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Bluffing vs Semi-Bluffing

Evan Jarvis

categories Concepts, Psychology

Semi-bluffing is a form of bluffing that encapsulates a little slice of the unquenchable hopefulness that’s part and parcel of poker. Unlike the pure bluff, semi-bluffing is bluffing with a hand that stands a reasonable chance of improving later on. Think of it as bluffing with calculated optimism.

What you should remember about semi-bluffing is you need to have more cards to come to pull it off. You can’t semi-bluff on the river since you have zero chance of improving your hand. Any kind of bluff on the river is just that: a bluff. The most successful semi-bluffing takes place after the flop. At this point, you have a feel for the board and can better recognize your chances of drawing a good hand.

Let’s look at an example:

You hold: 2♥ J♥
The flop: 8♠ 6♥ 2♦
Everyone checks and the turn comes K♥ 

Here's where you make your semi-bluff. By placing a bet, your opponents will probably think you have just landed a pair of Kings, but the truth is you’re relying on the enticing odds (4.2:1) of making a flush on the river.

Advantages of Semi-Bluffing

First, let’s get one thing straight: a semi-bluff is still a bluff. You don’t actually know for certain you’re going to make good in subsequent streets of actions; you simply know you stand a better chance of connecting. If you’re fairly certain of your hand (>50% equity), you wouldn’t be semi-bluffing, you would be (and should be) value betting. Making a semi-bluff, however, does carry the intrinsic possibility of hope. If called, there is still a chance you can win. You still have some equity in the pot. A stone cold bluff, on the other hand, has almost absolutely no chance of winning if called. (While it is tempting to say no chance whatsoever, we all know that just about anything can happen at the tables, so we don't want to be that exclusive.)

When thinking about semi-bluffing, it's important to realize that semi-bluffs have varying odds of winning, so some will have more equity.  You have a better chance of making an open-ended straight or strong flush than gut shot straight draw or a weak flush. 

Another advantage of semi-bluffing includes...

Power. When you take active measures (i.e. betting/raising) you’re more likely to tip the power balance in your favour and opponents are more apt to check to you. The result? You get to call the shots and drive the action. 

When to Avoid Semi-Bluffing

Don’t semi-bluff when you know your opponent is going to act (bet/raise) - it completely defeats the purpose of bluffing. Of course, you cannot always predict the actions of your opponents to a fault, but if you’ve been watching the table (and you should always be watching the table) you should have a pretty good idea of who’s playing what and how. If your opponent is not going to fold, semi-bluffing loses some of its traction: namely, its fold equity. All you're left with is your actual pot equity, and while this is certainly better than a kick in the pants, it’s a far cry from a conscientious bet considering you’re semi-bluffing precisely because you don’t actually HAVE stellar equity – not yet at least. 

Again, don’t fool yourself into thinking semi-bluffing is not bluffing. It is, and before you try your hand at semi-bluffing, you should first make sure you have a reasonable understanding of basic bluffing strategy. (We’ve got you covered!)