Chapter Eighteen

Bluffing

The 1978 no-limit hold 'em world championship at the Horseshoe in Las Vegas came down to a battle between owlish Bobby Baldwin of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and sartorial real-estate magnate Crandall Addington of San Antonio, Texas. An hour before the championship ended. Addington had $275,000, and Baldwin, about half as much — $145,000. Among the gamblers along the rail Addington was the clear favorite, but then came the hand that turned everything around. Acting first, Baldwin bet before the flop, and Addington called. The flop came:

Baldwin pushed in another $30,000 worth of chips, perhaps chasing a straight or a diamond flush. Then again he might have had a pair of queens. But Addington promptly called the $30,000. Obviously he had a good hand himself.

On fourth street the ace of diamonds fell — a scary-looking card — and by that time there was $92,000 in the pot. Slowly and deliberately Baldwin pushed in one $10,000 stack of chips, then another and another, until there were nine stacks in the center of the table. Finally, with something of a flourish, Baldwin placed a short stack of $5,000 on top of the others. He was making a $95,000 bet, leaving himself almost broke.

Addington deliberated for a long time. He glanced at the stack of chips, and then at Baldwin for some clue. Was the kid bluffing? If Addington called the bet and won, Baldwin would be

just about tapped out. If he called the bet and lost, Baldwin would take a commanding lead. Was the kid bluffing or not? Addington decided he wasn't and threw away his hand. As Baldwin raked in the $92,000 pot, he made sure to flash his two hole cards in Addington's direction. They were the:

¥

A *Aa m

A At

Worthless. Baldwin had indeed been bluffing. Addington seemed to get rattled, and an hour later Baldwin won all the chips and became the 1978 poker champion of the world.

The Myth of Bluffing

Successful bluffs, particularly in a high-stakes game, have great drama. Furthermore, people who do not play much poker often think that bluffing is the central element of the game. When Stu Ungar appeared on the Merv Griffin Show the day after he won the 1980 world poker championship, the first question Griffin asked him was, "Did you bluff very much?" Many occasional players who visit Las Vegas are constantly bluffing in the small $ 1 -$3 and $ 1 -$4 games, and they pay dearly for their foolishness.

It's true bluffing is an important aspect of poker, but it is only one part of the game, certainly no more important than playing your legitimate hands correctly. Though a player who never bluffs cannot expect to win as much money as someone who bluffs with the proper frequency, most average players tend to bluff too much, particularly in limit games. When it costs an opponent only one more bet to see your hand, it is difficult to get away with a bluff, for with any kind of hand your opponent is usually getting sufficient pot odds to call your bet — especially if he has seen you trying to bluff several times already.

The Reality of Bluffing

With this proviso, it must be repeated that from a theoretical point of view, bluffing is an extremely important aspect of poker. As a deceptive weapon, it is at least as important as slowplaying. Whereas slowplaying suggests weakness when you have strength, bluffing announces strength when you are weak. Recollect the Fundamental Theorem of Poker: Any time an opponent plays his hand incorrectly based on what you have, you have gained; and any time he plays his hand correctly based on what you have, you have lost. An opponent who knows you never bluff is much less likely to play his hand incorrectly. Any time you bet, he will know you are betting for value. He will play only when he figures he has a better hand than yours or when he is getting sufficient pot odds to call with more cards to come. Bluffing, then, or the possibility that you might be bluffing, is another way of keeping your opponents guessing. Your occasional bluffs disguise not just the hands with which you are in fact bluffing but also your legitimate hands, with which your opponents know you might be bluffing.

To see how important bluffing is, imagine that you are up against an opponent who on the last round bets $20 into a $100 pot. You are getting 6-to-l from the pot if you call. However, you know you can only win, as is often the case, if your opponent is bluffing. Let's say you know three opponents well. The first never bluffs in this spot, so your response to that player's bet is easy: You fold with the full knowledge that you have not cost yourself any money. The second opponent frequently bluffs. Once again your response is easy: You call, knowing you are going to win that last bet so often that calling must result in a long-run profit. The third player is the problem. He bets in such a way that the odds are about 6-to-l against his bluffing. In fact, he can tell you in advance that if he bets, he will be bluffing once in seven times.

Now you have a tough decision. You must choose between two equally upsetting alternatives. You are getting 6-to-l from a Pot you can win only if your opponent is bluffing, and the odds against your opponent's bluffing are 6-to-l. If you fold, you know there's a chance your opponent stole the pot from you; but if you call, you know that six times out of seven you are simply donating your money to your opponent. Thus, a person who bluffs with approximately the right frequency — and also, of course, in a random way — is a much better poker player and will win much more money in the long run than a person who virtually never bluffs or a person who bluffs too much. The person who never bluffs will never get much action. The person who always bluffs will get all the action he wants until he runs out of money. But the person who bluffs correctly keeps his true holdings disguised and is constantly forcing his opponents into tough decisions, some of which are bound to be wrong.

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