Bluffing is very different from lying. While both rely on deception, a great bluff is like a work of art. It contains layers of complexity and plausibility and is crafted to withstand significant scrutiny and pressure.
A lie is generally harmless, like pretending to have watched some Netflix series, to avoid a lengthy conversation with an annoying workmate. A good bluff on the other hand is normally prepared in advance and has been carefully constructed to contain nuggets of truth. Example: An individual has attained a law degree from the University of Western Samoa via correspondence. He might however, visit the grounds of Harvard University and touch the limestone walls, loiter in the libraries, wander the sporting fields, dine in the cafeteria, and memorise the names of some of some relevant professors. He is preparing an audacious bluff that will yield a highly paid employment position that might not otherwise have been achieved. Preparation is key. The interviewing panel might ask nothing of the Harvard years, but if they do, the bluffer is ready to tell a very convincing story that will cause his inquisitors to conduct no further inquiries. The story needs to be completely watertight, and although rehearsed, must flow naturally with the occasional pause and stammer as he wistfully recalls the wild varsity years in the hallowed halls of Harvard Law School.
Badly executed bluffs are those delivered on the spot with insufficient preparation. Bad bluffers go through life supporting their arguments with unverified sources that they miraculously pull out of thin air. “I have a friend who you’ve never met who works in nuclear power generation, and he told me for sure that (insert poor bluff). You can call him if you like, he lives in London, so it will be 3 am over there, but wait, I’ll get his phone number.” Some seemingly great bluffs have one tiny weakness that can be exploited causing them to spectacularly unravel. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky.” Wait, what, there’s a semen-stained dress?
The most common form of bluffing occurs in the game of poker. The goal of the poker bluff is to create doubt in an opponent’s mind and avoid being exploited. A contestant who never bluffs will struggle to get paid when they make a strong hand because their betting strategy lacks balance. Great poker players employ Game Theory Optimisation and have a delicate equilibrium between spots when they’re bluffing, and spots when they know they have the best hand. This causes uncertainty and opposing players can never know for sure when it’s profitable to call their cunning bets. Like other bluffs, those in poker need to represent something specific. If a flush arrives on the river, and it’s conceivable that you have it, and unlikely that your opponent does, and you have a weak hand that cannot win at showdown, now is the time to bluff. The bluff is more likely to succeed if you are holding one of the flush cards but not two. This is the kernel of truth that supports the fictional narrative. Bad poker bluffs are ones that make no sense. A meaningless three of hearts hits the river and a player shoves all in. His opponent is confused, wondering how this card could possibly change the status of their respective hands. The bluffer gets called because his story does not compute, and loses it all.
When caught bluffing at the poker table, which will be inevitable no matter how well your deceptions are constructed, the best response is to open your cards with a proud flourish, slap them down like they are something magnificent. Two things can occur – your opponent can be blinded by your confidence, assume you have something strong and throw away his winning hand, or the assembled players will raise an eyebrow and gently rub their hands with anticipation. They now have you pegged as a bluffer. This is known in poker parlance as ‘advertising’. Opponents will now be obliged to call you down much lighter, and pay you off next time you make a large bet, and the time after that. A player that is never caught bluffing is not utilising all aspects of their available arsenal.
The ultimate bluffing movie is ‘The Sting’ starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman. The final scene is one of bluffing perfection.
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