Our interpretation of the current situation stems from our memory of the proceeding events.


"Memory consists of three stages: (1) storage, (2) retention, and (3) recall. Storage factors can impede memory accuracy when we find ourselves unable to recall information from our memory because it was never stored there.

For instance, can you recall which way Lincoln faces on a penny, and where the letter identifying the mint of the penny is located?"

This means that each person witnessing a hand will have their own idea of what has happened in the current hand, and in the hands leading up to it. The players in the hand, each having different information (since they both know only their own hole cards), will each have a different take on the situation.

Daniel Negreanu

Bad Bluff Examples

This first example is a standard, common instance of an amateur making a bad bluff.

Table Setup: The amateur is in early position with a slightly less-than-average stack size of $175. The pro is on the button with a slightly larger-than-average stack size of $325. The two players have been at the same table for a couple of hours with no significant history between them.

Pre-Flop: Amateur raises. Pro calls. Heads-up to the flop.


Amateur checks. Pro checks.


Amateur checks. Pro checks.


Amateur bets the pot. Pro calls.

Amateur shows    

Pro shows    

The pro wins the pot with two pair, sixes and jacks.

In this scenario the amateur usually sits in shock, wondering how the pro could have called with nothing but bottom pair. The amateur sees the action as herself having raised pre-flop, thus giving the impression that she has a big hand.

Sweet Mullet!

The pro never bet any of the streets; clearly he does not have a big pocket pair. Because only the amateur has shown she has a big hand, she feels that there is no way the pro can call when the top card pairs the board.

The pro beats nothing but a bluff, and with the amateur showing strength pre-flop and playing with a tight table image, she feels that the chances she's bluffing should seem slim to none to the pro.

The pro sees the hand very differently. Due to her tight image, the pro immediately puts the amateur on a big hand when she raises, making for an easy loose call with the suited connector. The flop gives the pro a small pair with no real strong draws.

When the amateur checks the flop, the pro now knows the amateur has one of two hands: the amateur flopped a set of jacks and is looking to check-raise, or more likely the amateur has A-K or A-Q and chose not to c-bet.

If the amateur has AA, KK, QQ or A-J, she is almost certain to make a bet with the flush draw on the flop.

The pro is now either way behind, or ahead of a player with six outs. The pro is also able to bluff having a flush if another club hits the board. If the amateur is scared of the draw, she is most likely sitting on only four outs to win now.

The turn makes no real change to the situation - when the amateur checks, the pro is now 90% sure that the amateur is on A-K or AQ. He's willing to check behind with the lead, taking his equity rather than risking getting check-raised.

Checking behind here also sets up the amateur to make a donk bluff on the river thinking the pro will fold after showing no strength.

The river is an absolute blank as far as the pro is concerned. If he was sure the amateur didn't have a jack on the flop, he's even more convinced she doesn't have one now. The amateur makes the donk bluff the pro thought she might, and snap-calls for the win.

In the eyes of the amateur, this was a strong bluff, as she believed no player without a jack could make the call. The amateur had a strong read on the pro's hand, but didn't stop to consider the information the pro had on her.

Amateurs are always shocked that the pro could call here with nothing more than top pair, whereas looking at it from the pro's point of view, there was never a reason to fold.

This second example, taking place an hour after the last hand, is the reverse of the first example. Here the amateur makes what she thinks is a hero call on a pro:

Table Setup: The pro is in early position now with a large stack size of $770. The amateur is on the button with a slightly larger-than-average stack size of $325.

Pre-Flop: Pro limps. Amateur raises. Pro calls. Heads-up to the flop.


Pro checks. Amateur bets. Pro calls.


Pro checks. Amateur bets. Pro calls.


Pro bets half the pot. Amateur calls.

Amateur shows    

Pro shows    

The pro wins the pot with a pair of aces.

In this example the amateur has the correct read on the pro; she knows that the pro is on the flush draw in the hand and keeps correctly betting his top pair.

When the flush misses on the river she believes the pro is making a weak bluff with a missed draw, and calls with her pair of queens.

Mickey Appleman
Not an amateur... no really. NO REALLY, it's Mickey Appleman.

The amateur forgot to take her thought processes one step further. Knowing the pro is on a flush draw, it's most commonly going to be the nut flush draw he's holding. When the ace comes on the river, the pro did miss his flush draw, but now has the best pair.

The only hand the pro is worried about losing to here is A-Q for top two. It's a thin value bet that works out nicely.

Before you start making bluffs at your opponents, you're going to want to take all of the possible factors into consideration. Successfully bluffing typically requires the player to set up the bluff on an earlier street. If your opponent can't realistically put you on a hand that beats them, your bluff is going to fail.

If you play the first four streets like you're holding something weak, only to show sudden unwarranted strength on the river, chances are you're going to get called down. Most often these dark tunnel bluffs work when the player is actually value betting the best hand, only thinking they're bluffing.

Before you make a move at a pot, take into consideration the picture of yourself you've painted to the other players, as well as the picture you have of them. Only if both of these align will your bluff have a high chance for success.

The best way to work on any poker skill, such as when to bluff, is to see as many hands as you can. Thanks to online poker rooms, seeing thousands of hands over a weekend is no longer a difficult task.

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