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Poker Strategy: The Delayed Bluff

Posted at 14:37 2011-01-05

After Dan Harrington’s Harrington on Holdem series expedited tournament poker theory in the early part of the decade, the continuation bet became routine in both tourneys and cash games. The math behind it remains conclusive: with two unpaired cards only connecting with the flop around one-third of the time, and a less-than-pot-sized c-bet needing to work less than 50% of the time to show an automatic profit, c-betting is enormously profitable.

With the growth of the online game over the last six years, no limit holdem has evolved rapidly. Concepts like “showdown value” and “pot control” became commonplace among professionals, as the community realised the limit holdem requirement of “protecting your hand” by betting and raising did not apply to deep stacked big bet poker, in which pots could easily become bloated out of proportion to the relative strength of your hand.

However, with c-betting universally recognised as the default play, it is now common for some players behind the learning curve to misinterpret a flop check from the preflop raiser on dry flop textures as a hand that is giving up. Against these players, checking a weak but relatively invulnerable made hand that it is favoured to be the best at showdown (i.e. has showdown value) is likely to either 1) induce them to bluff with a hand that would otherwise have folded to a c-bet, or 2) allow them to improve to a second-best hand that pays off one or two streets out of confusion.

For example, say you are playing a 6-max cash game, a fish limps, you isolate on the button with K7s, only the limper calls, and the flop comes K-6-2 rainbow. Assume for the sake of this example that your read is villain is weak-passive but plays straight-forward postflop, i.e. not so much a "calling station" that you can get three streets of value from worse, or so aggressive you can induce a “spazz out” check-raise bluff by betting.

It’s now pretty standard to check back here for the reasons outlined above. Against opponents who can’t hand read, we should exploit them as much as we think we can get away with, which means c-betting our air hands 100% of the time on flops that figure to miss their range, and taking showdown value lines when we think this is the best way to maximise our EV. In short, we should play face up.

But what about against a thinking regular, who is more than familiar with the concepts just described? Say we open our button with the same hand, get flatted by the reg in the big blind, and see the same K-6-2 flop. Assume he is a competent hand reader who recognises standard showdown value lines for what they are. If we check back this flop, we represent to him more or less exactly what we have - weak top pair, or a pair between sixes and kings.

So we better have an idea of what our flop check hopes to accomplish when we take a face up line versus a reg - do we suspect he is the type to bet two streets in an attempt to blow us off what we are representing, or will he now only bet hands ahead of our range since he knows we have showdown value? Can he actually improve to a middle-pair type hand that pays us off, or can we only check him into a two or three-outer that we pay off?

The deception gained from checking, which maximises value from the fish who does not understand what we are doing, simply does not exist against the reg. Rather than a check on this board texture being deceptive, it is actually transparent, since he should rightly expect us to bet all of our air.

Therefore, against respectable hand readers familiar with the check for "deception", situations will arise in today's games in which we can exploit their perception of our check as having showdown value by using it to set up a bluff on a later street, on board textures where we have reason to believe this line most credibly represents a hand they will fold to.

The following hand is an example of applying this concept in a three-bet pot out of position in the weekly Super Tuesday tournament on PokerStars.

No-Limit Hold'em Tournament, 50/100 Blinds (9 handed)

Button (t6280)
Hero (SB) (t9270)
BB (t6064)
UTG (t6285)
UTG+1 (t5953)
MP1 (t3135)
MP2 (t6135)
MP3 (t7382)
CO (t10391)

Preflop: Hero is SB with Qh, Kc
3 folds, MP2 bets t250, 3 folds, Hero raises t725, 1 fold, MP2 calls t475

Flop: (t1550) Jd, 4h, Js (2 players)
Hero checks, MP2 checks

Turn: (t1550) 6d (2 players)
Hero bets t950, MP2 calls t950

River: (t3450) 5c (2 players)
Hero bets t2150, 1 fold

As always, when deciding which line to take, it's imperative to have at least some rough assumptions about how your opponent is likely to think. In this case, I knew villain was a winning player, and hence more likely to interpret a flop check from the preflop aggressor on this flop as representing showdown value. Against a losing player, we would not make this assumption, and would c-bet simply because the board misses most of his range and we can get ace-high and sometimes set mining pocket pairs to fold.

Against a competent hand reader, checking a J-J-x rainbow flop with these stack sizes (60bbs effective) as the OOP aggressor arguably does the most to convincingly represent an overpair. While it's not necessarily optimal, many players will check QQ+ on this flop, reasoning that they cannot get three streets of value, but can feel comfortable inducing bluffs by check-calling multiple streets, or going for two streets of value if the flop gets checked through. Other regs know this.

Attempting a delayed bluff out of position carries some risk, as it requires our opponent to cooperate by checking it back. If villain bets, we lose the pot, as we are check-folding. But that's ok - some of the hands he bets (Jx) were never folding to multiple barrels anyway, and we expect him to check back hands better than ours (ace-high and pocket pairs) the majority of the time given the suspiciousness of our check. He can't exploit us by always betting, since we're perceived to have Jx or overpairs enough of the time that he can't bet and barrel with impunity.

When we bet the turn and follow through on a blank river, villain has to ask himself how likely it is that we planned to bluff by taking this line, as opposed to just c-betting. It's rare for many competent regs to begin a multi-street bluff by checking the flop, and rightly so. The easiest and least risky way to win the pot is usually to c-bet, and barrelling the turn and river reps the strongest possible range. However, it's for precisely that reason that c-betting and barrelling off is not necessarily the most credible bluffing line, especially in tournaments where average players' ranges for triple barrelling on many boards are polarised between the nuts or air.

Since it is most common to show up with a value hand with this line, an opponent who can hand read and is familiar with the "deceptive" inducing check on the flop should realise that a medium pocket pair or ace-high (his most likely range for checking back the flop and calling the turn) is infrequently the best hand when we bet the river. With our bet sizing we are giving him odds of 2.6/1 to call, which means he only needs to think he's good around 28% of the time to snap us off, but versus most players that won't be the case.

Note that taking this line as a bluff works best when you have a somewhat straightforward or "in line" TAG image. If you're the kind of player who often takes unconventional bluffing lines and your opponents know this, then doing so in a spot like this is probably inadvisable. Understanding how you are likely to be perceived is crucial.

Finally, while it's not the primary consideration, taking this line as a bluff also protects our value range in a theoretical sense. We don't want our opponents to play correctly against us by always having a showdown-value type of hand when we take a showdown-value line by checking a dry flop as the preflop aggressor. We also don't want to use our "monster" hands to balance (in this case, Jx), since it gives up too much value when we catch them at the top of their range. Hence we should sometimes show up with a bluff when representing a medium-strength hand.

- Daniel "Choparno" Laidlaw

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