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Defense Against The Semi-Bluff

The Power of The Semi-Bluff

Let's say you're playing seven-card stud. You have a pair of jacks, and on fifth street your opponent bets. You know he has a big hand. So your response is easy: You fold. Suppose you know your opponent is bluffing with nothing. Again your response is easy: You raise. Suppose you think he has you beat with two small pair, but you're getting sufficient pot odds for a call. So you call. Straight forward bets, straight forward responses.

But what if your opponent is not so straightforward? What if he's the kind of player who might be betting with a legitimate hand but might also be semi-bluffing? He's not always semi-bluffing, of course. That would also make it too easy to respond, because if you know an opponent is semi-bluffing when he bets, you can simply raise with anything, and he will probably fold. The problem arises when you think an opponent may be semi-bluffing but can't be sure he does not have a legitimate hand. What's more, if he doesn't have a legitimate hand now, he may get it later - or he may look like he's gotten it later.

It turns out there aren't many defenses against the semi-bluff, which is why it is such a powerful play. Frequently the best play against a possible semi-bluff is to fold, especially when the pot is small. All right, your opponent has beaten you. He may even have made you throw away the best hand. But if you call his bet, he has three other ways of beating you. He may in fact have had the best hand when he bet. He may have been semi-bluffing, but he now outdraws you. Or he may have been semi-bluffing, but he proceeds to catch scare cards that force you to fold. Therefore, though you may have thrown away what was the best hand at the moment, still your opponent had too many ways of beating you to justify your calling his bet.

Even when you think you are favored to have the best hand, it may be correct to fold. Let's say you think it's a little better than even money that your opponent is semi-bluffing. For convenience, we'll say you think there are a 52 percent chance he's semi-bluffing and a 48 percent chance he has a good hand. If he is semi-bluffing, you figure you're a 6-to-5 favorite to beat him. However, if he isn't semi-bluffing and has the hand he's representing, you're virtually locked out. Thus, 52 percent of the time you're a favorite to win. Should you call his bet? Many professionals as well as amateurs make the mistake of calling in such situations, but unless the pot is large, the correct play is to fold.

Let's work it out mathematically. You lose almost automatically 48 percent of the time. Of the remaining 52 percent, you'll win an average of six out of 11 hands (since you estimate yourself to be a 6-to-5 favorite). In other words, you'll lose almost half the time when you're a slight favorite and virtually all of the time when you're a big underdog. You stand to win the hand only 29 percent of the time in all. To call the bet then, you would need to be getting at least 7-to-3 effective odds from the pot, which is not very likely in an early betting round. Hence, the correct play would normally be to fold.

The Difficulty of Defending Against the Semi-Bluff

To illustrate the difficulty of defending against the semi-bluff, we'll take a seven-card stud hand from semi-bluffing in the preceding topic and reverse roles:

Suppose you bet on fourth street, and your opponent raises. Knowing your opponent is fully capable of semi-bluffing in this spot with something like a pair of 7s in the hole; you still should probably not call with a pair of 9s. He may in fact have a pair of queens or jacks. Or he may be semi-bluffing with four-flush. The problem is that your pair of 9s is no favorite over four-flush with a jack and a queen. Thus, if your opponent has a pair of jacks, a pair of queens, or two pair, you may lose because he already has you beat; and if he has a four-flush, you may lose because he outdraws you (which with his over cards as well, he's a favorite to do). Even if your opponent has nothing better than a gut-shot straight draw, your two 9s with a king kicker are not a hand to be excited about. Consequently, even though you suspect this opponent is semi-bluffing, it doesn't do you much good to call with a poor hand because you have two ways of losing: You may lose to a legitimate hand or by being outdrawn.

Suppose you grit your teeth, close your eyes, and call your opponent's bet. on the table and deals the next card: you to make a mistake, according to the Fundamental Theorem of Online Poker Games, in contrast to what you would have done if you could see your opponent's hand. Your opponent gained, and you lost. However, not knowing what your opponent had, you did make the only sensible play.

The Semi-Bluff Raise as a Defense against the Semi-Bluff

While the confrontation just described shows the difficulty of defending against the semi-bluff, it also demonstrates one of the best defensive counter-strategies against it -the semi-bluff raise. Notice that when you bet into a pair of 9s in the hole and K, 5 showing, you were semi-bluffing yourself. You were trying to represent kings in the hope that your opponent would fold with a pair of queens, a pair of jacks, or a worse hand. It turns cut your opponent did have a worse hand - a pair of 7s and a three-flush. But what did he do instead of folding? He raised. He made a semi-bluff raise into a possible pair of kings with a three flush and a small pair. Of course, if you had really had two kings, he'd be in trouble. But since you were semi-bluffing yourself, as your opponent suspected, his semi-bluff raise turned the tables on you. It put you on the defensive and him in the driver's seat.

To elucidate the effect of this type of play further, we'll talk about stealing the antes. Stealing antes is one form of the semi-bluff. A player raises immediately, representing a strong hand, and makes it too expensive, given the size of the pot, for a mediocre hand to continue. A simple example would be from seven-card razz, where the high card typically has to make a small bet to start the action and a low card usually raises.

Let's say you have a low card showing, with a second low card and a king in the hole. One player behind you also has a low card showing. With a two-card low, you do not have a legitimate hand, but nevertheless, you're in a profitable semi-bluffing situation because you suspect that if you raise, one of two things can happen. The low card might fold behind me, in which case you win the antes immediately since the high cards will also fold. Or the low card might call, in which case you're in trouble.

However, all is not lost because my bet was not a pure bluff but a semi-bluff. You have an extra chance to win if you catch a little card on the next round and my opponent catches a big card.

When you bet at that point, your opponent is likely to fold. If he calls, well, we both presumably have three-card lows, so you can't be too much of an underdog. You may still make the best low hand and win in the showdown.

When you semi-bluff, then, you are looking to win in one of three ways -by making your opponents fold, by catching a scare card on the next round to make them fold, or by drawing out on them and producing the best hand in the showdown. This combination of possibilities makes you the favorite when you raise.

But what happens when, instead of calling my raise, that low card behind me reraises? Suddenly my semi-bluff has been shattered.

The Semi-Bluff Raise as a Defense Against the Semi-Bluff

When you re-raise a possible semi-bluff in such situations, your opponent is pretty much forced to fold when you've caught him without a legitimate hand. For instance, in seven-card stud a player with May raise against a jack showing in attempt to steal the antes. Even if the jack calls, the semi-bluffer may catch an ace or a king on the next card, giving him the best hand against two jacks, or he may catch a scare card like a queen suited with the king. Therefore, you should usually re-raise with a decent hand like two jacks. If the king is semi-bluffing and doesn't have two jacks beat, you are applying pressure on him to fold or call with the worst hand. Of course, we can take this situation a step further. The original semi-bluffer could make a semi-bluff re-raise if he thinks there's a reasonable chance the obvious pair of jacks will give up and fold.

Observe, though, that in none of these instances is a simple call any kind of a defense when you suspect you're up against a possible semi-bluff. You should not say to yourself, "This may be a semi-bluff, and I may have the best hand. Therefore, I'll call." When you call, you are faced with the problem that your opponent may subsequently make the best hand if he doesn't have it already or he may look like he's made it. However, when you raise, you probably take away these latter two possibilities. An opponent will call - or perhaps re-raise - with a legitimate hand, but he will very possibly fold if he was semi-bluffing. Even if he does call, it is with the worse hand. Another advantage to your raise is that it will deter your opponent from semi-bluffing against you in the future, and still another is that you are getting more money in the pot when an opponent calls with a worse hand.

To repeat, when you suspect an opponent may be semi-bluffing, you still have to fold most of your hands - like that pair of 9s earlier in the topic. However, when you have a hand that is worth a call, in most cases you should raise. This is just one of many situations in poker where, when folding is not the best play, raising is, and calling is the worst of the three alternatives.

There is a situation that frequently comes up in hold 'em which calls for a semi-bluff raise. You're in last position, and you pick up something like a pretty fair starting hand. Suddenly the man to your right raises, and you suspect he's using his late position to try to steal the antes. Since your hand is too good to fold, you must re-raise. You must not let the first raiser have that extra double chance of winning on a semi-bluff. Similarly, as we saw earlier, if you're the last low card in razz and the next-to-last low card raises, very possibly as a semi-bluff, you cannot simply call with a decent hand and give your opponent two extra ways of winning. Even with a hand as marginal as you must re-raise to make that player fold or pay with his poor hands.

You gain another advantage when you make this kind of response. You do not want to have an opponent who is semi-bluffing with the correct frequency. By picking off his semi-bluffs, you reduce the times he'll try it on those occasions when he ought to. Your re-raise has forced him to think twice about semi-bluffing in the future.


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