Changing Your Story

Changing Your Story

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Think there’s no such thing as bluffing with a made-hand? Well you’re wrong, says fearsome Frenchman Nicolas Levi.

Next Level Bluffing

If there is one true art form in poker, it's bluffing. Few types of bluff are as exciting, elaborate or profitable as when you turn a made-hand into a bluff. This advanced strategy can make or break you. Telling a story – and changing it during the course of a hand – is not the easiest thing in the world, yet when used at the right time against a strong player, it's the most efficient weapon for turning a delicate spot into a big win.

Let's set the scene: to turn a made-hand into a bluff, you need to actually have a hand. That means you start playing a few streets with the hope of going to showdown. Later in the hand, new information is made available, and that plan becomes shaky. That's when you have to ask yourself if bluffing is a better play than either giving up or going to showdown on your opponent's terms.

Bluffing in such spots can be profitable, and it will tell the other strong players on the table that you are not a good target for bullying. Everyone bluffs sometimes when the situation is hopeless, or when they're running dry and bored. It takes someone special to change plan efficiently during a hand, throw away some decent cards, and put the pressure back on the opponent. Such players are hard to read, force you to make big decisions, and nobody wants to play against them ever.

Why do we bet?

Let's recall very quickly the three (good) reasons for betting:

1. To get called by worse (Value Bet)
2. To make a better hand fold (Bluff)
3. To deny a drawing hands the right odds (Protection)

If you think there are more reasons, well, there aren't. There can be positive side effects, like getting information or creating a dynamic, but generally every time you bet you have to know if you’re doing it mainly for value, protection or as a bluff.

To turn a hand into a bluff means that your hand is not very strong. While it would hold some value in a small to medium pot, to bluff means that you are overplaying it and representing something much stronger. By doing so you kill the value of your hand: if your opponent calls, he has you beat.

We say it's an advanced weapon because, if used wrongly, you're forcing weaker hands into a fold and getting calls only from monsters. This means that if you get it wrong, then you either miss out on crucial value or lose hard-earned chips in a massive pot.

So when and how do we pull the trigger?

Levi Kitai

Showdown Value vs. Fold Equity

Let's remind ourselves of two important concepts. In every pot you play your equity, aka your fair share of the pot, which comes from two factors:
The showdown value (that derives from your chances to win at showdown).
The fold equity (representing your odds to make everyone pass).
Suppose you're heads up on the river and the draw hits. Your opponent checks with an annoyed look. Assume your hand is not so great.

You can check, thus risking no more chips and hope to win the pot. This would mean you’re playing for the showdown value.

You can bluff, thus losing more when you are wrong but increasing your chances to win (perhaps). This play assumes you have fold equity.

Despite common belief, bluffing with absolutely nothing is not difficult. It's a lot easier to go for the fold equity when you have nothing at all – you just need to “guesstimate” that bluffing is positive in terms of risk/reward. If it's positive, it sure beats zero!

However, if you stand a chance to win by checking (or calling), you need bluffing to be an even better option. Hence the better your hand the less likely you are to bluff. I've seen people bluff with a straight on a paired board and make a flush fold!

Live Example: EPT Deauville

Davidi Kitai was doing well a couple years ago in Deauville. Towards the end of Day 1, he was facing a good French player (a rare endangered species, I'll admit).

Villain raises from the hijack, and Davidi flat calls with 9-9 on the button. Both stacks are very deep (100+ bigs).

Flop Kc8d2s. Dryer than a bottle of Asahi.

Villain makes a C-bet for half the pot. We're only beaten by a King, a strong pocket pair, or, if we're really pessimistic; a set. There is no reason to fold. What will it be?

a) You raise to find out where you're at and give up if called?
b) You call and let villain control the size of the pot?

If you answered a), please go back to the earlier section of this article “Why do we bet” and read it again. If you just did that and answered a) again, proceed to close the magazine and quit poker (Ed: Bluff Europe does not endorse this advice). For you, I recommend Pokemon™.

Seriously, though, in rare aggressive games you will want to raise for value, but in this case it is standard to call. If the hijack has a worse hand (something broadway, for example) he has few outs, and does not even know which one he needs to have you beat.

Davidi checks. Turn Jc, Villain checks.

Should we check because our pair of Nines is now the third pair?

Well, there are now a few different draws on the board and our villain would probably bet twice with his good kings and better. He may check a weak King or a Jack depending on his style, maybe Tens. All hands that beat us. He will also check many hands that missed (but have some showdown value) like Ace-Queen, Ace-Ten, or Queen-Ten.

If you could see his cards you would probably:
Against the draws: bet to protect.
Against weaker made hands: bet the maximum they would call (value).
Against better made hands: Check to save some chips (give up).
The decision can be tricky. Don't “put him on a hand” yet, because that's usually just an excuse to avoid considering every case. It's fine to rely on gut feeling sometimes, but there's often a way to change the equation so that the decision becomes crystal clear.

Betting once or checking both have problems against the mix of hands we may face. But if we look ahead and plan both streets now, a solution appears. Betting twice achieves different things against different hands, but is always a good option:

Draws will most likely give up on the turn just like before.
Weaker made-hands will still lose the maximum, probably one street of betting.
Better made-hands will have a tough decision. We raise the stakes on the turn and apply pressure on the river. We called a dry flop so we must have something, and now we're firing twice, so this something is big. We are a favourite to steal it on the river against all but the top of villain's range – or a super read!

Betting twice becomes the clear play – unless you have a reason to think your opponent is super-strong in this pot, go for it!

So let's go back to Deauville, where Davidi has had time to think it over.
The Belgian pro bets half the pot and his opponent calls out of position.
The river is the Qc. This completes an unlikely backdoor flush. An unlikely T-9 would now hold a straight. Our villain checks, thus reinforcing the feeling that he doesn't hold a monster – or a missed draw that may be tempted to bluff first.

Davidi takes his chance at making a King or a Jack fold – although occasionally one may face a hero call from something unexpected. Indeed, most made-hands beat us and, since we have a lot of fold equity, the bluff is superior to taking our showdown value. To help force the decision, Davidi bets 60% of the pot, a large bet at this stage of a tournament. Since we're trying to take our villain off a hand, it's often a good idea to make sure it's not too cheap for him to be curious.

Ten minutes of tanking are tough to take, but that's typical to get someone to make a big fold for a big pot in a big tournament. Villain finally folds, and tells Kitai: “I know you hit your draw. You had 9c8c, correct?”

Telling a Credible Lie

From a thinking player, this guess is no surprise. Consider Davidi's flop call. What range of hands could he have there? How does his opponent perceive the call?

There are no draws on the board and people don't just stick around with nothing at all in cases like this. His opponent will therefore put him on a pair or better.

On the river Davidi bets so big that he appears polarised: he has everything or nothing. Since villain knows he doesn't have nothing, it follows logically that he has everything.
Davidi's opponent is so compelled to put him on a monster, he finds the only hand that would make sense to fit our story: 8c9c, a medium made hand on the flop that becomes a flush on the river.

It's important to recognize hands where you have to have something, and remember that you can change your story later on if you need to. When the bluff was decided on the turn, it wasn't clear if we would represent a flush or a set on the river. Davidi just knew he could represent a monster whether the flush hit or not.

So here it is, the strongest thing about turning a hand into a bluff:
“When one turns a made hand into a bluff, it often makes for a credible story.”

Online Cash Game Variation

Here is another example, this time from the internet, where rationalising your bluffs becomes even more important, and where you can't rely on your sole expertise as a regular viewer of “Would I Lie to You?” In this example, we’re looking at a five-handed online cash game.

Hero is SB. Button opens the pot to €3.
Hero three-bets to €11, holding JJ. Button calls.
Flop KsTh2h. Hero C-bets €13. Button calls.
Turn Q (offsuit). Hero checks, button checks.
River 6h. Hero?

What will it be? Hope you have the best hand? Bet? Why and how much?
Preflop three-betting is pretty standard for a typical aggressive shorthanded game.

On the flop C-betting is routine, mainly for protection and value. Once button calls, we can suppose he doesn't have a monster, since, with two clear draws on the board, anything better than Ace-King will try to get it in right away. His range looks something like this:

Flush draws (several combinations)
A straight draw (Queen-Jack)
Speculative hands that float (Ace-Queen or Ace-Jack, especially with a heart)
Average made hands (King-Jack, Ace-Ten, Jack-Ten, Queens, Jacks, King-Queen, etc...)
Slow-played monsters (Deuces? King-Ten? Ace-King?)

On careful analysis, Deuces or King-Ten may have folded pre-flop. Ace-King could have four-bet pre-flop, or raised on the flop. Overall monsters are unlikely. Statistically flush draws or average made-hands dominate their range.

On the turn we decide to check. Betting is a decent option and I'd like to leave this interesting debate aside for the purpose of this article. So we check to control the pot, and so does our opponent. Let's do a bit of hand-reading. His check makes the picture a lot clearer:

Button chooses not to make the pot bigger
Button chooses to let us see the river for free

We can now eliminate monsters, for sure. This board is extremely dangerous and checking would be criminal, going against protection and value-making. We can also put a question mark on the flush draws. Most people want to semi-bluff their draws, especially when a scare card comes and they face a check. The three-bet pot already has quite a bit of money in it and there is no reason to think we're trapping. In fact, our hand is a little bit face up at this point: Jacks most of the time, a slow-played monster sometimes. A good range to bluff against!

The river completes the flush draw and it's back to us. We're most likely facing Ace-Queen, Queen-Jack or King-Jack unless button did something tricky with Ace-King, Nines or something like 4h5h. Against this range, we are pretty much toast, CrocMonsieur! Is a bluff worth it?

What do we represent? We could have many flushes, Ace-King, a straight that meant to check-raise the turn, or even a set. We already said that a flush was unlikely for villain, so if he's a good player he'll recognise we can play very aggressively on this river with a wider range.

So, all in all, our showdown value is close to zero, and our fold-equity is very high. In such cases you should be quick to recognise this fact and disregard that you got to the river thinking you had the best hand. Things have changed: time for a bluff.

How much you bet is very important. The pot means that it needs to work over one third of the time to be better than checking. An overbet might make sense, just like betting a little less. There is no ready answer as this is more art than science. You will have to vary and try to predict how your opponent may react to different bet sizes. Big bets put maximum pressure but polarise your hand to the extreme: flamboyant players with good hand-reading skills like to keep you honest there. Small bets represent more hands and are often credible, but are easily snapped by sloppy players, so choose someone with strong self discipline.
Hero bets €48. Button tanks and folds.


Turning a made-hand into a bluff will require many skills. Read your opponent, realise when things change, and be aware of what you represent. Always consider the fold equity when you're in a hand, and if it becomes too great, no matter your cards, it is worth considering. Poker is not about making pretty hands, but about seizing opportunities. Be ruthless, and good luck!


Tags: Nicolas Levi, Davidi Kitai