All you need to do is put on your best poker face and trick your opponents unnoticed – how hard is that? Well, to be honest, mastering a convincing bluff is a lot harder than you might think.
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That’s because when we lie our body language can give us away, with the most obvious being our eye movement. There’s a great myth that when we lie our eyes shift to the left, which although uncorroborated may have some truth. Blinking heavily and avoiding eye contact are both tell-tale signs that your brain is struggling as it’s under pressure from lying, whereas telling the truth is less stressful and our body language is therefore more relaxed.
Strange hand movements can also be a good indication of a liar. People who are telling lies will often bring their hands to their mouth as their brain is unsure of what exactly to say to keep the lie alive. Similarly, trying to create a barrier such as folded arms or holding something between yourself and the person you’re lying to, is a big clue. Of course, these latter signs can be hard to spot in a poker player holding cards at a table.
Indeed, despite knowing the signs of lying, people still find them incredibly hard to spot. A study by Paul Ekman entitled What the Face Reveals found that as little as 50% of us are actually able to spot any of these untruthful traits in other people. So how do professional players know when opponents are bluffing?
It takes a lot of research and studying of your competitors to learn some of their behavioural traits. Take Australia’s finest poker player Joe Hachem. Despite being a world-class player Hachem still gives away clues about his hand in his actions. In a study into eye contact and waiting it was shown that players who have weaker hands will play slower and study their opponents more closely while those with stronger hands will play quicker, urging their opponents to play more bets.
In the study you can see Hachem playing against amateur Ken Hrankowski. Hrankowski is seen to play slowly, trying to study Hachem’s every move while Hachem plays quickly with good eye contact, which backs up this poker bluffing theory as ultimately Hachem had the better hand.
Of course, studying your opponent and the laws of body language is just one half of the bluffing battle. You also need to know how and when to bluff yourself, something that can be incredibly difficult for inexperienced players.
If you do want to use bluffing in your tactics then it should be based on the opponents that you are facing. Ideally, bluffing against only one player is the most advantageous, however this isn’t always the case. Perhaps the most important aspect in whether or not to bluff is knowing your opponent’s recent game history. For instance, a player who has lost a lot recently may be more protective of their chips so will be more susceptible to bluffs.
The other important deciding factor in when to bluff comes down to your table image. If others see you as a tight player who bets little, a bluff where you bet strong will be more likely to be seen as a strong hand meaning your bluff could work. On the other hand if you freely place big bets others will see you as a wild player and almost never take your bets seriously meaning your bluffs are more likely to fail.
Ultimately, the art of bluffing is a complex strategy which can take years of practice to master. If you want to get it right you’ll need to observe both professionals and your own opponents so that reading body language becomes second nature.