Mastering the Psychology of the Bluff in Poker


They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Well, that’s certainly the case when it comes to poker. And as far as bluffing is concerned, there are also the hands, eyebrows, nostrils, heart rate and body language to consider. So you may have heard all about the wonderful art of the bluff, and you may have even performed a deception or two in your free-play online games.

Yet when your own cash is on the line, it’s a lot harder to hide those all-important ‘tells’ – the ones which let your fellow players and the house know that you’re sitting on a king-high, but are still determined to see the hand through to the bitter end. Not to worry: in most cases bluffing is an art form that can be learnt and perfected. At the very least, an awareness of the key giveaways can be the difference between bluffing your way to a handy stack win and leaving the table empty-handed.

The Telltale Tells

It almost always shows when someone's lying or keeping a secret and this is a good thing for poker players who want to spot a bluff... or isn't it? To help you a little, we've listed the most common key tells that let others know you’re on the bluff.

The Eyes Have It

If you flick on the major World Series of Poker events, you’ll notice that quite a few of the players wear sunglasses. It’s criminally uncool to wear shades indoors, so there must be a good reason why the poker pros ignore fashion convention. Thankfully, there is: the eyes are perhaps the biggest emotional giveaway in the human anatomy. Pupils dilating, eyeballs darting, no eye contact – these are common tells that a player is holding an awful hand but intends on seeing the turn card at the very least.

Hear No Evil

Verbal clues are as important a part of the bluffer’s armoury as body movements. What a player says – or doesn’t say – can actually be as revealing as their eyes darting or their nostrils flaring to cavernous proportions. But to really take advantage of verbal tells, you need to know the person before leaping to conclusions about their vocal pronouncements. Are they naturally talkative? People tend to talk more when they’re nervous. If a normally shy and retiring type suddenly bursts into life with chatter then they may be trying to hide something.

In local poker games, the noise levels tend to be higher than at the professional end of the spectrum, with those amateurs who fancy themselves as a real player often the worst culprit. So study their behaviour. Is the guy that sighs and says ‘well, I guess I’d better carry on now’ at the flop genuinely disappointed, or simply trying to bluff their way to a win?

Time Waits For No Man

This can be a key tell too – just how long are your fellow players taking to make a decision? Obviously when playing online with a timer, this is taken care of artificially. But in physical games when somebody who’s usually quick to call or fold suddenly starts to slow down their activity, it’s often a sign they’re bluffing. They’re simply taking the time to calculate the financial cost of their actions.

Becoming the Bluff King

Whether you’re trying to deceive your way through a poor hand, or play down the fact you’ve picked up pocket aces, bluffing is a skill that takes practise, guts and skill. To help you on your way, here are a few quick pointers to start with:

Be Consistent

As mentioned above, the most obvious tells are the ones that are wholly out of character – the sudden need to talk, the change in body language, the time taken to make the call/raise. The remedy is to remain consistent in your actions throughout the game, whether you’re trying to make the most of pocket aces or bluff your way with a pair of threes. This is easier said than done, admittedly.

Timing is Key

The player that plays every hand will automatically be picked off by their fellow players. They’ll know that, percentage wise, this rash individual will lose with poor hands more often than not. The polar opposite is the player that folds every hand apart from the occasional foray. This is a sure-fire sign they have a good hand. The best bluffers are the ones that are selective in their approach. So make sure your strategy is locked in before a card is dealt.

Perfect Your Poker Face

When an opponent thinks you're bluffing they’ll stare right at you – hard. While that might be considered a bit rude in everyday life, in poker it’s just part and parcel of the game. So ensure your poker face is up to scratch – a twitch here, a change in eye contact there, and your ruse will be rumbled.