The semi-bluff: know it, use it, love it. To be a poker rock star (i.e. you turn a profit!), it is necessary to have in your arsenal of moves. David Slansky defines the semi-bluff as “a bet with a hand which, if called, does not figure to be the best hand at the moment, but has a reasonable chance of outdrawing those hands that initially called it.” The semi-bluff is one of the most profitable moves in poker. You can win the pot in three ways. First, your semi-bluff bet is not called, and you take down the pot. Second, you get customers, and you catch cards to make the best hand. Third, you’ve just represented a strong hand, and can force your customers to fold on the turn or river.

Here is an obvious example of a semi-bluff-able situation.

  • You hold a jack and a queen, off-suit. You are in middle position (second to act).
  • The flop comes Ks 10h 6c.
  • You now have an open-ended straight draw (if a 9 or an ace comes up, you’ll get quite excited).
  • The player in first position checks.

You now have two options:

1. Check
You can check here, in hopes that the last player to act checks as well. Then, you could get a free card on the turn and see if you hit your straight or at least a pair. This can be a bad idea: if you have all checked the flop, and you hit your straight on the turn, your opponents aren’t about to call any big bets, and you’re going to take home at best a marginal pot. Also, if you miss your straight (which will happen most of the time here), you aren’t going to be able to bluff anybody out of the pot very easily. You have not represented strength. This can be a good idea: you believe that one of your opponents holds a made hand (in this case, maybe K10 or AK) and you don’t think you can push him off of it.

2. Semi-bluff
You can also semi-bluff here. Why is it a semi-bluff? If you get any callers in this situation (a rainbow flop, with a high card), chances are somebody has a made hand (at least a pair) and you are not the favorite to win. However, you have a chance of outdrawing your opponent for the better hand. So, it is a semi-bluff: not the favorite, could win.

If a 9 or an ace comes, you will hit your straight, and dominate your opponent. Yes, you are behind, but instead of letting the cards determine your action, you are a telling story (I have a strong hand), and telling it convincingly (I just bet four times the big blind), and you can use that to your advantage.

The semi-bluff can be a fantastic idea for many reasons:

  1. If you do not hit, you can often push your opponents out of the pot on the turn or river. You are telling the story of a strong hand: use your opponent’s perception of you against them, and force them to fold with another strong bet.
  2. If you hit your straight, you are going to win a big pot. On the turn and river, you can now make call-able bets, feign weakness, make the same bet as you did on the flop, put out a min-bet, bet strongly into an aggressive player: there are quite a number of ways to milk this pot! The semi-bluff is how you win big pots with straights and flushes.
  3. Your bet will force your opponents to slow down. If you totally missed, you are likely going to get a free river card. Your opponents aren’t going to want to bet into the aggressor: so let it ride, and check out your final card for free.
  4. You are controlling the pot: you will lose a little some of the time, and win a lot some of the time. If you are not in control of the pot, and are simply calling with draws and over cards, you are going to lose much more than if you semi-bluff a controllable amount of chips. A passive player is a losing player: take control.
  5. You are confusing your opponents. Semi-bluffing will mix up your range of hands, and cause your opponents to be confused by your play. This is a good thing! Surprise your opponents every now and then; keep them on their toes, and stay unpredictable.
  6. When you hit your hand, your opponent is quite often going to read you for another hand. In the above situation, the 9 or ace comes and you continue betting, your opponent will often believe the 9 did not improve your hand, and will put you on top pair (AK), two pair (K10), or the like. This is an enormous advantage, not to be underestimated, and how you win big pots.

Remember that knowing your opponent, reading their tendencies, and making good judgment on their style of play is the best information to inform your move to semi-bluff or not. If you think you can win a pot with one bet, semi-bluff away.

You have two types of equity in a hand like this: your hand equity (not that high, since you don’t have a hand and are hoping to hit a card) and your bet equity (high, if you think you can get everyone to fold). Having two types of equity is a whole lot more valuable than one type. If all you do is wait for your card to hit, you are playing one-dimensional, and often unprofitably.

Situations where it might not be the best to semi-bluff is against a table of novices (who will call anything) or a loose-aggressive game where every semi-bluff will be met with a steep raise, a type of pressure most semi-bluffs can’t withstand. Another situation is where you have flopped a flush draw of very low cards: over cards can too easily call and will beat you the majority of the time. Look for mediocre flops (middle range, varied suits) and at least competent players to try the semi-bluff on.

The semi-bluff: a powerful tool not to be forgotten! Brush up on your skills, put this shiny tactic in your arsenal, and bring home the bacon.

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Brush Up Your Semi-Bluff, and Bring Home the Bacon
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