Winning big at poker isn’t just about good, solid poker fundamentals.
There are a handful of special moves that, when mastered, can make the difference between winning a little, and winning a lot.
Today we’ll explain the Semi-Bluff, a move that can dramatically change how much money you make from your flopped and turned draws.
Instead of banking on your card coming in, learn to take control of the hand and take down the pot even when you miss.
How to Make a Semi-Bluff in Poker
The What: Semi-bluffing, at its core, is simply betting or raising with a draw. It’s not considered a ‘pure’ bluff because you have a hand with good potential to improve on the turn or river.
By betting or raising you give yourself two ways to win. You can:
- Hit your draw to make the best hand or
- Win the pot uncontested when your opponent folds
The When: Just like the majority of poker moves the Semi-Bluff works best when you’re in position. Because a successful semi-bluff relies so heavily on fold equity, it’s only effective when your opponent has a high probability of folding.
The Where: The Semi-Bluff can be used in virtually every poker variant and format as long as there is a draw or multiple streets of action.
The Why: Semi-bluffing combines the equity in your draws and the fold equity gained by the times your opponent folds and you win the pot uncontested. It also balances your betting and raising ranges
Semi-bluffing mixes up your play and makes it difficult for your opponent to know whether you’re bluffing or betting a made hand.
How to Semi-Bluff Properly
Because you flop draws relatively often it’s important to know when a semi-bluff is appropriate and when it’s going to cost you hard-earned money.
The key point to remember is that with semi-bluffing you’ve got two kinds of equity:
- Pot equity
- Fold equity
Pot equity refers to the portion of the pot to which you’re entitled based solely on the strength of your cards. If you’ve got a flush draw on the flop and there’s $100 in the pot your pot equity is roughly $35, because you’re going to hit your flush about one out of three times.
Fold equity refers to the value you get when your opponent folds and you win what’s in the pot without having to hit that flush draw.
So, naturally, the more of either type of equity you have, the more money you’re going to make with your semi-bluffs.
Pot equity is easy to calculate. The more pot equity you have, the less fold equity you need since you’ll be winning the pot by making the best hand more often.
Understanding your fold equity, however, is more difficult. There’s no simple formula to follow but there are a few key factors that must be considered.
Fold equity implies the possibility of your opponent folding so it’s not going to work when you’re up against a calling station married to two overcards or bottom pair.
- Target weak/tight players that you know you can push off marginal hands
Board Texture and Table Image
Pay attention to the texture of the flop and the hands you consider your opponent capable of having.
The wider your opponent’s range the more fold equity you have since he’ll be dumping all his air hands without thinking twice.
If your opponents have seen you semi-bluff a lot of flush draws, consider your credibility on a flop like A52. Start weighting your behavior more towards value-betting made hands on these kinds of boards.
Pay Attention to How the Board Develops
Convincing your opponent to fold is the chief goal when semi-bluffing and in that way it’s identical to pure bluffing. And just like when you’re bluffing with air, the cards that fall on the turn and river are critical to your chances of success.
Big cards, preferably overcards to the board, are good cards to see when you want to semi-bluff. You want cards that weaken your opponent’s perceived range and strengthen yours.
Overcards on the turn and river are especially good to bluff at because players’ flop-calling range consists of so many top and middle pairs.
Key Points to the Semi-Bluff:
The logic of the semi-bluff is simple:
- 1. Two Ways to Win - you win the pot if your opponent folds and you can win if you hit your draw
- 2. Balance Your Range - your opponent can't always put you on a big hand when you raise
- 3. Win Bigger Pots - If you make your hand you’ll win an even bigger pot because you raised, inflating the pot
Check out the video below to get the semi-bluff basic in just two and a half minutes.
Watch: How to Semi-Bluff in Poker
Position, Money Behind Key for Semi-Bluffing
As is the case in most contexts in poker, position is big consideration when planning a semi-bluff. Semi-bluffs are much more successful when they're 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 the 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.
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 which leads to more calls on the river.
How to Maximize Semi-Bluff 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 semi-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're 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.
More Opportunities to Semi-Bluff
Two of the best (most profitable) times to semi-bluff are when:
- you've flopped a double gut-shot straight draw or
- you've flopped 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.
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 poker 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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