How Not to Suck at Poker: Stop Bluffing

Vitaly Lunkin

One of the biggest leaks in a poker beginner's game: making too many bad bluffs.

Let's start by clearing up a misconception: There is actually very little stone-cold bluffing in poker.

Thanks mostly to Hollywood's dramatic interpretation of it, people seem to associate poker with making huge bluffs at every possible opportunity.

Just as players rarely, if ever, lose with a straight flush to a royal flush, the game simply doesn't work like that.

As you would expect from a game as in-depth as Texas Hold'em, bluffing comes in many various forms and degrees:

  • Quick bluffs
  • Semi-bluffs
  • Stone-cold bluffs (or naked bluffs)
Phil Ivey

Quick Bluffs

The vast majority of all bluffs in Hold'em are quick bluffs.

Also known as "small ball," these are small bets made to win small- to medium-sized pots with a high expected rate of success.

The risk is minimal, and the reward is slightly profitable.

Example: Three players check to you on the button with a flop of K K 7.

There were no raises pre-flop, and no one looks at all interested in this pot. There are really only two options:

  1. Someone has a king and is slowplaying.
  2. No one has a king and everybody's ready to fold

This scenario is straight forward. Chances are no one has a king, meaning they will be willing to fold.

Also, the size of the pot is too small to make a hero call worthwhile. This is a position bet, intended to finish the pot, regardless of your hand.


Let's say you raise pre-flop with A K and get two callers.

The flop comes J 9 5; you have nothing but a flush draw and over cards. The first player checks, followed by the second player betting three-quarters of the pot.

In this situation raising would be a semi-bluff as technically you have nothing; you're behind anyone with as little as a pair. The fact that you have a flush draw and the best overcards though means you have many legitimate ways to win this pot by showdown.

Your hand does have some value, making this only a semi-bluff. Ideally your opponent will fold and you will take the pot. But if you do get called there's the chance that you'll make the nuts on the turn.

Semi-bluffs are a crucial part of poker, but be warned: if you semi-bluff every time you have a big draw, you'll be as transparent as half of Britney Spears' wardrobe.

Brad Booth

Stone-Cold Bluffs

Possibly the greatest stone-cold bluff ever to be caught on tape is Brad Booth's bluff against Phil Ivey in the third season of High Stakes Poker.

Brad was drawing dead to a five or a runner-runner two pair. Because his hand had almost no value whatsoever this is a textbook example of a stone-cold bluff.

Realistically, the only way Brad is going to win this pot is if Ivey folds.

These are the type of bluffs you see in Hollywood movies and these are the types of bluffs people seem to think poker is made of. In reality, it's almost never a good idea to make a bluff like this.

To expect these sorts of bluffs to be profitable, you need to understand everything going on in the hand, including your opponent's thoughts and plans. It's a high-level play left only to the very best in the world.

Sure, you can make these bluffs and have them work, but without being a truly high-level player, you're just rolling the dice on not getting called.

Dan Harrington describes these bluffs as "dark tunnel bluffs." All you see is the light at the end of the tunnel. You have no idea what's actually going on around you.

To not suck at poker, you need to stop making stone-cold bluffs, and limit the number of quick and semi bluffs you're making. The best way for a beginner to make money at poker is by playing straight-forward, ABC poker.

If you have the best hand, bet. If you don't, fold.

Unless you’re playing against a table of opponents who have watched, studied and remembered every hand you’ve played that session, chances are that getting creative is simply costing you money.

Save It For When Your Game Improves

The longer you play this game the more you'll come to find out that most of your poker profits comes from other players making exactly this kind of mistake. Why be that player?

Until your game advances -- and you really understand how to execute a complicated bluff -- save your money and focus on getting big value out of your big hands.

You want to be the one who has it when the biggest money is on the line - not the player holding his breath and desperately trying to will someone to fold. Check out the video below for more detail:

Here are a few specific examples to show you exactly how you can apply these bluffing rules:

Scenario 1:

Here’s a scenario from a live $1/$2 game where being creative on the button ends up being an expensive choice.

Our Hero has been at the table for a couple of hours and has been splashing around, raising a lot, and showing down dubious hands. His image is loose-aggressive and that he’s prone to bluff. He’s sitting behind a stack of around $500.

Paola Martin
Paola Martin: not the lady from my story.

On the other end of the table is a nitty lady who likes to call the Hero’s bets and always seems to assume he’s bluffing. She’s raised three of the last four hands and got folds pre-flop or on the flop to all of them.

From early position the lady raises to $15. The player to her left calls and so does the player to the right of the Hero.

The lady says “No one believes me!” before the Hero looks down at A A and calls. The next player, a half-senile old man, calls and so does one more.

The flop comes 4 6 3. The lady bets out $35 and the first caller is the guy on the right of the Hero. The hero again just calls, as does the old man.

The turn comes 9. The lady checks as does the guy on the right of the Hero. The Hero bets $130. The old man thinks about it, says a bunch of random crazy old man things, and then calls for his last $76.

The lady insta-calls and the guy on the right of the Hero folds. The river comes 5.

The lady checks. The Hero checks behind. The guy on the left of the hero yells “send it all!” and shows 7 3 for the straight.


As you can see, about everything that could have gone wrong in that hand did. The lady, it turns out, held K K and the guy on Hero’s right held Q Q.

The Hero lost about $100 on the hand simply because he didn’t play ABC poker – both pre-flop and post-flop. If the Hero had three bet pre-flop, the lady (who always believes he’s bluffing and would never fold KK pre-flop) would have four-bet.

Chances are the queens would have folded. But after the Hero ships it all in, the lady would call. So instead of losing $100, the Hero would have (likely) shipped a $1,000 pot.

Scenario 2:

You’re sitting on a $.50/$1 online full ring game, you have $120 in your stack and have been playing regular TAG poker. You’re sitting on the button and get dealt 8 8.

A player with a $245 stack raises to $4 from middle position. You call on the button and head to the flop heads up.

The flop comes 6 8 9, you flopped middle set and are sure that you’re ahead of your opponent. He’s not the type of player to have raised with anything that could have flopped a straight.

Your opponent bets $7, you just call. The turn comes Q Your opponent bets $18, again you just call. The river comes 10 

Your opponent checks and you check behind. Your opponent turns over 8 9 for two pair. You win the $58 pot with your set.


You won the pot but you lost as much as $182 because you tried to get fancy and trap. You also left yourself wide open to get rocked by a straight or flush.

Your opponent flopped a monster hand. Most likely he was making the same assumptions you were, that it was highly unlikely you could have flopped the straight. He puts you on an overpair, or a flush draw. Either way, chances are he’s not getting away from top two cheaply.

By pumping the flop (which ABC poker would dictate), you will create a much larger pot, and help eliminate the possibility of your opponent drawing out on you (in case he does have the flush draw).

By slow-playing your hand, you kept the pot small in a scenario where you had heaps of equity, and let the board get too dangerous to value bet.

Getting fancy cost you a lot of money.

Tom Dwan and Phil Ivey
Only at a table like this should you consider some XYZ poker.


Yes. Poker is not results based – it’s decision-based. Both examples show you how getting fancy and playing your hand incorrectly for the situation can end up costing you money.

The fact the old man hit a gutshot in the first example is irrelevant. Even if the river hadn’t given him the straight, the Hero still would have made less money than if had played it by the book.

If you have aces pre-flop and are up against an opponent who you think holds a big hand and who is more than willing to stack off to you, you’re making a mistake by doing anything but raising.

Players still developing their game often start to have thoughts like “If I re-raise here they’ll know for sure I have aces,” when in reality your three-bet could mean anything your opponent wants it to mean.

When playing low-to-medium stakes your opponents will make plenty of mistakes and will typically have no idea what you’re doing at any time.

Especially when you’re in an action pot, stick to the ABCs and your long-run results will thank you.

More on How Not to Suck at Poker:

  1. How Not to Suck at Poker: Play Fewer Hands
  2. How Not to Suck at Poker: Play in Position
  3. How Not to Suck at Poker: Count Your Outs
  4. How Not to Suck at Poker: Learn Basic Odds
  5. How Not to Suck at Poker: Pay Attention
  6. How Not to Suck at Poker: Have a Bankroll
  7. How Not to Suck at Poker: Stop Bluffing
  8. How Not to Suck at Poker: Keep Your Mouth Shut
  9. How Not to Suck at Poker: Keep Records
  10. How Not to Suck at Poker: Discuss the Game

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MJ 2015-06-21 08:06:53

Both styles of play have their useful points, but bluffing isn't something you should do unless it's functional.You absolutely must believe that nobody is going to call you. That's not as easy as it sounds, and it doesn't sound easy unless you're playing out of character all of a sudden.

Personally I think bluffing is a bad idea, as you don't really know who's beating you already. You have to assume that TAG players aren't hanging around on you.

lock 2012-08-07 18:56:30

notice not a comment about purpose bluffs and the fact that in none of the series do they play percentages or nything this is a pretty dumb guide

Arty Smokes 2011-05-30 19:44:16

The Brad Booth bluff against Phil Ivey is here:

It wasn't a completely naked bluff, as Booth did have a gutshot. He could have held 45 for the straight, or flopped a set.

Perhaps the greatest completely naked bluff that's been televised was by Tom Dwan going all in with 480K with the mighty 72 off suit, and forcing Sammy to fold aces up.

Bobbyfitzs 2010-03-03 05:53:25

I play best when I play ABC poker - it makes my quick bluffs, etc much more believable.. just have to pick the right spots-- hopefully..

Bet4Value 2009-09-17 18:24:00

Basically ABC poker is what I want my opponents to be playing. Itis easy to read and simple to play against. I personnally despise ABC poker becayse 1)it is boring to play and 2) because it makes you predictable. Id rather my opponents "think" I play ABC poker...When they think I play a certain way I can easily quick steal with continuation bets, and Semi Bluff Raises!

MelMeiko 2009-09-12 06:23:00

I have the problem of bluffing when I know I may be beat on 4th st.
I always want to see the very last card. It's difficult to lay a hand down sometimes.

Sean Lind 2009-08-20 18:08:00


Either you're playing against only very good players (highly unlikely), or you're making some other mistakes. It should be next to impossible to leave down every time playing ABC poker.

If you're against good players, you should still make money, just not very much.

Brian 2009-08-20 06:09:00

the end of this article is completely wrong. I play very basic poker only calling/raising when i have a good hand, and i walk out down $$ every time...

Joshua Wynn 2009-08-13 15:32:00

Also remember you can't bluff with a call. I see so many players make a stone cold bluff on the river and then the opponent moves over the top and the hero calls. What are you expecting to get out of this if your initial bet was a bluff?You calling is going to do nothing but force you to showdown with a loser.

My Name 2009-06-04 10:50:00

One other thing about making bluffs. Essentially bluff is a bet to make a better hand to fold. When making a bluff you always have to think about what better hand an opponent is willing to fold. If you only can put him on a hand that hes not folding - don't do bluff! There are also type of players who never fold (a.k.a. calling stations) for the sake of your own good - don;t try to bluff them ;)

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