So, you've seen the WSOP on ESPN—big money, big personalities, big bluffs. But what these highlight reels forget to mention is the fact that, at the highest level, there's method behind the blood-pumping madness. Behind every good bluff is a strong foundation of numbers. And here it is: the equation that defines when to pull the trigger, even if you're holding three-six offsuit.
Plug your numbers into this equation (or into the attached spreadsheet calculator) to calculate the percentage that you should bluff. Note—this works well for a specific situation: No Limit Texas Hold' Em, just after seeing the flop.
Rather than waxing poetic, it seems best to look at the variables in order:
O= The skill level of your opponents (1-10 with 1 being "your neighbor's kids"). You can't bluff bad opponents—they'll call even when they shouldn't. In order to bluff, you have to trust your opponents to be good enough to know when to fold. Specifically, their skill level has to start pushing past a 4 on a scale of 1-10. This is important! (If you look at the equation, important enough to cube.)
C= How conservative are the opponents who are still in? (1-10 with 10 being "Mitt Romney"). Again, you can't bluff against loose cannons—they'll call even when they shouldn't. Ideally, you want to bluff against conservative push-overs who won't have the guts to call.
I= Your table image (1-10 with 10 being "have consistently thrown away everything except for pocket rockets"). If people think you're a loose cannon, they're more likely to call you. In the first part of the game, promote an image of conservatism to set up later bluffing.
F= The Flop. An ideal bluffing flop is one in which either all three cards are junk, or in which two are junk and one is a high card you can claim to be holding. On a scale of 1-10, how close is this to the ideal flop?
N= The number of people still in after the flop. The more people, the more chance you'll be called (and the more chance somebody's actually holding something). As the number of people still in increases past 2, you have a decreased chance of bluffing.
P= Your position. You want to act last, ideally after watching everyone check their junk to you. If you're acting first, you may be bluffing against someone holding cards—you don't know! With this variable, enter 1 if you act first, 2 if you're second, etc.
S= The Strength of other players' hands. (1-10 with 1 being "house of straw" and 10 being "house of bricks"). You're not gonna bluff is someone's already done it, or if they're representing a strong hand. Yes, this is subjective, but therein lies the art of the read—or at least the art of reading your opponents' betting signals.
Okay, here's the equation:
Bluff is the percentage that you should bluff.
• There's a catch: this equation defines the perfect situation in which to bluff. However, if you're always bluffing in the mathematically perfect situation, your opponents will know you're bluffing! The best poker players are like the stock market: unpredictable. If they become predictable, they fail. So, use these numbers however you see fit—mix it up. Ideally, at some point, you'll be in the perfect situation to bluff and actually have the cards! When you get called, it'll really throw your opponents for a loop.
• That being said, in the mathematically perfect bluffing situation, even if your opponents can be fairly certain you're bluffing, they still might not be able to call! Make sure you throw enough money at your bluff to ensure that pot odds make it mathematically illogical for them to call—for example, if your opponents believe they have only a 1/3 chance of winning (33%), make sure your bet/bluff (the amount they need to call) is more than 1/3 of the total pot.
• This is outside the scope of this article, but bluffing is necessary in poker. If you only bet when you have cards, eventually no one will call you! You have to bluff occasionally (at the perfect time) in order to entice people to call when you've actually got the nuts.
• I did this equation as a sample for a proposed TV show on the SciFi channel (they wanted to see massive geekiness in action). Thus, I also stuck an explanation of this equation on YouTube. Search "Sundem".
• Also, attached is a calculator for the algebraicly lazy—plug in your numbers and it'll spit out an answer. You'll notice, it's possible by entering numbers for an unrealistic ideal to get over 100%. Consider this a "yes, you should bluff."
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