Save deception for bluffs

Lee Jones
Published by:
Posted on June 4, 2022 12:49 pm EDT

I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: I love poker vloggers. They’ve brought the buzz of live poker right into our laptops and phones. There’s no doubt that they’ve encouraged hundreds (thousands?) of people to make their first foray into the joy of live poker. If you’re a poker vlogger, the next beer is on me, wherever we bump into each other.

But let’s be clear – these vlogs are for entertainment, not necessarily education. If they were for education, they’d be called “training videos.” Certainly, some of the vloggers are extremely strong players, and their analysis can teach you a lot about correct strategy. However, no vlogger I’m aware of sells their product as poker coaching. Their job is to weave a compelling narrative, not improve your game.

Which brings me to one of the things that I hear a lot, and wish I didn’t. Our hero, right there in front of us on the screen, makes a big hand. Flops a set or top two pair. Something that would be delighted to pile chips into the pot. The action is checked to them, and they say, “So I bet half the pot.” No, wait. That’s not what they say. They say, “So I check, for deception.”

Here’s the deal: it’s really hard to make a hand like a set or top two pair. And when you do, you only have three betting rounds to pile chips into the pot. Now, if you’re in a tournament, and the stacks are 40-50 big blinds (BBs), it’s a lot easier to get stacks in. But if you’re in a cash game with 100, or 200, or 400 BBs, your goal should be to get as many of those as possible into the middle.

Almost always, the best way to do this is the most obvious thing: bet at every chance you get.

You hear people talk about a “three-street” value hand. That is, a hand that can reasonably bet all three post-flop streets, and expect to get called by a worse hand. Three-street hands don’t come along very often, so leverage them. This is particularly important because that third bet is the biggest of the bunch. Let’s look at an example:

I open AKo to 3 BBs. The big blind calls. We have 6 BBs in the pot, and we both started with 100 BBs. The flop is a perfect A-K-4 rainbow. My opponent checks, I bet 3 BBs, they call. Now we have 12 BBs in the pot. The turn is a T, bringing a backdoor flush draw. They check again. I bet 9 BBs. By the way, I should seriously consider overbetting this street for 15 or even 18 BBs. But I bet 9, and the villain calls. Now there’s 30 BBs in the pot, and the river is a beautiful offsuit 7, changing nothing. My opponent checks a third time. What’s my target? I’m thinking hands like AJ and AQ that flopped top pair, then picked up a gutshot to Broadway on the turn. Plenty of people can’t fold AQ or AJ to a reasonable bet. It’s also possible they could have AT or KT, which would be lovely. There are plenty of strong second-best hands to target, so I’m going for a healthy size: 20 BBs into the pot of 30 BBs.

Here’s the thing: if I had checked the flop, (the voiceover on my vlog says, “I have this board crushed – I want to let them catch up”), I don’t get that 20 BB bet on the end. I get two streets of value from a solidly three-street hand.

“But Lee, if I do that, then they’ll know I have a monster, and fold.”

Note that our game has two forms of deception: you can represent a weak hand when you have a strong hand, or you can represent a strong hand when you have a weak one.

It’s better to mix bluffs (mostly semi-bluffs) in with your strong hands than to pass up opportunities to put chips in with the best hand.

I’m not suggesting that when you check, it always means you have a weak hand. But such deception is expensive – you should use it sparingly and thoughtfully. Before you check a strong hand, ask yourself, “How am I going to recoup the cost of checking this street, and how will this play allow me to do it?”

If you don’t have a good answer to that question, bet.