Most poker players and non-poker players alike have heard of a bluff. It’s a classic strategy that’s implemented in casinos and online poker where you try to convince your opponent that your hand is better than it is, usually through aggressive betting. If done right, a good bluff will convince your opponent to cut their losses and fold their cards. A bad bluff means you lose. Then, there’s the semi-bluff, which combines elements of bluffing with good poker strategy to, hopefully, put you in position to score a big pot and convince your opponents to fold.
But what is a semi-bluff? Simply put, a semi-bluff is when you go ahead and make a bet when you don’t yet have a winning hand. The classic example of this is when you have four of the cards needed for a flush or a straight, but you go ahead and bet like you have a good hand. This is referred to as a bluff because you don’t have a good hand (like a classic bluff), but it’s only a semi-bluff because there’s a chance that the hand will improve into a valid winner.
Now that you know what a semi-bluff is, let’s look at how to use them to take down a few pots.
When to Semi-Bluff
Before we get too far into the strategy of semi-bluffing, let’s establish some base rules. First, this advice applies only to semi-bluffing. If you’ve made the decision to raise post-flop and you’re hoping to fill a straight or a flush because you have a taller stack, you want to bluff, or you have another strategy, there are different rules for governing those situations and rules for dealing with a semi-bluff. What we discuss below applies only to raising when you are semi-bluffing.
With that said, when is it a good time to semi-bluff? There are two factors that determine, table position and the overall strength of your hand.
First, let’s look at table position. If you attempt to semi-bluff, it’s always better to be in “the position,” which is the poker player’s term for betting last or near the end of all active players in the round. Really, no matter what you’re doing, it’s better to be in the position in poker than out of it because you can acquire more information about what everyone else is doing and respond accordingly.
For instance, if you’re considering a semi-bluff and everyone else at the table bets aggressively, it gives you the chance to change your mind and check or fold altogether. Conversely, if everyone is betting cautiously before you, your semi-bluff has a better chance of winning you money.
Secondly, analyze the odds of winning the hand before you consider a semi-bluff. If you’re drawing to an inside straight, for instance, your odds of winning the hand are far, far worse than if you’re working toward a flush draw.
Next, compare your odds of winning to the overall pot size to determine your pot odds. Pot odds are calculated as the ratio of your odds of winning the hand to the size of the pot. So, if you estimate you have a 10% chance of winning and there’s $100 in the pot, your pot odds are 10-1. If you estimate that you have a 50% chance of winning a pot of $100, then the pot odds increase to 2-1. It should come as no surprise that you want to semi-bluff when the pot odds are more in your favor.
Unless you feel very confident, don’t semi-bluff with more than 5-1 odds until you really get a feel for the game. In other words, don’t semi-bluff if you feel you have less than a 20% chance of winning.
Lastly, for games like Texas Hold’em, you will need to determine when to semi-bluff. A lot of that depends on your risk tolerance and what’s being shown at the table, but it’s always better to semi-bluff earlier in the hand rather than later. With each new card dealt, the chances of you picking up the winning hand get less and less, and your risk gets higher and higher.
When Not to Semi-Bluff
There are several situations in which you should avoid semi-bluffing. For instance, if you’re not in the position, you should strongly consider avoiding semi-bluffing. If you’re betting first, you simply may not have enough information to semi-bluff reliably. Of course, situations will always vary and you may feel you have enough of a feel for the hand, but it’s always better to semi-bluff in the position.
Secondly, if the pot odds are against you, it’s a bad time to attempt a semi-bluff. At the end of the day, a semi-bluff shares its most important facet with a classic bluff—you are bluffing. You don’t have the cards to win the hand, but you’re betting like you do. There is nothing that a bluff is going to do to change that.
Beyond that, there are a few other situations in which attempting a semi-bluff may not be the wisest strategy. First, if you’re on the short stack, think twice before you attempt a semi-bluff unless you are committed to seeing it through and making your semi-bluff a full one. Again, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. There are times you are on the short stack and it makes strategic sense to bluff out the other team, but be careful. When those chips are gone, so are you.
Also, to be successful with semi-bluffing, use your skills at reading the table. You need to ask yourself how the others at the table are going to react. Will they fold and let you win the pot? Is that what you want them to do? Are they the aggressive bully types who will call no matter what (potentially leaving you with no winning cards and less chips at the end of the hand)? Figure out the table, then come back and get your bluffing game going.
Pay attention to how everyone is betting this particular hand. Are people going against tendency? Do one or more players seem particularly aggressive? If so, expect that your bluff is going to get called and be prepared for it.
There are two ways to make money semi-bluffing. The less common way is when you pick up the card you are looking for to complete your straight or your flush. When that happens, bet accordingly and take some money from your opponents.
The more common scenario is that you make money by getting one or more of your opponents to make the call, thereby increasing the size of that pot. This allows you to continue betting in later rounds in an increasingly aggressive fashion until you ultimately get the other players at the table to fold their hands altogether.
Or you can bluff into having them think you drew the winning cards and you have the unbeatable hand. The first scenario is the luck of the draw. The second scenario is your skill at the game measured against everyone else’s skill.
If you never learned the term semi-bluff, it’s still likely you could go on to a professional poker career and make decent money. The point, though, is not that you have learned another term to put into your poker vocabulary. Instead, the real goal of knowing about semi-bluffs is understanding there is a whole strategy behind when you should use one and when it’s best to play tight or just fold altogether.
In the end, the right way to employ a semi-bluff will vary from hand to hand and from table to table. Try to semi-bluff when you’re in position and consider avoiding it when you’re not. Semi-bluff when the odds are in your favor, and always make sure you have the chips to back it up.