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The Psychology of Poker: The True Value of Bluffing

The Psychology of Poker: The True Value of Bluffing

You might think that bluffing is all about Equity and Odds, but there is a lot of factors that influence bluffing and are affected by it. 

Today we’re going to look at the psychology behind bluffing and the effects that it may have on your game, your opponent and on you. 

What Exactly Is a Bluff?

This is a fairly straight forward question with a simple answer, right? One player holds a poker hand that is – at least to his knowledge – not on par with his opponent’s hand, so he acts like it is and challenged his opponent to fold by raising the stakes and thereby scaring his opponent into thinking a call is not worth the risk. The opponent folds, the player wins the pot, all good, next hand.  

Well, technically yes... but actually no. 

We can see bluffs all around us. Let’s start in the animal kingdom: 

When a Gazelle notices a lion approaching, sometimes you can see it stopping. Rather than running away, the Gazelle hereby implies, that despite expanding large amounts of energy, it will be able to easily outrun the lion. The Lion will need to expand large amounts of energy itself to catch up to the Gazelle and to incapacitate it. He therefore prefers a weaker Gazelle to increase his chances of success, because any failed attempt could mean not having enough energy left for the next attempt. The Gazelle’s bluff is therefore twice as effective: 

It tells the opponent:  

  • You’re not going to catch me, don’t waste your energy. 

But it also tells them: 

  • Don’t mess with me in the future! You’ll have less energy as time passes, so you’re better off catching something else entirely. 

So, one important note, that we will circle back to, is the fact, that the Gazelle is also conditioning the lion to a certain degree, past the point of the current situation. 

But a very interesting point that is to be made, is the vast expenditure of energy that stotting actually consumes: Jumping high into the air wasted huge amounts of energy. 

Why Can’t They Just Stomp?

The simple answer is: It’s too easy.  

Everyone can stomp. A sloth can scratch the ground and make noise – something they actually really do try when facing predators, despite the fact, that they rationally have about zero chance of success in a fight. In fact, just stomping might rather be seen as a sign of weakness if being an isolated factor: A gazelle that just stomps, while others are stotting, is seen as the weakest target and therefore the prey with the highest chance of success of being caught. 

The takeaway here is, that a bluff needs to be – or at least look like a very minor risk that is taken, due to the overall available resources, while in reality being a big(ger) risk with a big pay-off. 

Circling back to the conditioning part of the Gazelle: The stakes here are in fact higher than they may appear: There is a high chance of the lion eventually going for a stotting Gazelle. If the gazelle can escape, the lion will most likely make the connection to that behavior, which will decrease the likelihood of the same lion going for stotting gazelles in the future

If, however, the lion manages to catch the gazelle – or worse, catch it easily – the bluff will become clear, and the gazelle’s failure will inevitably decrease the effectiveness of the bluff in the future

The Effectiveness of Bluffs Varies, Depending on Experience

If you are interested in how to bluff, depending on the situation, we already have articles on that. Instead, here we will focus on the actual effects and effectiveness on and depending on your opponent. As I like to mention in my Psychology of Poker series, The human mind doesn’t just switch into poker-mode, just because you focus on the game. The general rules of human psychology still apply, and you need to be aware of them.  

The effects of bluffing can be best seen in newer players. One could make an argument, that there are 2 types of new players: 

  • The careful and scared one 

and 

  • The aggressive and overconfident one. 

The Careful and Scared Player

This player is usually quite easily identified: trying to not take big risks, folding a lot as pots get bigger and generally bleeding money on many small bets are all signs of this kind of player.  

The behavior often comes from a general insecurity about what they are doing and a self-inflicted pressure about doing good, which ironically has the opposite effect. 

Bluffing against this player is a good idea most of the time, because they often lack the self-confidence to make a big call, fearing that making a big call could cost them a big part of their stack. 

If you can outplay this player just once, showing them a big hand, they will most likely never make or call a big bet against you. As long as your win/loss-ratio of shown hands is good enough (at least 50-60%), they will most likely not make a strong play against you, as they feel your dominance. 

The Aggressive Overconfident Player

The complete opposite is true for the aggressive new player. Not only do they not lack confidence, they might also be looking after the thrill of the game and may have seen enough big poker plays on tv to think they can just call the bluffs and win big. In this situation, you need to “assert your dominance” first.  

They are the young inexperienced lion, and they need to understand the concept of failing big first. Unless the stakes are high enough, they will call just about anything you throw at them. 

Bluffing early in the game against them is usually a bad idea. Once you have shown a number of strong hands and wiped the floor with them, a couple of times – maybe have them rebuy for the third of fourth time in a cash-game – that's when they might start respecting you. 

The More Advanced Player

“Well, that’s nice, but my goal is not really to crush noobs all day. How do I deal with better players?” 

It’s important to understand the baseline. Everyone had to start somewhere. The difference between a player that has just started out and a more advanced player is just the experience. That means that the same principles apply, even further down the line. A more advanced careful player has at this point seen many bluffs and uncovered a few of them. He can now estimate the value of his hand and can usually make an educated guess about what you may be holding and how much it may be worth. A more advanced aggressive player has at this point learned from a lot of his mistakes and will not blindly call all of your bluffs. 

The tendencies however are still the same.

If unsure, the players will tend to lean towards their nature and the chances are higher that they will make their decision accordingly.  

This means that the two main information you need before making a bluff against a player are: 

  • What is their nature? 
  • How advanced are they? 

The more advanced a player is, the less his original nature is a factor. In fact, the better a player is, the less his nature matters at all. Pros will not factor in their own emotions or impulses at all and will make their decision purely on the Odds of success, the equity and their opponent.  

So Why Does This Matter Then?

Aside from the fact, that you will usually not only play pros, the fact remains, that your opponent will still be influenced by the perceived difference in strength between them and you.  

The main difference here is that they will adapt faster during a game and be less likely to let their old experiences influence the current situation. On the one hand, that means that their bias isn’t as strong, so you don’t really have an advantage or disadvantage from the get-go. On the other hand, this does give you the possibility of pushing that bias either way. That means that you should not bluff until you have established your dominance, unless you have a very good reason to. Even if your bluff early in the game has a good equity in theory, you are neglecting it’s cost for the remainder of the game: If that early bluff fails, you will have a weaker image. While you might be able to use that to your advantage by playing tighter and “pretending to bluff” as the game goes on, it’s unquestionably better to have a stronger image, as it opens up more possibilities for profitable plays. 

The Stakes Matter – A Lot

Our gazelle is literally betting its own life on its bluff to work. I will very much hope that your stakes will never be that high.  

But we have all experienced that one moment when your friends say, “let’s try playing some poker – just for fun”. You all sit down, deal out some chips and within 10-20 hands the game is over because everyone just keeps shoving and betting on coinflips. Your chances of being called are almost 100%. 

Compare that to a game with your friends where everyone chipped in 10€ and you are playing tournament style. You are 10 players, so you have the option to win 90€. Maybe there is this one friend who plays a little more reckless and asks for a rebuy, but usually players will carefully weigh their decisions as there is a noteworthy prize on the line. Is it at this point, where bluffing actually makes sense, because losing half your stack on a high risk means that you have a high chance on losing out on the prize money. 

Let’s look at an actual poker tournament. You paid 200€ for the buy-in and the prize money is somewhere between 5k and 20k. Would you even consider risking half your stack on a mediocre gamble? 

But things change again as the stakes increase. Let’s say you’re on tv. The whole world is watching you, as you are holding a pair of jacks. You are playing against Daniel Negreanu and he sets you all-in. You know there is a valid chance he might be bluffing. If you call and you fail, not only do you miss out on just about 1 million $, but you also look like a fool on tv – for the whole world to see. But if you call and win, you’re a hero. You're the beast that could see through a master's attempt, and your name will be found on Online Poker Sites and reddit.  

With these stakes, we circle back to a player’s personality. Is this still about the money? How much does the prospect of fame mean to you? Is the chance of that worth the risk of losing? 

Granted, not many of us will likely get that chance. 

But if we take a step back, what can this tell us about players? 

The Ego Matters

Taking the scenario into consideration, let’s go back to our tournament with friends. Maybe you’re not Daniel Negreanu, but maybe you are the alpha-dog at the table. Your friend has been losing to you for a few hours now and you have the majority of the chips. You are in a head-up with one of your friends, the rest just folded, and you put him all-in. The odds of winning may not change and his place in the tournament may be on the line. If he loses, he’s out and misses on the prize money. But if he wins, your friends will cheer and remember the unlikely call he made to beat the big bad wolf at the table. They may remember for the rest of the night, but he will remember that for much longer. This influences the odds in his mind. The prospect of “sweet victory”, even for just one hand may be enough to sway him and take an unfavorable gamble.  

This May Go Both Ways

The important takeaway from this excursion into the Psychology of Poker is this: 

There are more factors in play than just Odds. Even the best players can make decisions that may seem somewhat irrational, as everyone has their own motivations and backgrounds. 

At the same time, so do you. If you find yourself wanting to make a call or a fold, make sure that you make them for good reasons, not because you are scared, tilted or because your ego tells you to. 

Keeping these things in mind will help you get a read on your opponent, while at the same time, they will hopefully keep your own “irrational” feelings in check. So the same time you are thinking about going for bluff, make sure to consider ALL the factors.

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