Bluffing is one of the most powerful tools a poker player can employ in a game. There is no greater feeling than convincing others at the table that you have the goods when you don’t, and in some cases, nothing can swing the tide of a game like stealing a pot from a player with a much better hand.
Still, bluffing isn’t easy, or everyone would be doing it.
In fact, there’s a great deal of psychology that goes into a successful bluff (and a lot of psychology that disrupts a successful bluff and makes them go bad). Therefore, before you bluff next time, take a look at the psychology of what you’re about to do and how bluffing can affect your body.
It’s not a foolproof guide by any means, but by the end, you should feel more confident when you bluff and, consequently, pull it off more often.
So let’s get into how the psychology of bluffing works in poker and how to bluff well.
Two Purposes of Bluffing in Poker
There are lots of times to use a good bluff, but they are far outside what I can cover here. For now, I’m just going to focus on why you would bluff.
Here are the two purposes of bluffing.
Making your opponents think your hand is better than it is
Making your opponents think your hand is worse than it is
Seems pretty straightforward, right?
Fortunately, for the most part, the psychology of both purposes is relatively the same. What you need to think about and focus on tactically doesn’t change much.
What does change, at some level, is you. (Well, me anyway. I am speaking from personal experience here.) For me, it’s just harder to play possum when it comes to bluffing.
I have no problems projecting strength in a hand that has absolutely, positively no value. On the other hand, acting like my hand isn’t great when it’s good… that’s a different story entirely.
The most crucial piece of advice is to practice. You will need to practice the psychology of bluffing a strong hand just like everything else, but you can use the following techniques and keep in mind the following psychological tips.
Control What Goes on in Your Head
Pulling off a bluff properly starts with controlling the wheels spinning in your head because the key to making a successful bluff is consistency. Therefore, no matter how many chips are on the table and no matter the circumstance, the activity in your brain should always be the same.
I realize just how hard that is. It’s a big ask for any player.
Still, the key to bluffing is consistency. When someone looks at you, they shouldn’t be able to tell if you are calm or anxious, confident or afraid, bluffing or not.
How that happens is largely up to you and your mentality. There are a lot of ways to reach this state of poker nirvana, and the shortest path depends on each person.
Still, for the most part, these paths all rely on finding a center and focusing there. Some players listen to music and fall into that. Some can use calming breaths (which they use throughout the game to avoid an obvious tell). My personal center is the numbers. I run the probabilities and replay the hand to this point and over and over. It gives me some illusion of control in a chaotic game.
Ideally, though, you need to get to the point where bluffing is just like anything else in poker. It’s a choice you made. It’s something you did. It’s a consequence you live with, just like raising or calling or folding.
With that said, you can help yourself a lot by how you carry yourself. To that end, you can project confidence, or you can become a blank slate.
As stated before, consistency is key to bluffing. You don’t want your actions or demeanor to give away that you’re trying something.
That’s where projecting yourself comes into play. You want to find a general stance and carry this throughout your time at the table. One way to do this is to project confidence. You want to seem like you are in control as much as possible.
Phil Helmuth does this as well as any player I’ve seen. If he’s dealt 2-3 offsuit, he is just as confident and in control as if he’s dealt a pair of aces and just flopped two more. No matter what happens, Helmuth looks like he is in control and, conversely, he gives nothing away to his opponents.
Psychologically speaking, projecting confidence also helps you feel more confident. In sort of a poker-based “fake it until you make it,” if you walk to the table acting like you are going to do great, you start to believe it. Psychologically, that boost can carry you forward.
Conversely, Project Nothing
If approaching the table like you’re always going to come away with big money isn’t your thing, the other, perfectly viable alternative is to become a blank slate. You see this a lot with the sunglass-wearing, music-listening, hoodie-donning poker players who interact with the table as little as possible.
While these players may seem cold and distant, they’re doing their best to counteract their mind spinning away. They’re also trying to fight every tell they might show by showing absolutely nothing.
Psychologically, projecting nothing is a great tactic when bluffing in poker because it forces you to focus on the now. You don’t have time to worry about your bluff and whether it will succeed because you’re focused on stilling yourself, not showing anything, and really concentrating on the game.
The good news, too, is that even if you are naturally gregarious or generally energetic, you don’t have to project nothing all the time. You can choose to “flick it on” only when the cards hit the table and return to a more talkative mode when no chips are on the line.
The Physiological Changes of Bluffing
Why is projecting confidence or nothing so important? Because the body wants to react when you start to bluff.
Normally, bluffing occurs during times of stress: either you want to win when you shouldn’t be able to, or you want to trick the other players into coughing up chips.
During times of stress, the body goes through a whole set of physical reactions: pulse and breathing elevate, hands can shake, pupils dilate, etc. The body doesn’t really differentiate between a high-stakes bluff and getting attacked by a bear.
That’s why it’s important to still your mind and keep it under control. Having one of those postures above helps as you can train yourself into projecting confidence or projecting nothing. This forces the brain into recognizable patterns, fights stress, and keeps your opponents in the dark as to what is going on in that head of yours.
Psych Yourself Rich
Another thing you can do when bluffing in poker is psych yourself up (not psych yourself out; that’s something totally different). There will be times when, despite your best efforts, you readily achieve that projection of confidence or of nothingness.
That’s when you need to psych yourself into a state of calm. That’s normally not how psyching yourself up works. Generally, people psych themselves into a state of frenzy, but in poker, that’s not going to work.
Instead, you need to find an internal narrative that gets you into a state where you can control your mind and keep your body from feeling the stress.
That might be a song. It could be a mantra or a favorite phrase or a couple of lines from a movie.
Whatever it is, it should be able to quickly bring you back into a state where you are not giving anything away and the table cannot tell the difference between how you are acting in that moment and how you normally act. Naturally, this varies from person to person, but work on finding what works to psych you up.
Then practice doing that without giving away any tells. That way, when the chips are down, you are able to psych yourself into the highest levels of calm (and performance) at the table.
The mind is a powerful weapon at the poker table. Not only is it able to evaluate thousands of different data points and make decisions in the blink of an eye, but it’s also able to both cause tremendous stress reactions and control them.
When you bluff, you are going to feel the stress. Your body is going to know what’s up, and your body may react because of it. You are going to need to control that and keep yourself from showing that anything is going on.
When you do that, then you will avoid showing the rest of the table your tells. Once you can master that, success at the poker table will surely follow in time.
But also keep in mind that understanding the psychology of bluffing is just one small aspect of your overall game. If you’re looking for more information to round out your poker betting strategy, check out our detailed poker guide.