To Bluff or Not to Bluff?: How Players Use Their Poker Face to Win

There’s an old adage in poker, one of the game’s cardinal rules, and it’s stood the test of time — don’t bluff against bad players! Why? Inexperienced players are more likely to call because they just don’t know any better. An ill-timed bluff against a player like that, a so-called ‘newbie,’ and you can kiss your money goodbye. Ask any skilled poker player, and they’ll all tell you the same thing. They’ve learned this lesson the hard way. Imagine sticking all your chips in the pot with nothing, on a stone-cold bluff, only to be looked up by a less-than-average player with a less-than-mediocre hand? It happens all too often, and it’s a costly mistake.

Poker is a game of deception. You want them to think you are weak when you are strong and strong when you are weak. The late, great Benny Binion, founder of the World Series of Poker, once said, “trust everyone but always cut the cards.” Bluffing and check raising are both integral elements to the game, built right into the rules. And can be mighty weapons in any players’ arsenal. A well-timed bluff can be lucrative. And, just like there is an art to war, there is most definitely an art to bluffing.

The Ad Campaign

If you believe PokerStars, “You are already a great poker player!”. But perhaps the online giant is just bluffing the masses to get people to play on the site. Famously, that is the signature line in the company’s recent round of worldwide ads, which feature a zany lead character blessed with many unique facial contortions. And who is obviously new to the game.

In one commercial, titled Auto Bluff, he is dealt 8, 3, one of the worst starting hands in poker. The narrator chimes in with, “you’re freaking out kiddo, and it’s normal, but think…think about all those lies you’ve managed to convince yourself with.” After highlighting things like the pull-up bar he plans to exercise and get in shape with, or the book he’d have his friends believe he’s read but hasn’t. The announcer then claims, “If you can bluff yourself, you can bluff anyone.”  He then concluded with the aforementioned tagline.

Poker, they say, only takes minutes to learn, but a lifetime to master. Are you already a great player? The ads are deceptive and misleading. They’re a bluff designed to get your money.

Study & Strategy

It only takes .49 seconds to turn up 3.6 million results on Google when searching ‘How to Bluff in Poker?’. Ironically, the first link to appear is a video on bluffing strategy from PokerStars with a thumbnail that reads, “Put pressure on opponents,” and that’s exactly what you’re doing when bluffing. You are testing your opponents, forcing them to make a decision for a good portion, if not all, of their chip stack. Again, this is a skill that takes time and effort to develop. Pot odds, stack sizes, hand ranges and table dynamics are all important factors to consider before attempting a bluff.

The point is, there are a plethora of resources available online to help you become a successful bluffer. If you are serious about taking your game to the next level you might consider joining a poker forum. You can discuss bluffing strategy with your peers. Or following your favorite pro on social media for any tips on the subject. Even subscribing to one of the many training sites on offer can be helpful. Remember, a little money invested now, can provide huge dividends later.

The Bluff of the Century

Chris Moneymaker has the perfect name for a poker player, and when it mattered most, he had the perfect poker face too. Playing heads-up for the 2003 world title, and the $2.5 million that went along with it for first place, the then unknown Tennessee accountant pulled off one of the most monumental bluffs in World Series of Poker history.

It was memorable, and it shifted the tide of the championship. Staring down the vastly more experienced Sammy Farha, a WSOP bracelet winner and high-stakes cash game legend, the 27-year old Moneymaker bluffed “All-In” on the river with only King-high and somehow managed to get Farha to toss his stronger hand, a top pair of nines’, into the muck. ESPN commentator Norman Chad couldn’t contain himself in the booth, calling it the “Bluff of the Century.” Here is a video of The Chip Race breaking down the experience:

In Canada, we’d call it the ‘TSN Turning Point’, because the risk was certainly worth the reward. It changed the entire complexion of the contest, and gave Moneymaker all the momentum. A short time later, he was crowned world champion. He pulled off a perfectly executed bluff at the most opportune time and the rest, they say, is history.

“It’s become a lot harder for me since I won the World Series,” he admitted years later on the issue of bluffing, “because everyone wants to beat me, and there’s always someone who will call on the off-chance that they’ll then be able to say they read a world champion’s bluff.”

Poker Face

So, what happens when you attempt a bluff? Yes, you apply pressure to those around you, but conversely you begin to feel the pressure yourself. Your money is in the middle and your hand is terrible. It’s a bluff. Most players, even at the higher stakes, will experience the uneasiness of potentially being found and called out. Your blood pressure will rise, you will breathe heavier, your veins will pulse, your hands will sweat and fidget, and any facial ticks will clearly present themselves. It’s an awful feeling. So bad, you may not even be able to look at your opponent due to a guilty conscience. You are lying about your hand after all. Bluffing is not easy.

It’s hard to tell exactly what attributes lead to a good poker face, everybody has their own unique expressions. But generally speaking, it means not expressing positive or negative reactions to the game. You don’t want to give away the strength of your hand, or lack thereof, by the look on your face. This is easier said than done, especially when tensions are high. You’re bluffing, and there is a bunch of money on the line. Challenge yourself in these tough spots to remain calm, cool and composed and relax your face. You will improve with experience.

The Stare & Glare Bluff

If Nike was into poker, it might run an ad featuring the catch phrase, “Be like Mike.”. No, not Michael Jordan, the basketball superstar, but Canadian Mike McDonald, the poker prodigy from Waterloo, Ontario. Obsessed with poker from youth, the man known as ’Timex’ started building his bankroll by scoring some massive wins online. Before he could even legally play, he was sitting on six-figures by the tender age of 16. As an 18-year old, he became the youngest person ever to win on the European Poker Tour, after taking down the EPT’s German Open for $1.3 million. Fast forward to the present, and McDonald has amassed more than $13 million in live tournament earnings.

Mike McDonald Bluff

The fact is Mike McDonald has had several million-dollar scores, and one of the main reasons is his poker face. You might call it a death stare. Some say it’s the scariest in poker. Bluffing, or holding ‘the nuts’ (an unbeatable hand), McDonald is known for putting the fear of the poker Gods into his opponent by simply glaring at them. Wide-eyed and expressionless. It’s freaky, and some just fold to the pressure.

The Table Talk

William Kassouf made quite a name for himself at the 2016 World Series of Poker, and left Las Vegas that year as the self-proclaimed ‘King of Speech Play.’ Not only did the Englishman run deep in the main event, finishing 17th for $338,288, but he spent the entire time talking the ears off his opponents, to the point of annoyance. The chatter was so exhausting, the others complained. And he actually received a penalty from the tournament director.

In one of the most controversial and brilliant hands ever, Kassouf managed to talk Stacy Matuson into folding pocket Queens late in the tournament when he had bluffed 600,000 chips on the river with just nine-high. After several minutes of deliberation, and incessant lip service from Kassouf, she finally relented. Kassouf quickly turned his cards over, showing the bluff, and proudly said, “Nine high like a boss!”

The Cover-up Bluff

If you are worried about disclosing the contents of your hand when bluffing, you can always go the Phil Laak route and cover-up. With both a WSOP bracelet and a World Poker Tour title to his name, he is known as one of the best cash game players in the world. Laak is universally known as the ‘Unabomber’, because he likes to wear hoodies and sunglasses at the table. He may be in a relationship with Hollywood actress Jennifer Tilly but, when it comes to those big bets, he’s no thespian. He prefers to hide his face.

Fun Fact: Once during the WSOP main event, Laak spent hours in a make-up chair before play began and then sat down to play fully disguised as a 70-year old man. Nobody recognized him and, because they thought he was elderly, took him for granted. That’s how you take the art of the bluff to a whole new level.

No Twain, No Gain

Writer Mark Twain, once lauded as “the greatest humorist the United States has ever produced,” knew a thing or two about bluffing. His works, like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its sequel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, are littered with gambling references. On the subject of bluffing, he wrote, “It is sound judgement to put on a bold face and play your hand for a hundred times what it is worth; forty-nine times out of fifty nobody dares to call it, and you roll in the chips.”

Beware of that fiftieth time, though, you might just get looked up.

Derrick Oliver

Derrick Oliver

Derrick Oliver Dewan is the founder of High Roller Radio and has interviewed a number of the world's top poker players and gamblers. A former radio and television broadcaster, Derrick was brand manager for Poker Pro Canada magazine and has written for a variety of publications, including the Toronto Star & Windsor Life.

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