Four rules for successful three-bet bluffing preflop

CardRunners pro Matt ‘MDoranD’ Doran explains his four rules to successful three-bet bluffing preflop…

I think that if you follow these four rules and look for spots to use them you will be picking the most effective situations in which you can three-bet bluff. These rules are in an order of priority but they all have their place and are all key. The more of these rules that are in your favour, the better the spot it is to three-bet bluff.

Rule #1 – Pick the right opponent

This has to be the most important thing you do when choosing whether to three-bet bluff. We don’t even have to choose our opponents very often when choosing to three-bet for value because we just expect our opponents to call with worse. We don’t have to be so selective there but this is not the same when bluffing.

We now need to be very selective because we need someone who will fold – that is the whole point of bluffing! This gets lost along the way with quite a few people. Sometimes it may be an ego-based decision where they three-bet someone who is unlikely to fold, but this will be an unsuccessful approach long-term. Choose someone who will actually fold!

How do you narrow this down to players who are more likely to fold? If you have Hold’em Manager or a similar tracking program then look for stats on players such as a high fold to three-bet percentage. Also, work out what type of player you think your opponent is. Is he a TAG, a nit or even a fish? Remember that three-bet bluffing fish preflop is generally a mistake because you should expect a fish not to fold for one more bet. That’s my definition of a fish actually – someone who doesn’t fold when they are supposed to!

Here’s an easy example of a good opponent to three-bet bluff. In a $100NL game the button raises to $2 and we are in the small blind with A♣-3♣. Our opponent is playing 20% of hands and folding to three-bets 65% of the time. From the stats we can clearly see he is not a fish. We three-bet to $9 and he folds. Players who fold to three-bets this much are the right type to bluff. 

Rule #2 – Pick the right spot

You want to usually pick spots where your opponents’ ranges are wide, which is often when they are opening hands from late position such as the cutoff or button. Also, make sure that there are no big fish left to act behind you. three-bet bluffing in front of the main target at the table is not only less effective (because the fish may overcall), but it’s also just generally a poor overall strategy.

This is because we have to remember where the money comes from, it’s from people that you have a decided advantage over. So if you have a big fish still left to act you don’t want to bluff in front of him. He will continue with a wide range and you now won’t have the best hand against them.

Picking spots where your opponent’s ranges are wide is very important. Of course, you can be successful in trying to bluff opponents who have opened under-the-gun but you have to understand that these are going to be ranges that will be much tighter. They certainly will have some hands that will fold to a three-bet but they will have much fewer hands that will fold when opening under the gun than if they are on the button. The average TAG will open around 15% of hands under the gun and 35% on the button – it’s a significantly wider range.

Here is an example of picking the right spot. A tighter player opens under-the-gun, a very loose player calls in the cutoff and we are on the button with J-9 offsuit. We three-bet here which I think is a very poor spot. First of all, we have a tighter player under-the-gun who is not likely to fold to a three-bet – so why are we challenging him? Then we look at the cutoff who is a player that is likely to be calling our three-bet because he is loose.

We will not get two folds very often here so should fold. A better spot would be this. Our tight opponent folds to three-bets 68% of the time and opens on the button. We will expect his range to be wide and we have K-4 in the big blind. He raises, we three-bet and he folds. 

Rule #3 – Pick the right hand

Now we have picked the right opponent and the right spot we need to make sure we have the right hand. Not all bluffing hands have the same value to you. Just because it is a bluff doesn’t mean you should use absolute air like J-2 offsuit – other hands can have more value. What are the best hands to use to three-bet bluff with? There are two types really. The first is a ‘blocker bluff’, this is a type of hand with a blocker to the types of hand that your opponent must have to continue versus a three-bet. This includes A-x and K-x suited hands. These are hands that aren’t quite good enough to call a raise with preflop (they are the next hands down from that).

The second type of hand is a ‘connector bluff’. These are suited gappers that don’t have the blocker value of the previous type but they give you the advantage in pots that do see a flop because they will often flop a little bit more equity in terms of pairs and draws. Examples include T-8 and 7-5 suited. 

Here’s an example of how to do this and how not to do it. We get dealt A-J and the cutoff, a relatively tight player, raises before us. If we decide to three-bet this hand it should be for value where we expect to get called by worse hands such as A-T or K-Q or as a bluff, which would require him to fold an extremely tight range. The problem is that he is not folding A-Q very much and he’s not calling with a lot worse! This is a very bad hand to three-bet bluff with (it’s also not a great value three-bet either).

So what is a good hand to three-bet bluff with? The button opens – playing 22/19 – and seems like the type of opponent that might fold to a lot of three-bets. We have K-7 in the small blind. It’s the right type of hand because it’s a blocker hand and we can clearly expect him to fold some better hands to our three-bet. Plus, even if he calls we can make big hands like flushes and a pair of Kings – it’s an excellent hand with which to bluff. 

Rule #4 – Consider your dynamic

It’s not enough just to consider the first three variables – the dynamic at play on the table can be crucial too. What do I mean by this? I want you to think about what your opponent thinks of you. Does he think you are an unknown? That would be an example of a good spot to three-bet bluff. Does he think that you are really tight? Again, that would be an excellent spot to bluff! Has it been a long time since you three-bet that particular opponent? This would be another spot that will have a high likelihood of success.

On the other hand if you have been really going after him all session then be less likely to three-bet bluff as he probably won’t believe you. Instead you should steer towards three- betting for value. And finally, if either of you are tilting then you should wait. Do not three-bet bluff in these spots. If he is tilting he will make bad decisions and may not fold when he should – he may even raise! Be honest with yourself too, if you are tilting it’s better to take a breather and not go down this road. You may make worse postflop decisions and this could lead to some major spew. 

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