Sloe Times

A journal of my adventures in learning and growing personally and professionally

Saturday, July 30, 2005


As the blogfather "suggests"

Ok, I'll admit that my attempts to separate and 'focus' my writing here make for a lot of growing pains. This is especially true when something meaningful comes to mind and I want to write about it even though it doesn't fit with my theme. I've resigned myself to the fact that this is probably going to be the exception that will become more the rule over time. Being a thinker of things and human being with more than one interest in life it occurs to me that I will never be able to escape thinking and talking about poker. The latest assault on my attempts to isolate was a post on Iggy's site about how bluffing == lying && lying == failure, forced me to respond. Now wouldn’t you know it, the particular post that I wanted to respond to doesn't allow comments? So I dropped him an email to which he responded, "Man, you should just post that to your blog - its real good stuff." Well, with that kind of a response I guess I can't refuse. And since I'm posting it, I'll take the opportunity to clean up many of the grammatical, spelling, and other errors that were in the original.

Iggy said the following about how lying is necessary to win in poker, "In poker you have to lie to win; in life telling lies will only make you lose." Since the comment in context was regarding the parallels of poker to life outside of the poker room it seems necessary to point out that he wasn't suggesting that poker players are all liars and in fact was suggesting that this fact was where the similarities broke down. Later on, he reposted the following from someone else regarding elements within the game, "Poker is a game of strategy and deception." and "Poker is a game of manipulation and pressure." I disagree with the deception aspect of the first statement (since it clearly is related to bluffing defined as lying) and very much agree with the second statement. My thinking in this is that if you perform an activity long enough, you will revert to type. So unless you're a pathological liar you can not effectively bluff if bluffing is lying. This reasoning may be why most professional players suggest that the pros make little use of the tool. What follows is my argument for why the pros probably bluff more than the standard definition would indicate and why it is a useful tool and how it should be used.

A macro examination of the (my) decision tree when evaluating what to play has nothing to do with lying or deception and everything to do with exploiting a perceived weakness in other players. Upon further review perhaps this thinking would not be categorized as bluffing, but the unanalyzed activity is the same so I’m taking the longer view of the topic and perhaps what follows will provide other students of the game fodder for coming to their own conclusion.

Most definitions of bluffing are simplified as playing a very weak hand as a very strong hand. I’ll concede that this could very well be the case for the uneducated players. The problem I have with the definition is that this would seem to indicate what Iggy says is true and that by bluffing you are indeed lying. The problem with this and perhaps the problem people have with bluffing in general is that people have a hard time lying to other people. Their bodies tend to give them away in subtle ways that makes it difficult to utilize an important tool in poker play.

Since I object to the basic foundation that bluffing is lying, allow me to present bluffing in a more effective construct of two phases and their usage. The first phase of bluffing is used when you’re playing with people you have no experience with at the table. Recognizing that you’re playing with little or no information about your opponents you will default to a mode of discovery and standard play tactics. What this means is that you want to use your advantages of position, odds, and opponents lack of information about you as best you can. You would use bluffing in this case to push people sitting on marginal hands out of a pot or discover the players who have strong hands. I’ll stress again, that bluffing in this case has nothing to do with lying and is generally a tool for information discovery. Who plays aggressively or passively? Who are the calling stations? Who’s playing weak and can be pushed around? Using this first phase of bluffing generally has little to do with your cards because you’re attempting to exploit relatively cheap opportunities to learn more about the players around you. The key here is to remember to fold against credible resistance. The goal is to gather information, not to measure the size or tensile strength of your balls.

The second phase of bluffing has nothing to do with your cards and everything to do with utilizing the information you have about your opponents. You’ve now gone beyond trying to gather information about a given player and are now using that information to exploit their style of play and what they think they know about you. I’m not suggesting that you play blind (that would be silly), however you’re now in a psychological battle rather than a battle of best hand. By bluffing your garbage/weak/inferior hand against an opponent you’re not trying to convince them that you have better of it. Instead you are trying to convince them that whatever they do have is not good enough. A very subtle point I admit, but an important one. You’re now drawing on your experience with the player, the patterns they’ve exhibited; any tells they may have or your own gut instinct to identify when your opponent has likely played a marginal hand, and you want to apply the leverage of your knowledge to give them the mental nudge that they’ve played their marginal hand at the wrong time. They’re already worried about it if they’re reasonably savvy, so why not help them out and ‘confirm’ their fear with a push in the right direction?

I hope I’ve demonstrated that in either case of using bluffing you are not lying. Instead your motivation for the play is distinctly different and not influenced by the desire to deceive your opponent. However, there’s a bit of classic wisdom that comes from the world of limit hold’em that goes something like – You can’t bluff a calling station. Applying what I’ve described above, you’ve applied the thinking of phase one and determined that someone is a calling station and that analysis should tell you that the person has effectively removed a tool from your bag. Trying to apply any of the thinking from the second phase of bluffing against this person is a complete waste of time. The reason for this is that they simply lack the fear that they might be beat. They don’t care because they’re playing the losing strategy of thinking that if they’re in enough hands, they’re going to make them often enough to be a winner. The philosophy is pretty simple. You have to play to win and you can’t win if you’re not playing. So the technique is to minimize the investment on hands that are not obvious locks (check, call, repeat) and try to hammer their opponents when they do hit the jackpot. The reason I say this is a losing strategy is because smart, observant, players will usually not be involved in the hand or divine based on their experience with the player when to get out of the way of the two or one outer that just made their premium hand second best.

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