I can’t tell you exactly how often people are bluffing. Nobody can tell you the answer to that question. If they tell you they know the answer with absolute certainty and they’re trying to sell you something, then they’re lying and you should run in the other direction as fast as possible.
My results are based on a long and arduous study of the 2016 WSOP Main Event. I watched every televised minute and recorded how often players were bluffing on their river bets vs. how often they were not bluffing on their river bets. This required a lot of pause and rewind.
A few things to keep in mind here. One, this study didn’t include the hands that were not televised. Two, people know when they’re being recorded, which has the potential to influence their actions. Three, this is only for big river bets. It does not include pre-flop, flop, or turn bets. All that said, I think the results are eye-opening. They reveal something I have believed to be true for a long time based on experiences.
After all that studying and recording, here are the results I came up with:
Bluffing: 28% of the time.
Not Bluffing: 72% of the time.
This confirms what Doyle Brunson, Dan Harrington, and many other poker pros have written about: They usually have it. In other words, when someone bets big on the river, they usually have a hand. The reason you think people are bluffing more often is because those instances stick out more in your mind. Another reason might be because it makes for good television, which is why ESPN broadcasts more of those hands. Then you start thinking that big river bluffs equates to good poker.
Don’t get me wrong. There are definitely times to pull off big river bluffs, but the circumstances must be right, such as vs. a tight or soft player. You must have a very strong idea on what that player is holding, and you must be able to represent something on the board that will scare that opponent. It would also be wise to save these big river bluffs for big pots. I sometimes see these kinds of moves made on small pots and cringe. It must be an ego thing, which makes sense since ego is your biggest enemy at the poker table.
It’s extremely rare that I bluff big on the river. It has certainly happened, but it’s not my style. My bluffs are mostly on the flop and turn for smaller amounts, which reduces risk and still allows me an opportunity to steal the pot.
The most important takeaway is that when your opponent bets big on the river, they usually have it. There will be times when your opponent is bluffing, but it would serve you best to change your mentality on this. Instead of always thinking you’re being bluffed, begin thinking that your opponent likely has it … unless you have an excellent read. I will only call big river bluffs if I’m at least 90% sure my opponent is bluffing.