How to spot a bluff

poker etiquetteLast week we talked about how to improve your bluffing skills with the mini-bluff. Now let’s look at some techniques to spot if other players are trying to bluff you.

There is one key principle to keep in mind when deciding if someone is bluffing or has a monster hand. If a player acts strong, he or she is probably weak. If a player acts weak, he or she is probably strong. This is not exactly rocket science, but as we have said, bluffing is more of an art than any science at all, because every poker tell boils down to this fundamental principle.

Now, the unfortunate thing about this advice is that even though it is so simple, most card players just don't "get it," or don't apply it properly. First off, it's important to remember that in order to spot bluffs, you must be tuned into signs of strength as well. If you only look for "tells" that suggest a player is bluffing, you're only getting half the picture.

When trying to get an accurate read on an opponent, you must be looking for both signs of strength and weakness.

Let's go back to our main "rule" again and look at the first part:

"If a player acts strong, he or she is probably weak."

This means that when a player does something that makes it look like he's got a monster hand, he's probably bluffing. The crucial point to keep in mind is that most players don't TRY to act strong. They just do it unconsciously.

Let's say you've got 9d-2s and you decide to make a bold bluff by going all-in pre-flop (not a recommended play, but let’s say you do it to steal the blinds late in a tourney). In your mind, you're thinking, “I sure hope no one calls!" and when the big blind starts contemplating a decision, you really start to get worried.

The natural thing to do is this situation is to act like you're not afraid. Obviously you don't want someone to know that you're scared of getting called.

So you sit up straight, your look calm, and maybe your voice has a little "arrogance" to it. And ultimately, all of those things are signs that you're bluffing. But you didn't mean to act that way - it just kind of came naturally.

Ultimately, a bluff is a lie. So when someone is bluffing by betting, they're simply lying about what they have in their hand. This means that technically the real skill is not the ability to spot a bluff; it’s the ability to spot a lie.

When a player acts strong, he's probably weak. But he didn't choose to act strong; this is just a "mechanism" inside of him that turns on, simply because he's lying to you about his hand.

Vanessa-Selbst-1Let’s see some practical examples. Here are three valuable "tells" to look for:

  1. When a player "flicks" her chips in the middle with some extra fervor, or tosses them in aggressively. This is nothing more than acting strong, which probably means a weak hand. A player with a full house will very rarely push aggressively.
  2. When a player speaks aggressively and talks a lot. Once again, this is usually a sign of weakness, since the player is "covering up" his bad hand by acting like he's got something.
    However, be careful as this poker tell is very easy to confuse and get completely wrong. There is a major difference between speaking aggressively and demonstrating confidence.
    If a player talks a lot in a manner that's not normal for him, it's usually a sign of weakness. The way to sense this is to look for any signs of desperation with his voice. But if the player is chatting along, having a good time, and seems quite confident in general, it usually means he has a strong hand. It's a very subtle difference, and takes time to learn.
  3. When a player looks you dead in the eye.This usually means the player does not have a strong hand. The "death stare" is simply an act of strength, but what it really means is weakness.
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