Sniffing out the Overbet Bluff

Overbetting the pot is an effective tool in a competent player’s arsenal, but weaker players often do it haphazardly simply because they think they can get away with it. A hand will have little or no action past the flop, when all of a sudden a player fires out a big overbet on the turn or river (usually the river). This bet can be anywhere from slightly larger to a good 3 or 4 times the pot. Just last week I saw a player shove $60 into a $7 pot. I want to get you out of the habit of instantly mucking in this spot with an average holding and figure out when you’re likely ahead.

I’m playing a $1/$2 cash game at Mohegan Sun when a player sits down and makes this play twice within an hour. Both times the pot is limped pre-flop, there is a bet on the flop or turn (but not both), and the pot is around $25 - 35 going to the river. This particular player bets about twice the pot on the river, and both times the bet works (I never see her cards). I do notice that she gives the table a knowing smirk each time she scrapes the pot. I normally don’t give much credence to physical tells, but this is a case where you need to pay close attention to body language and facial expressions. I play the following hand with her about 30 minutes after she makes her last big overbet:

$1/$2, I’m in middle position with around 100 big blinds, everyone else has widely varying stack sizes from as many as 300 big blinds to as little as 50. Villain is in the small blind, also with around 100 big blinds.

Two players limp in and I look down at 9♣10♣. I limp, the button and blinds call, and we see a flop. Six players. Pot is $12.

Flop: 2♣10Q

Checks all the way around, and we head to the turn.

Turn: 2♣10Q8

The villain leads out for $5 which gets folded around to the player on my right, who calls. I’m acting second to last with second pair and an inside straight draw, which seems like a reasonable call in this spot (there’s also an argument for raising). The button folds. Three players to the river, and the pot is $27.

River: 2♣10Q85

The villain fires out $55. The player to my right instantly mucks. Most players look down at their weak middle pair and instantly throw it away. But I know I have an actual decision to make. In spots like this I tend to take a lot of time to think. Too much time. This serves two purposes - obviously I can run through all possibilities and make the best possible decision, but the real reason is to assess the villain.

After a somewhat uncomfortably long time I look directly at her and say, “I can beat a bluff.” She smiles weakly and shifts in her chair. As I said earlier, I don’t typically rely on physical tells, but in this situation (a casual player making a potentially expensive mistake) I’m fairly sure I have her beat. Sure, she might have a weak queen or weird two pair, but her range is so enormous in a limped pot it's much more likely she has nothing. I call and she reluctantly shows total air, J7. She made a semi-bluff with her draw on the turn (quite reasonable) and when it missed she turned her hand into a big bluff (somewhat questionable given her action in prior hands).

Five things to note here:

1) I have to be more frequently correct with my call because of the pot odds. When she bets $55 into a $27 pot, I’m only getting 1.5 to 1 on my call. I need to be right almost half the time to show a profit. There’s nothing wrong with getting bluffed here occasionally if I don’t have enough information to be reasonably confident in my call. Just fold and keep the hand in mind for the future.

2) Look for spots where a draw likely missed. If a heart, jack, or nine completes this board I’m a little wary of a big overbet and even more wary of a normal size bet (but obviously calling any non-heart jack as that gives me a straight). The villain’s overbet in this spot is a reaction to missing her draw and trying to claim the pot anyway.

3) Creative players have this play in their arsenal and know when to employ it. If I see a competent player make a bet like this, I’m much more wary of calling. Sharks can sense when an opponent might be willing to make a hero call and will overbet the pot on the river in favorable situations. Unless I have an above average hand here I won’t get involved. The villain most likely has a decent holding, and my middle pair won’t be enough. Tom Dwan demonstrates some creative ways to employ an overbet in this video.

4) Pursuant to my third point, I’m not afraid to pull this move myself every once in a blue moon when I’m most likely ahead! If I’m strong and sense my opponent might be willing to make a hero call, I will go ahead and overbet the river. Remember, I don’t need action every time as a call here is worth two to four times a standard value bet. Not only will I win a big hand, my opponents won’t be very confident reading my river bets after I show a strong holding in this spot.

5) If you pull this move as a bluff, make sure your opponent can feasibly put you on the range you're trying to represent. Remember, low stakes cash game players lean towards calling when they have even a small piece of the board regardless of the pot odds. 

In conclusion, never get in the habit of auto-mucking your mediocre hands when facing a big overbet. Always take time to review the action and information you have on a player before making a decision, and learn to make this bet yourself under the right conditions.