When people of think of bluffing, a few different things probably come to mind. First, they’ll associate a bluff with a lie, but it’s more functional and socially accepted than a lie, as it exists in a specific competitive circumstance. Second, they’ll probably imagine stony-faced poker players sitting around a table eyeing one another.
For the most part, bluffing has been associated with poker. After all, it’s perfectly legal for players to manipulate one another through strategic betting (and possibly avoiding eye contact). Most fans of the game also have a few memorable and iconic moments etched into their memory when bluffing either paid off big or sunk a player.
However, bluffing is actually a deeply ingrained aspect of game theory. Game theory is a mathematical exploration of probability that can be applied to a variety of fields; in addition to poker, economists and professional coaches will also use bluffing to improve the likelihood of a desired outcome.
First, let’s dive into the definition and purpose of bluffing, as well as how it can be used in everyday life and, of course, how to develop the skills to pull off a successful bluff.
Applying Game Theory to Poker
In the early 20th century, a mathematician named John von Neumann sought to create a unique form of math that could be applied to poker and, beyond that, strategic pursuits of all stripes. The idea was to create a mathematical model that could be used to build strategy based on rational decision-making within a controlled environment (in poker, this means a certain amount of cards of precise value).
What began as an exercise in mathematics, strategy, and poker soon saw applications in science and economics. While Neumann worked with a two-player game, other scholars like John Forbes Nash Jr. applied his work to larger and more complex games.
One of the biggest elements of game theory was the ability for players to prove that poker isn’t a game of luck, but one of skill. However, in order to use game theory successfully, a player will need to understand when and how to apply a bluff.
A Strategic Lie
At its most basic, a bluff is a strategic move in which one person will deceive another about their intentions or the extent of their knowledge. In poker, this is used to push another player to fold even if their cards are of higher value. In an economic field, it might be used to encourage an opponent to opt into (or out of) a deal during negotiations.
The bluff has also been applied with great success to sports teams. For example, the US’s NFL league runs on playbooks. According to game theory, a bluff on the field will increase their unpredictability and therefore decrease an opponent’s chance of blocking their play. This is known as a mixed strategy.
Improving Bluffing Skills
Clearly, there are a handful of acceptable applications for the bluff. Though bluffing in business might strain relationships between two groups, it’s one of the most valuable skills in a poker pro’s toolset. For those looking to harness their inner Phill Hellmuth, they’ll first need to understand the ins and outs of poker strategy.
After all, the bluff is a controlled lie that should only be used when a player can guess the range of their opponent’s hand. So, the first step to bluffing well is know when to do it. The second step is to know who to target in a bluff. Remember, you’re playing on the probability of another player’s hand while only knowing what you have.
The style and mechanics of bluffing come after mathematic strategy. One common pitfall is for players to ‘come out bluffing’. A bluff should be nuanced rather than straightforward, with a player conveying the ups and downs of the game to convince players they’re dynamically reacting to each turn.
From there, some pros advocate for ‘believing in your own lie’ in order to build a sense of confidence that other players will take note of. Once again, know which opponent you’re targeting, as they may or may not be influenced by a confident attitude. Some might not be observing other players at all.