To bluff or not to bluff, that is the question
Benjamin Rolle, known to most of the poker world as Bencb, is one of the greatest online tournament players today.
The 33-year-old German was an outstanding junior soccer player but turned to online poker after college and worked his way up to the highest stakes available. Originally an anonymous player, it was only in the summer of 2019 that he revealed his identity.
He has won many millions during his career, notably winning the World Championship of Online Poker $100,000 Super High Roller with Fedor Holz for $1.2 million. He recently won the Sunday High Roller on GGPoker for almost $400,000 and took down a Super Millions title for $424,000.
Rolle started Raise Your Edge poker training and has shared his strategies with thousands of players around the world. (You can start with Raise your edge and save big with promotional codes CARD GAME APP or EXP. CARD GAME.)
The high-stakes crusher writes the occasional column for Card Player Magazine and also streams his game on Twitch. When he’s not playing or teaching, he works with his champion esports club, Acend.
Card player met with Rolle to discuss bluffing, particularly when to pull the trigger and when to wait for a better opportunity.
Craig Tapscott: How can players identify the best spots to get creative and start a bluff?
Benjamin Rolle: Bluffs don’t have to be creative. They are part of the game. They are mandatory.
It’s all about risk and reward. Risk a little for a decent reward. This often involves betting the flop as a bluff, potentially betting big on the turn, but being very selective on the river. Once people see the flop and turn over, they often get too attached to their hand and don’t fold on the river. This is the biggest difference between winning and losing players.
Winning players can fold their hand whether or not they called the flop and turn. I’m able to reassess the situation on the river. Losing players often believe, “I called the flop and the turn, so I have to call the river.” This is a big pitfall and a very flawed thought process.
If you study with settlers, you will see that many hands fold on the river depending on the value used by our opponent. The bigger the bet in relation to the size of the pot, the less we call; the smaller the bet, the more we can call as we get better odds.
When we are bluffing, if we have missed the flop and played against the big blind, it will almost always be profitable to make small continuation bets as a bluff. For example, 33 percent or 25 percent of the pot size.
On the turn, we can bluff a scary card or immediate draws like an open-ended straight draw or a flush draw. Here, even if we have a hand like A 2 we would still make a continuation bet on a K-10-5 flop, as the opponent will have many losing hands and we want to protect our hand against something like 8-7 offsuit or Q-7 offsuit which are in range of the opponent .
With QJ we have an easy second barrel on the turn as he will have some bottom pair like pocket eights calling against a small c-bet and 10x now starting to fold. With open-ended straight draws or flush draws we don’t need much fold equity. I usually bluff a lot on the flop and turn, but bluff less on the river, even with good blockers, as I explained.
Craig Tapscott: What are some of the worst situations/points to attempt a bluff and why?
Benjamin Rolle: The worst times to bluff are when your opponents have a lot of very strong hands in terms of absolute hand strength, especially on boards where you can technically have full houses, flushes and straights. For example, an end table like 7-9-J-9-Q.
You often see opponents calling with a hand like A-9 or 9-5 suited because they have sets which in general is a strong hand in hold’em, but only in terms of sheer hand strength. Of course, if your opponent bets the flop, checks the turn and bets the river it becomes an easy call since he can value the KK or AQ bet against our weaker Qx or Jx.
But if he check-raises you on the flop, the betting turns and he goes all-in on the river, your 9-5 suited, K-9 suited or A-9 suited just doesn’t look good anymore.
Novice players think, “I have some trips I need to call.” This is a very dangerous train of thought. They are unable to think about the relative strength of the hand and consider previous action and depletion of the board. Particularly in this situation where your opponent may have straights, perhaps he was semi-bluffing and hit a backdoor flush or had two pair on the flop and hit a full house. Overall, his range consists of many hands that beat you and very few bluffs. This makes your sets a bad hand.
That’s not how most people think. So here, if I play this line and hit the river, you can rest assured that I’m going to have a straight, full house, or flush and I’m taking advantage of the fact that people can’t put in a strong, outright hand.
At my bets, playing $5,000 and $10,000 buy-ins online, I will sometimes get bluffs since they think at a similar level, and it’s easier to hit big bluffs. Certainly not on low and medium stakes, though.
Craig Tapscott: Some players are confused when it comes to bluffing. What should they look for? And how do combos/blockers come into play when deciding whether to call?
Benjamin Rolle: The first thing I ask myself is, “Is it easy to bluff?” This is also what I recommended in a recent Twitter thread.
The easy places to bluff are on boards where many missed draws.
Let’s say the board runs out of 9-8-4-2-4. The opponent may have QJ, J-10, Q-10, 7-6 suited, 6-5 suited, A-3 suited, or A-5 suited. Lots of potential bluffs make it easier to hero call 9-x or 8-x even against a triple barrel bluff.
Now suppose the board doesn’t deliver these “natural bluffs” with busted draws. A board like 10-10-5-2-2 is much harder to bluff. This is where blockers come into play. Villain needs to be able to identify the hands that block Villain’s strong hands and break Villain’s weak hands.
You certainly don’t want to bluff with a 6, 7 or 9 in your hand as it blocks Villain’s folding range. This consists of 6-6 through 9-9 plus some weak ace-high on the flop and turn calls like A-9 suited or A-8 suited (I’m not saying it would be a good call, but it can happen). A hand like QJ or KQ blocks some stronger 10-x that might have played slowly or some stronger overpair that didn’t raise preflop like JJ or QQ.
Without going into too much detail, you can see that this point requires a deeper understanding of poker, especially blockers. Therefore, it will be more difficult for people to find the right hands to bluff and pull the trigger.
To be honest, I think the 10-10-5-2-2 board is not a great board to bluff in the first place as many weaker opponents will end up calling 8-8 type hands since I don’t like to believe you have trip or even aces and that they are too curious. Thus, it is always best to bluff on spots where opponents hit the river with ace-high or king-high flush draws or many weak pairs with draws that called the flop and turn and will fold to the river.
But again, I mostly focus on betting a lot of flops and continuing aggression on a lot of turns, but then not often bluffing into big pots on the river with low to medium bets. Being able to figure it out and stick to it may not be the most exciting style of play, but definitely the most lucrative approach if you’re looking to take poker more seriously.
Craig Tapscott: How does bluffing change at final tables?
Benjamin Rolle: It changes a lot, but both ways. This means that when you are the bigger stack, you will more often find spots that should be bluffed more aggressively as your opponent would have to fold a lot more.
And here’s the catch, “supposedly.” The language I’m using is essential. There is a huge difference between what people should do and what they will do. Even if you find spots where Villain should fold a lot, it doesn’t mean he will. And that can cost you a lot of money.
A great example is you are defending as the big stack from the big blind against a mid-stack (30 effective big blind stacks) and the board comes 6-6-5 and you intend to check-raise bluff and bet turn and put him all in to river or even donk lead, bet the turn and go all in on the river. Now, this is a terrible board for someone raising from early or middle position. Given his mid-stack position and short stacks at the final table, he needs to be careful and control his entire range. He doesn’t have a single hand that wants to play for stacks.
AA also wants to play a maximum of two streets by value. In a chip EV (chEV) scenario, we bet the flop, the turn, and go all in the river. Or even fail on the flop against potential 8-8/9-9 or tie. I’m not saying it’s a dream place in chEV situations, but it’s more reasonable to play for stacks rather than inside ICM situations at the final tables.
Also, given the huge nut advantage for the big stack who has all sorts of 6-x combos like 7-6 offsuit, 10-6 suited, J-6 suited etc., he will have a range of advantage (donking) since who has to take the initiative and can dictate the size of the pot. Now, since he has more sets than the mid-stack, he can have a lot of bluffs.
Even though the big blind has a lot of bluffs, the mid-stack has to start folding overpairs on the last few streets in case the big blind pushes him all in. Well, that’s not quite the case, especially for less experienced players. Their thought process looks like this. “I have an overpair, I’m at the top of my range, I have to call.” So you will get very few creases.
You can follow a GTO extension approach and have a lot of bluffs or play exploited, understand how humans, especially weaker and less experienced players, approach these points, have very few bluffs, get huge payouts when they have sets, and don’t bet your stack just because theory tells you to bluff these spots.
Against a strong opponent who understands ICM and these board dynamics as well as the nut and range advantage, it might be better to have more bluffs in these spots.
Also, another important factor below ICM are the size of the bet. In chEV (early and midgame tournaments), we want to use a lot of pot size bets and river overbets.
In the ICM we use 33 percent, 50 percent, and 66 percent bets more often, as we need to be more careful with our chips. Quite often you will already be applying a lot of pressure by betting two-thirds of the pot which could be half of your opponent’s stack since the ICM the pressure will come above it. Force your opponents into difficult situations by using these smaller values, especially in situations where the ranges are very wide, such as small blind versus big blind or late position (button, cutoff, hijack) versus blind.
The final table is all about using your chips wisely and also about choosing your opponents wisely. Betting 25% of the pot might put a lot of pressure against a stack of 10 big blinds, but no pressure against a stack of 50 big blinds. Keep that in mind. ♠