A large part of the appeal of poker has always been the bluff, the ability to represent a stronger (or weaker) hand than you actually have, inducing a different play from your opponent than they would have ordinarily made, and thus increasing your chip stack. Poker will always be a game of incomplete information, and until we develop X-ray vision to see through the back of our opponents' cards, there will always be bluffing.
My typical advice to beginning players when they talk about bluffing is very simple - don't. Most beginners need to concentrate on playing their hands in a very straightforward manner, focusing on what hand they have and what hand they think their opponents have. This is the root of "ABC poker", and is enough for a beginner to concentrate on, without cluttering up their style with trying a lot of bluffs or trying to guess when an opponent is bluffing. As a player becomes more comfortable with the mechanics of the game, they can begin to incorporate more bluffing into their play.
Obviously there are many ways to bluff, from pushing a lot of chips around the table with absolute junk cards like 2-7 off suit, to more sophisticated styles of hand representation. We're going to ignore the stone cold "I have nothing please don't call me" bluff, and focus on a couple of more sophisticated and more frequently successful types of bluffs.
The first type of bluff, and the most common, is a partial bluff called a continuation bet. This bluff, described extremely well by WSOP champion Dan Harrington (in his excellent books Harrington on Hold ‘Em volume I & II), is the move you make when you took the first aggressive action pre-flop, then the flop missed you and you bet out anyway, hoping to induce a fold from your remaining opponents.
For example, you hold A-K suited and bet triple the big blind from the button. You have one caller and the flop comes 10-high of three different suits. It's entirely possible that you're a-K is the best hand, but it may not be. You make a continuation bet; continuing your preflop action, of about half the pot, and your opponent folds their pocket sixes. You had the worst hand, but by representing strength pre-flop and continuing to represent that strength post-flop, you convinced your opponent that you had a strong hand, and induced a fold.
Since the popularity of Harrington's book has increased, this tactic has become more transparent to educated opponents, creating a sub-tactic, the delayed continuation bet. This is where you bet pre-flop, the flop misses your hand, and you check around, intending to bet strongly on the turn. This delay of one card has the advantages of hiding your tactic and giving you the opportunity to catch your card on the turn, but has the disadvantage of giving your opponent the same opportunity to catch their card.
One thing to keep in mind when planning a continuation bet or a delayed continuation bet is that most flops miss most hands. So this is a relatively safe bluff to make most of the time. If you keep your bluff bet to a small enough range that you aren't pot committed if someone raises you, then you can easily fold your bluff if an opponent shows strength in playing back at you. Another important aspect of bluffing is to know when to fold. You are, after all, bluffing, and you will sometimes get caught trying to steal chips. Do not make the error of over committing chips to a bluff. You'll have plenty of opportunities later to extract chips from your opponents by playing solid poker. Remember that poker is all one long session and no one hand will make or break you as a player.
If you've been paying attention to your opponents, you have an idea of the type of hands they are likely to call a preflop raise with, and the types of hands they will lay down when facing aggressive action. If they are likely to call preflop with suited connectors, a continuation bet on a flop with two a suit may not be wise. If they are likely to call preflop with any Ace, a continuation bet on an Ace-high flop is probably a losing proposition.
As with anything, the continuation bet is a tool to be added to your play, not something to be used every hand. As with any bluff, the fewer opponents you are facing, the better your chances are of winning the hand. A bluff into an uncoordinated board with over cards is much more likely to be a winner against one opponent than against five.
Another mistake that many players make upon first adopting the continuation bet into their strategy is to always bet if they have raised preflop. This is a good way to lose a stack of chips, as your opponents will quickly adapt to this style, allow you to do their betting for them, and send your chips across the felt when they hit a monster hand. It's important to mix up your bluffs with your solid plays, and to vary the amounts of your bets to keep your opponents off-balance.
The continuation bet and delayed continuation bet are very strong tools to have in your game, but just like trying to fix a Mercedes with a sledgehammer, it's not the right tool for every job. So add it to your poker toolbox and bring it out when the time is right. Next time we'll look at the semi-bluff, and how to bet your strong drawing hands, concepts that are very closely related.