Poker diaries: The Art of Bluffing- A Noob’s guide to the Poker Land

The Koi is back!

Now that I have learned to compartmentalise poker players, I must say that I am really enjoying myself. No huffs, no whining, no getting irritated.... just play the hands you are dealt! How you call, judge, raise or fold is what makes one a good poker player.
People often crib about cards like 9-2, 8-3, Q-4 in hand. They are vague combinations, to say the least, unless the Flop reveals a double. How to deal with cards like that – just fold them or pray for the River to Turn your luck or simply bluff your way by going all-in? 

Before I begin waxing eloquent on the subtle art of bluffing, a word of caution - bluffers, bullies and agros BEWARE. The Kois (I mean newbies) are fast acquiring skills to penetrate the fine art of deception.

I have often wondered, cribbed, sulked and gotten frustrated with all the posturing, bullying and bluffing that goes on endlessly in poker games. Grrr. Why, oh why all these dramatics? Why can’t people be straight forward and play hands trusting Ms.Luck faithfully?

Wait a minute!

That thought process triggered something so intrinsic and minimalistic that I simply couldn’t believe the answer – it would be boring! How could I even ignore the fact that bluffing, duping, hoodwinking, misleading and whatever else you call the art of deception, is the innate human trait upon which civilisations were built. Stupid me 

Once that piece of jigsaw fit into the larger picture, I began analysing the intriguing art of bluffing and bluffers. Over the past few weeks I set myself out to categorise the different types of bluff. Here is a small list (the search continues)

1.    Royal Bluff: Usually happens when the shark has a Broadway hand (AKQJ). Most sharks go for a handsome pre-flop raise. Now, if the Flop turns up sad cards like say 925 the sharks usually go for bloating the pot.  Whether to call or not rests solely upon your hand.
2.    Straight Bluff: This is a tricky one. No matter what hand they have, some sharks just raise and raise and raise, even if the hand is 72 in different colours. Fold works best possibly, but risk can double or triple your stack! Not recommended for the faint hearted.
3.    Flush bluff: This is a straight forward bluff when there is a flush draw. Unless you have a pair in the draw or a strong flush card, this is dangerous to continue. Learnt this the hard way, having lost to bigger cards. 
4.    Double Whammy Bluff: The most misleading of all the bluffs. The shark has met your call up to the Turn, giving no indication of a winning hand. Suddenly on the River, no matter what card, the shark raises ridiculously. He will be holding a full house or a flush and he has given you no clue. You confidently raise on your two pairs and plop you go.
5.    Lag bluff:  When no one is keen on calling, just checking their way to see the next card, this joker suddenly disgorges a crazy amount or goes allin! 

6.    One-upmanship bluff: This is probably the most common among bluffs. Ahem, the younger lot is prone to this, especially in a short duration tournament. At least, it works for one of the racing lot  
7.    All-in Bluff: This is most common in low buy-in 15 minute tourneys, done either to up the stack or go in for rebuy. Go for it if you are in the ‘take a chance’ mood.
8.    Serial bluff: This is a habitual compulsive disorder. Defies all logic and usually the pretenders are out and someone’s stack gets fattened. They are easy to spot 

The search continues, and all said and done, though I have bluffing jitters, I have come to accept bluffing as a natural part of poker. Whether I have learnt to bluff or not, call and see 

Betazoid signing off...

An Introduction to Game Theory in Poker

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A quick look up on the internet, gives us the definition of Game Theory as:

The branch of mathematics concerned with the analysis of strategies for dealing with competitive situations where the outcome of a participant's choice of action depends critically on the actions of other participants. 

Having a game theory optimal (GTO) strategy means that we find the best solution for our situation irrespective of what our opponent does. A standard example is the Prisoner's Dilemma. Here's a link to the Wikipedia entry and a YouTube video if you didn't know about this already.

What does GTO mean in poker?

Being a good poker player means making the best decisions based on the incomplete information you have. To bridge this very chasm between incomplete information and the best decision, we take the help of game theory. Just like in the Prisoner's Dilemma, we do not know what the opponent's strategy is. So we make the most optimal game theory decision in a vacuum. Then, as we gain more information about an opponent, we adjust your strategy based on this new information.

Two Examples:

1. Bet Size
On the flop, your opponent bets 1/3rd pot. What do you do with middle pair? Most likely, you would call. What if he makes it 1/2 pot? Or 3/4 pot? Or 2x pot? 4x pot? At what point do you decide that you won't call this bet?

As your opponent's bet size increases, the odds that you get become worse. In order to not get exploited, we have to start letting go of some hands. So we start folding our weak pairs, then middle pairs good kickers, then middle pairs strong kickers, and sometimes even top pairs with weak-medium kickers.

2. Bluff catching
Similar logic goes into bluff catching. For example, say you have JTo and board runs out Jack high - you have top pair medium kicker. Your opponent, whom you don't know anything about, bets big all three streets. What do you do? If you always call down with just a top pair, you will be often up against QQ+ or better top pairs. If you always fold, you open yourself up to getting bluffed. To find a balance, we use a GTO approach.

As we move from flop to turn and to the river, we start folding the bottom of our range. This means that out of all the hands that we could have in this spot, we start folding the worst ones. If we find ourselves here with top pairs often, we start folding the ones with the worst kickers. If we call with every Jack on the flop, we fold some like J9, JT on the turn. On the river, since we arrive with QJ+, we have to fold some of these and call with some. So we can fold the worst Jacks - QJ, KJ and call down with AJ.

In the first example, we did not know what our opponent bet-sizes meant. In the second, we do not know when our opponent is bluffing or when he is value-betting. Hence we chose a strategy that allows us to make the best decision no matter what he does. Does it mean that we will win every pot? No. But it does mean that in the long run, after playing thousands of hands, and facing the same situations many times, the summation of all our decisions will come out to be a profitable number.

How does GTO compare with Exploitative strategy?

Exploitative strategy means that when you have absolute reads on your opponents, you deviate from the GTO approach to make the best decision in that particular instance. For example, if you know that the villain never bluffs when he bets big all three streets, but you are at the top of your range, it maybe a fine GTO call, but you can make an exploitative fold knowing that you are always beat.

No single strategy is better than the other. Usually a combination of both is the way to go - because even though GTO style is profitable, mixing it with exploitative might be even more profitable. This is especially true when you are playing against weaker opponents. They have certain tendencies and leaks that are better suited for an exploitative style of play. But against stronger opponents, who have fewer obvious leaks, a GTO style is much more favorable.

As the poker software and poker AI has become better, more and more players are employing a GTO approach, especially when the stakes are high and the competition is good. But since no player is playing a perfectly GTO strategy, adding an exploitative style to your game is a good idea.

Hopefully, this primer was useful and may it help you make more profitable decisions in the future. And next time try employing this strategy in any one aspect of your game - value-betting, check-raising, bluffing etc. 



This article was written by Mayank Jain. Mayank is a writer who plays poker for a living. He writes at on mindfulness, travel and art, among other things.