Bluffing and Betting for Value

The number of poker hands anyone can have is comparatively limited, but in addition to the hands themselves there are so many other variables that rarely if ever is a particular play always right or always wrong. Your play is affected by the size of the pot, your position, the opponent or opponents you are facing, the way they have been playing, the amount of money they have and you have, the flow of the game, and other, more subtle factors. This point is particularly applicable to questions of bluffing and betting fair hands for value on the end. Here are some general principles that usually apply.

When you bluff, you are rooting for your opponent to fold because that is the only way you can win the pot. When you bet for value, you are rooting for your opponent to call because you want your legitimate hand to win one more bet from him. It is important to realize that it may be right to bet a fair hand for value, and it may also be right to bluff, but it is almost never right to do neither. If you decide you can't get away with a bluff on the end when you miss your hand, then you should bet for value when you do make your hand. (The only exception to this principle would occur in games like hold 'em and five-card stud, where your opponent can see your last card and might often have a good sense of whether it made your hand. In those cases, if you bet a hand for value, you are likely to get called — or raised — only by a hand that has you beat.)

Similarly, when you don't think a value bet is justified with a fair hand, since your opponent will only call if he has you beat, then if you miss your hand, you should usually bluff. For when you bluff, it is possible your opponent will throw away his fair hands.

Sometimes it may be correct both to bluff and to bet a fair hand for value on the end. Suppose you are up against one player and decide, before you see your last card, that you will come out betting if you don't improve. In seven-card stud, let's say on sixth street you have:

Notice that in addition to your A,Q high four-flush you hold a small pair. When you pick up your last card, you find that you didn't make the flush, but you don't have a bad hand either. You caught another queen and so now have queens up. Should you bet this hand for value?

Many professional players say no. They contend that if you were so sure you should bluff if you missed, then you should not bet a fair hand for value since you will only be called if your opponent has you beat. However, both plays may be right, especially if the pot is large. Let's say there's an 80 percent chance your queens up are the best hand, and there's a 30 percent chance your opponent will fold if you bet. That means that if you bet your queens up for value, 30 percent of the time your opponent will fold and not pay you off Nevertheless, you are still a 5-to-2 favorite when that player calls your bet. You will win that extra bet 50 percent of the time, while you will lose it only the 20 percent of the time your opponent has your queens up beat. Clearly, then, you should bet with your two pair since you have a 5/7 chance of winning if you are called. On the other hand, if you miss making even two pair, there is still a 30 percent chance your opponent will fold what may be the best hand if you bet. Therefore, a bluff will also be profitable in the long run, so long as your bet is less than 3/7 of the pot.

A similar situation comes up in hold 'em when I am heads-up against a good player. I raise before the flop in last position, and my opponent calls. The flop comes something like:

A * * Z

My opponent checks. I check. He now suspects I have A,K; A,Q; or K,Q; and he is right. He is ready to call with any pair if a high card doesn't come, but if one does, he will consider folding. I know all this. Therefore, I am going to bet when an ace, king, or queen comes, even though only two of those cards pair me. My opponent should call me often enough with the worst hand to make a value bet correct, yet I suspect he will fold with enough frequency to make a bluff profitable too.

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