Watch the best poker players on the TV and you will be hard pushed to find one who does not play aggressively. Aggression is the key in Holdem, and at the forefront of every aggressive player's armoury is the weapon known as the semi-bluff.
A semi-bluff is a bet or raise with a drawing hand, and it works through a combination of two factors. Ideally, your opponent will pass and you will pick up the pot with nothing, but if he does call, you still have outs to make the winning hand.
It is quite a hard idea to grapple with at first that you should raise with drawing hands. Are these not the hands to flat call with?
Look at it this way. If you have both the nut flush draw and an open-ended straight draw, we worked out in the outs article that you are actually as good as 55% to win the pot. What this means is that, on average, 55% of the money going into the pot is coming back to you. You would prefer your opponent to pass, but if he does call your raise, you're only investing 50% into the pot from which you are taking 55%
Say you have the nut flush draw in a 3-way pot. If a raise from you is called in two spots (your investment here is 33% of the total), your 36% chance of making the flush means that the equity is in your favour.
What we are saying is that these drawing hands are even stronger than they seem, and you should almost always play them aggressively.
Even if you are only against one opponent with your 36% chance of winning, this combines with the chance that he will pass here, and makes the semi-bluff such a strong play.
Why is the semi-bluff so key?
Imagine the point of view of an opponent who is trying to read your play. If he knows you only raise with a big hand, he will generally make the correct decision. He will get out of the way unless he can beat you. If he sees that a big bet is less predictable and can either be a made hand or a semi-bluff, you will have achieved one of the major aims in poker. You will induce your opponent to make a mistake. Not only will he sometimes lay down the best hand when you are semi-bluffing, he will call you more often when you are playing the better hand.
This is one of the great benefits of an aggressive game- you will get a lot more action on your big hands.
Constructing a good semi-bluff
Just like when you make an outright bluff, you must construct a semi-bluff so that your opponent will find it believable. The key to this is that you should bet you hand similarly to the way you would if you were playing a big hand.
Let's take a situation where you have called a raise from the big blind with A10 of spades. You see a flop heads-up of QJ2, with two spades. A player who is easy to read will bet out with this drawing hand, but with a strong hand will check, hoping for a check raise. If an observant opponent picks up on this, they will invariably do the right thing and not make any mistakes.
Instead, if you do flop a drawing hand, play for the check raise. It is a play that most opponents will credit as being stronger. Do not make the check raise too big, especially if you would not do so with a strong made hand.
One lovely technique that makes your hand look even stronger is the two-stage bluff. The idea is that you make a small check raise on the flop, maybe even so small that your opponent has to call, and then follow up with a decent-sized bet on the turn. The bet on the flop is used to reinforce your bluff on the turn.
An even stronger play is the three-stage bluff. A good player may decide on the flop that they are going to bet all three streets to the river, even if they miss. On one hand the river bet is an outright bluff with nothing, but really it is functioning as part of the overall semi-bluff. If you are going to bluff on the end with nothing, this is in fact the best scenario, as the bluff is backed up by all the strength you have shown on the previous streets.
Bluffing to fit the player
Statements we have made like "your opponent will read a check-raise as stronger" are only true of most players. As you develop your game, you will learn to pick up on the style of individual players, and adjust accordingly.
If a player seems to be scared of people betting out, then of course use that as your semi-bluff.
Against a thinking player, the three-stage bluff is a great play as they will credit you with more strength every time you bet. However, there is a group of players for whom the opposite is true, and against whom you should beware of these deep bluffs. Some players find it increasingly difficult to fold their hand as they put more chips into the pot. They are what I would describe as an emotional player, and they attach themselves too strongly to the pot once they have a big investment in it.
Extending the semi-bluff
The most obvious time to make a semi-bluff is when you are drawing to a flush or a straight, but it can also be an effective move when you hit the bottom pair on the board. For example, the board comes A105, you sense some uncertainty in your opponent, and decide to raise him back with 65. This will give him a tough decision with a pocket pair, or even a weak ace, and he may lay down. If he does not, of course you still have outs. They are the 5 cards that will make you two pair or three of a kind. Because there are fewer outs (5 outs you will remember is a 20% chance from the flop), you need to feel that there is a decent chance your opponent will pass.
Ed note: Stuart Rutter is a regular on the EPT circuit and the sponsored professional at 32Red Poker - join today for a $500 bonus when you deposit