Steven Holloway on Poker

nzherald.co.nz's Steven Holloway blogs about poker

Steven Holloway on poker: The greatest bluff

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When playing against good, thinking players poker can become a game of chess: knowing what your opponent is likely to do three moves in advance, and planning ahead. Photo / Thinkstock
When playing against good, thinking players poker can become a game of chess: knowing what your opponent is likely to do three moves in advance, and planning ahead. Photo / Thinkstock

Bluffing in poker is a form of storytelling, and the best players tell the best stories.

At the top level, the beginning, middle and end of a poker bluff are all pieces of a puzzle, a narrative that needs to make sense in order for it to be believed.

Not to be confused with the bottom level - my local home game - where it seems the narratives are written in Latin, as no one has a clue what their stories are saying.

Scroll to bottom for video of hand

When playing against good, thinking players poker can become a game of chess: knowing what your opponent is likely to do three moves in advance, and planning ahead.

With this forward-thinking also comes the ability to produce a well-designed bluff, and today I wanted to share an experience from the Sky City Casino of a hand I played that encapsulated all the elements of the art of bluffing.

I had been sat playing at the $5/$5 (Min buy-in $300, max $500) cash table for about three hours when the hand took place.

I had worked my initial stack of $500 up to around $950 through a cooler (a hand that was unavoidable for both players) when my AA held against KK when all the money went in pre flop.

The table was lively and full of action and of the eight players seated I thought three were particularly good.

The main protagonist was an Asian gentleman in his mid 40's - we will call him Olly - who was bossing the table with a combination of well placed bets and raises. The only hand I saw him lose was when his bluff was called on the river and he instantly folded his cards without showing - an observation which would later come in very handy.

The action folded to Olly - who held middle position and around $1000 in chips - and he opened the betting with a standard $20 bet. Two other players had called by the time it got to me in the small blind and I decided my hand (7Clubs, 8Clubs) was worth a $15 investment to potentially win a big multi way pot.

The flop came out 9Clubs, 10Clubs, 2Hearts.

Bingo, I thought. An open ended straight-flush draw was about as good as I could hope for when calling pre flop with my hand and now I had to consider the correct course of action.

I checked and Olly bet at the flop with $40, and with the other two players folding to me I had a decision to make. Folding was obviously out of the question, so do I call or do I raise? I decided raising was best because it gave me more opportunities to win the hand. If I didn't win the hand with this bet, I could likely fire again on the turn and take it down if I missed my draws. I raised to $120 and Olly called.

Now I had to think about what kinds of hands Olly might be holding. AA, KK, QQ and JJ were all possibilities along with a number of his own draws with flush and straight possibilities out there. I assumed he would re-raise with a set of nines or tens on such a draw heavy board.

The turn fell the Ace of spades, the most beautiful card in the deck.

I didn't think so at the time, but I bet anyway as I thought unless he had AA that card was not great for the range of hands I put him on. I bet $170 into the pot which was now $324.

Olly called again, and while I tried to exude a cool calm exterior my interior was screaming for my draw to hit. Wooof, I missed.

A very unintimidating 3Diamonds fell on the river and now I had decisions to make.

Check and fold if he bets, Bet and fold if he raises, check and raise all in if he bets were all viable options, but which made the most sense?

I had to think about his story.

What hands could he have now that would bet the river for value if I checked to him? AA of course, but it would be unlikely with KK, QQ, JJ given the action and board texture, and not with any of his missed draws....... unless he was bluffing.

It was time to get creative. I checked the table, but with a plan.

Olly was calm as ever, arranged his chips into two nice tidy piles and announced a bet. $350 he said before shooting me a glance.

If he had checked back I would have lost the hand, because eight high beats nothing but the bet gave me options.

I could now place the final bet of the hand with a raise all in, but what if I'm wrong I thought. His range of hands that he was betting for value on the river was so polarised (missed draw or the nuts) that he would either fold or snap call.

But what if I call as a bluff? I thought back to earlier in the session where I saw him instantly fold his hands when someone had called his bet. Would he do it again. "Worth a shot", I thought.

"I call", I quickly shot back, trying to sound as confident as possible.

And then the dejected look I had been praying for fell upon his face.

"You got it," he said shooting me a glance but remaining motionless.

I didn't say anything, praying that he would muck his cards instead of show them. If he shows them I lose, if he folds I win.

Gingerly he picked them up and threw them toward the pile of chips in the middle. Yessssss, my insides went crazy.

I didn't show the winning bluff at the time but later spoke to Olly and found out he was holding KClubs QClubs for a busted straight-flush draw.

By piecing together all parts of his story I was able to assess the lower probability that the story he was telling was true. Luckily for me on this occasion I was right.

Not so luckily, I ended up donating the majority of my profits to the old wizard of the table - we will call him Gandalf.

Can you match this bluff story? NZ Herald would love to hear from you.

Follow Steven Holloway on Twitter


Video replay of the hand. I called his bet on the river, assuming that if he was bluffing he would instantly fold his cards. He did.

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