Constructing Bluffing Ranges: Three Key Considerations

Poker StrategyThis article comes from Joe “TheDefiniteArticle” Towse. Joe is an instructor at the Poker Training site GrinderSchool.com which focuses on providing affordable training targeted at small stakes and microstakes games. Joe has strong background in NLHE Cash Games, with a focus on the quick thought processes required to dominate at 6-max Rush Poker.

Bluffing is the ‘sexy’ part of poker. Everyone who knows the rules of poker but doesn’t really know the strategy loves the idea of forcing an opponent off his hand with a big, gutsy bet and then rolling over a blank piece of paper and a Yu-Gi-Oh! card to rub it in the face of the player who folded. That’s why you’ll often see people bluffing with entirely inappropriate parts of their range.

For instance, recently, I was playing in a live game, flatted a cutoff open in the big blind with queen-jack of spades, and check-folded to a large bet on K84r to be shown ace-eight. Of course I wasn’t going to tell my opponent at the table, but the problem with that bet was that worse hands weren’t calling and better hands weren’t folding (except sometimes I might call with a weaker eight, or fold nines or tens, but that’s beside the point).

Soon after, you learn hand-reading. You learn to attack weak ranges and think you’re the king of bluffing. But then you try moving up and keep getting hero called with ace high. That’s because you haven’t yet learned to consider your perceived range when bluffing. But let’s say you learn that you need to represent something when bluffing and establish yourself at that limit. You may try moving up again, only to be forced back down after it seems that all your value bets get folds and all your bluffs get called. This is because you don’t have your bluffing frequencies in control. Sometimes you have far more bluffs than your bet size would allow, and sometimes you have far fewer. How do you control these frequencies? After calculating a bluffing frequency which gives you a roughly balanced range, how do you decide which hands to bluff with? I would suggest there are three main factors to consider:

  1. Prefer to bluff with some equity. This concept is pretty simple. Assuming that you do not have enough value bets in your range to bet all your air hands, it would be fairly perverse to bluff with complete air and check-fold a gutshot. The fact that you can improve to the best hand some percentage of the time, even if that percentage is very low, adds a significant amount of EV to your bluff and thus contributes significantly to maximizing the EV of your range. Naturally, this only applies on the flop and turn because you never have a chance to improve with your bluffs once getting to the river.
  2. Bluff more frequently if you hold blockers. This often requires consideration of your entire potential range for bluffing. As you want to minimize your opponent’s calling frequency when bluffing, you ought to choose combinations with blockers to your opponent’s continuance range and avoid combinations with blockers to your opponent’s folding range. As an example, when you’re bluffing the river on KcTs6c 4h 2d, most of your opponent’s calling hands will be hands like king-queen and king-jack. The hands that they will tend to fold will be missed draws and possibly a ten. It’s tough to block pairs while having a hand which wants to bluff (as if you had a king it’s unlikely that when you bet you’re doing so as a bluff), so the best you can do is block their kickers. Thus, one of the best hands you might choose to bluff with here would be a combination like queen-jack of hearts – it doesn’t block flush draws and does block king-queen and king-jack. Note that while it blocks your opponent’s queen-jack, as it’s also one of the best hands for your opponent to bluff-raise for the same reasons as it is for you to bet it, you can’t be certain that you are actually blocking your opponent’s folding range in those combinations.
  3. Do not bluff with showdown value. I hinted at this above when talking about the ‘better doesn’t fold, worse doesn’t call’ principle. In general, you want to bluff with hands that you can’t profitably check with, as doing so maximizes the EV of your range. The exception to this is when every hand in your range has some showdown value. In that case, you should probably simply bluff with the bottom of your range, but also size bets fairly small due to the fact that you have very few to no bona fide bluffs in your betting range. Indeed, the ‘bluff with the bottom of your range‘ rule can be taken more generally, as even king-high can win at showdown sometimes when checked back on some rivers, whereas eight-high wins at a much lower frequency. If there are no hands with relevant blockers in your range, simply bluffing the bottom x% as made appropriate by your bet size is a good way to control your bluffing frequency.
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