The beauty, romance and drama of poker lies in the bluff—the art of betting up a hand you know is a loser; the cojones to sit there stone-faced, praying you don’t get called; the sweet victory of psyching out an opponent and taking all their chips. There are several advantages to bluffing: you can “steal pots” from better hands and win money you otherwise would not have, and even when you’re caught, you put doubt in your opponents’ minds. This powerful weapon makes your play more difficult to predict, and it will win you bigger pots when you do have strong hands. Players with weaker hands will feel compelled to call your position more often, thinking that their hands may be better. While they are keeping you “honest,” the pot sizes of your winning hands get larger.

Key Concept

Players who are known not to bluff will, on average, win smaller pots than players who are known to bluff.

Predictable play is costly in poker, whether in the home game, casino game, or club game. Opponents with mediocre hands will know that it is senseless to compete against a player who only bets with strong hands. He’s not a bluffer. The result is that the rock does not get as much value on his good hands as he should.

To be successful at poker, bluffing must be an integral part of your game. You’ll not only win pots where your hand is not the best one, you’ll also win larger pots because opponents will contest your winning hands more often.

We’ve identified 15 bluffing concepts that will help you use the powerful weapon of the bluff effectively.

1. Bluffing in Low-Limit Games
Common wisdom states that you can’t ever bluff players out of the pot in low-limit games. For one, the action is cheap, and the thinking goes, “What’s one or two more bets?” For another, low-limit games attract players who can’t be chased out of a pot by anything less than an elephant stampede. They’ll call bet after bet with terrible hands in losing situations and hope for the longshot draw that just might give them the winner.

That’s certainly true for some games, but not for all. You’ll find low-limit games where players respect bets and can be bluffed. After all, to many people, money is money. The stakes may be small, but they would sooner save their bets for situations with better prospects. However, as each game has its own mix of players and particular temperament, you’ll see what can and can’t be done on a game by game basis.

2. Bluffing in Medium to High Limit Games
Unlike low-stakes casino games, a bluff in medium to high limit games may resonate from the opening bell right down to the final round. With more money at stake, players are less subject to the friendly game syndrome of staying in the pot “a few more rounds.” As you play in higher stake games—where the rule of thumb is that the higher the stakes, the better the level of player—your ability to chase opponents out of the pot will improve. Good players respect bets and can be bluffed; weak players don’t understand when their hands can’t support heavy betting.

Key Concept
The better the player, the easier it is to run a bluff on him

Players who play too many pots are difficult to bluff, as are those that vigorously defend every pot they’re in. If you find opponents in your game who can’t be bluffed, that’s good news anyway. When you get the right trap hand, you’ve got them set up for a big fall. Keep in mind this fundamental truth in poker: the better the player, the easier it is to bluff him out of pots, the worse the player, the more he’ll call with hands that a better player would fold.

3. Small-Pot vs. Large-Pot Bluffing
In limit poker, bluffing is more effective in smaller pots for the simple reason that, in large pots, there is too much money at stake for players to fold against the cost of a few more bets. Generally speaking, though, bluffs in limit poker are inversely more effective in relation to the size of the pot. Again, risk versus reward. The smaller the pot, the smaller the relative payoff for a single bet. The bigger the pot, the bigger the payoff. In other words, the effectiveness of a bluff is directly correlated to pot odds. If you’re faced with calling a bet that is unprofitable in the long run, it is better to fold than to play. This is a mathematical truism.

On the other hand, in big bet poker—nolimit and pot-limit games—you can bluff more effectively in big pots by putting in big bets to take away the odds for drawing hands. This is something you cannot do in limit poker games due to the bet sizes.

4. Bluff the Right Player
It’s easier to bluff a good player than a weak one, and it’s smarter to bluff a player who will likely toss his cards than one who won’t. It’s stating the obvious, but even so, too many players ignore this simple concept. When considering a bluff, target situations that give you the best chance of success. It’s common sense. Many players seem to bluff indiscriminately with no regard for who they’re playing against. That is a mistake.

If you get a good scare card in a stud game or on the flop in hold’em, say an ace, don’t try to aggressively force out an opponent who will likely call your bluff anyway. What sense would that make? Always choose your situations with potential success in mind. You not only want to play games you can win, but pots you can win. If you can’t beat an opponent with a better hand, and can’t run him off his hand, just fold.

5. Avoid Multi -Player Bluffs
Bluffs are most effective against just one opponent. It’s simple math. The more players in the pot, the greater the chances that at least one player will call the bet. Your best bluffs are against just one player and next best are against two. With three or more players in the pot, a bluff will more likely fail because too many opponents are active. With too many opponents, there are too many possibilities that at least one of them will catch good. You can probably expect at least one caller who’s got too strong a hand to go out with.

In general, avoid bluffing when more than two players remain in the pot.

6. Bluff Against “Cold” Players
When players are in a funk and can’t seem to buy a winning hand, they tend to withdraw into a shell and play more conservatively. If a card dealt in a stud or flop game doesn’t help them, they feel it hurts them. Losing feeds on losing and becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy at a poker table. You take advantage of players cursing their bad luck by pushing hard at them when you’re in a pot together. Players on a bad roll will fold at the sight of any scare card combined with aggressive betting, thinking, “Here we go again.”

7. Bluff Against Scared Players
Players running scared at the table present excellent opportunities for you to take their chips with aggressive play. These are the best players to run bluffs against. This group includes players who have lost heavily and are trying to regain some of their losses, players who have won but are desperately trying to maintain their wins, players who have lost their confidence, and players generally trying to protect their bankrolls. Also, look for players on a downward roll desperately trying to stop their slide.

8. Bluff More When You’re on a Streak
When you’re on a hot streak, and winning hands seem to beget winning hands, your opponents will take notice and become less likely to call your bets. It’s a natural reaction in poker for opponents to tiptoe around the hot player. When you’ve got the fear factor going, bluffing becomes a more effective weapon. It’s a great time to ride that momentum by playing more hands aggressively and using well-timed bluffs to intimidate opponents. But don’t overdo the roll, which leads us to the next concept…

9. Avoid Over-bluffing
It is one thing to bluff on occasion and use well-timed plays to drive an opponent off his hand. It is quite another thing to overbluff. Too many bluffs and you’re not fooling anyone anymore, you’re simply playing too loosely. Opponents will quickly catch on to your loose betting, and you’ll be sucked into the most expensive pitfall in poker: playing too many hands for too many bets. Bluffing is most effective in small doses, as a surprise weapon that catches opponents unawares.

10. Avoid Bluffing in Friendly Games
Many poker games, particularly casual home affairs and low-limit cardroom games, tend to be more friendly than competitive. Players stay in more pots and play deeper into the hands. In situations like these, where players want to see more cards before folding and the play is loose, it is difficult to bluff opponents out. Your best strategy in “no fold’em” games is to play a straightforward game, starting with cards that are strong enough to go to the showdown and taking shots with trailing hands which give you the right pot odds.

11. In Big-Bet games, Bluff the Right Amount
In no-limit and pot-limit games, in which your bets and raises are not regulated to a preset amount as in limit poker, bet-sizing is an art and a science. To be successful at bluffing, you need to push enough chips into the pot to take the odds away from opponents who will enter the pot cheaply if they are allowed to. For example, if there is $500 in the pot and you bet only $100, it is easy for most players to call this bet. You’re making it profitable for them. So where’s the bluff? If you want opponents out of a pot, you have to make the bet meaningful. In big bet games, this usually means a pot-sized bet. If there is $500 in the pot, make your bet at least $500, not $100, and that will give your opponents more reason to think about folding.

12. Tournament Bluffing
Tournaments are all about survival. So when you have opponents who are low-stacked and protecting their chips, your bluffs become highly successful weapons. You can steal their blinds and force them out of pots with aggressive betting and raising much more effectively than opponents who have ample chips. Late position blind and ante stealing becomes more important the deeper into a tournament you go. Look for players who won’t defend their blinds or pots and put the pressure on them. Look especially for players who are unwilling to take chances; they’re the easiest to take chips from.

13. Online Bluffing
There is a tendency for online players in limit games to play more hands and call down opponents to the river, so you’ll want to bluff less. Obviously, many of the tells you use to read players in live games are useless online. However, the power of bets speak strongly in any poker game, live or on the Internet. In big-bet games, bluffing can be more effective, but again, the tendency of online players to call more often must be factored in when choosing situations to make a play.

14. Bluff by Position
In the first round of betting, the more opponents you have to go through, the more likely it is that a player behind you will be dealt cards good enough to call or raise. Your best raising positions are on the button and the cutoff seat that acts just before the button. These are the positions from which most of the bluffing occurs.

15. Situational Bluffing
If you’ve bet forcefully with your starting cards, especially in no-limit and pot-limit, the next betting round is an opportunity to continue betting hard and induce your opponent to fold—even if your hand has little value and especially when opponents miss the flop, which will often happen. For example, in hold’em, when you’ve represented strength preflop and continue betting on the flop, it is difficult for opponents to call unless they’ve connected with the flop.