Poker Essays

Reading your Opponents

From Card Academy July 2007

An essential component of playing any type of poker is the ability to read your opponents, and in the case of playing online, to be able to at least understand your opponents. Being able to do this will give you an opportunity to predict your opponent's moves and with this information making the correct counter move becomes much easier, with a higher success rate in your favour. Poker is often characterised as a game which doesn't completely revolve around the cards, but more about how a player reacts to their cards.

Your own table image
Taking the above into account, it is important to maintain your own table image to suit your strategy. This means not giving away too much and letting your opponents read you like a book! If you can manage to do this, then every read that you can get off the other players becomes a bonus and additional information to you. When playing a live game, try not to change anything that you do from hand to hand that might give away any tells. Practice doing all the little things every hand the same way. This includes the way you hold your cards, whether or not you place a chip, or card protector, on your cards, the way you throw your chips into the pot and most importantly your facial expressions. If someone is looking you up when they're trying to make a difficult decision, then the best way to counter this is to stare directly into the middle of the table until he makes his decision. It is usually extremely difficult to pick up a tell on a player, so if you keep the same practices when playing your hands, you should be fine.

Appearance and demeanour
Although it may seem trivial, you can get a general perception of the type of player a person is by simply looking at their attire. This is a first up impression only, however, and useful to gauge the type of cards a player might have before you've had time to see what cards the player is showing down. It can be useful though, because occasionally you can go quite some time before actually seeing a player's hole cards, so you take what you can get.

A player that is looking very clean-cut, with their shirt tucked in, is more likely to be a conservative player and doesn't throw caution to the wind. A player who is in sweat-pants and wearing a t-shirt with frayed edges and holes in it, will generally be more of a risk taker and would be more likely to play a larger range of hands. Be careful though, because this is hardly conclusive evidence as to the type of player you are up against. A loud player who sits down and is full of confidence and doesn't shut up can be safely put into the aggressive, wild category. These types of player that like to talk to it up from the word go are definitely the type of players who will love to bluff people off pots to satisfy their massive egos. On the other hand, players who sit tight and hardly say a word, are normally very timid players who won't make as many bold plays against you compared to the loud category of players.

When online, because you can't see any of your opponents, you can sometimes find players that like to talk it up in the chat box. Observing these remarks can usually pocket you some handy information. So keep an eye out. Occasionally some players will talk a lot and try and goad other players into calling, or frustrate them into playing loose. These are similar to the loud live game players, who like to play many hands and bluff a lot.

Sometimes there will be a hand where a player will go all-in in a tournament from the small blind and the big blind has less than another big blind to call. They do so with a hand like 27 off-suit. Watch for the players that are outraged by this, because they are the type of players that will play very conservatively and find it impossible to ever call with a trash hand like 27. Even though this is a correct call when considering pot odds, a lot of players may write a complaint about how poor the call was, or they may say something like "sucked in" if the caller lost the showdown. These players are good targets for bluffing and easy to get away from when they bet.

In a cash game, either live, or online, you will find the stack size a good indication as to the skill of the player. If you are sitting down at a 1/2 NL game with a max 200 dollar buy-in and a player is sitting pretty with a 1200 dollar stack. You can be fairly sure this player is a good one. On the other hand, there might be a number of 80 dollar stacks at the table, which is less than half the buy-in. These players are usually not very skilled and are the type of player to commit all their chips with AJ on a Jxx board, or push all-in with a draw. Try to attack the smaller stacks on your table and stay away from the larger stacks, unless you have a very strong hand and then maybe try and trap them if they are the aggressive type.

Another way to discern a type of player online is to see how many tables they are playing. If a player is multi-tabling four, eight or even twelve tables at once, then you can be fairly certain their skill level is fairly high.

Actions speak louder than cards
How a player behaves at a table can sometimes be an extremely confusing piece of information to take in. Often if a player is talking a lot, you should try to ignore them, because they will often convey the opposite of what they really want you to think, but if they know you won't believe them, then they will often portray the truth. Didn't I say it was confusing? If a player is particularly good at trash talking at the table, it is to their advantage if you listen to them. My advice is not to take heed of anything that they are saying and concentrate on the hand and how it has played out till now. There is a general rule that weaker players, who are much easier to read, will generally act strong if they are bluffing, or act meek if they have a really strong hand. So keep this in mind if playing lower limit live games.

I find a lot of the time though, you can sense if someone is weak or not. In most situations, where the action isn't big, most players won't even factor in their minds the need to act strong or meek, and will just behave naturally. So size up your opponent by gauging their confidence levels. Did they call you confidently? Or was it more of a, oh well, I'll give it a shot call. Be careful never to get sucked into someone's Hollywood performance! If they are showing you some kind of act, they are doing so for a reason, remember that.

Betting Patterns The best way to understand and read an opponent's hand is to try and pick up their betting patterns. Most players in the world will have some sort of strategy in mind before they start to play. This strategy includes how much they should bet depending on the situation. For example a lot of players will have standard raises pre-flop, such as three times the big blind, or three and a half times the big blind, etc. A good player will stick to this standard raise even if they have a monster starting hand to mask it from the rest of the table. However, if you notice a weaker player who all of a sudden decides to change their standard raise, then you should think about the possibilities of hands they might have. If the hand goes to showdown and you get to see their hole cards, then lock this information away in your database, because the next time they put out the same raise, they are more than likely to have a similar starting hand.

That is the basics of trying to follow a player's betting patterns. By watching them through the course of a session, you should be able to figure out if they like to raise with small pairs in early positions, or limp with small pairs; or whether they raise with AK from the big blind, or be happy to see a flop. Knowing the range of cards a player will have, based on their initial pre-flop action can benefit you greatly in the long run. If you know a player never raises with low pairs, but has raised pre-flop, then you can be nearly certain your AA is good on a 2 5 7 board and need not fear that they had hit a set. Conversely if you know a player only plays pairs in early position and this player check raises you on a flop of 4 6 9, then you can not be too concerned about throwing away your AA, because you are fairly certain you are beat. Decisions such as these can save you most of your stack, where other players might have simply re-raised all in and lost a lot of money.

Pre-flop starting hand information is not the only piece of knowledge available from reading betting patterns. It is just as important to know what kind of betting an opponent is capable of. Conversely, you can also learn what an opponent is not capable of, which is equally as significant. Some players never check raise without the nut hand, some players will do so with nothing, some players will almost play every hand, etc. The more you can learn about a player, the better you will become at reading their hands. Once you can be fairly certain was an opponent's hand is, then playing poker becomes significantly easier!

Read, predict and get it right!
The best way to figure out if your read is correct is to try and predict your opponent's move. For example, say someone checks to you on the flop after you had raised pre-flop. You put in a nice pot-sized bet, your opponent thinks about it for a little while and hesitantly calls your bet. Now this could mean a number of things, so use all the information that you have garnered about this player to make a decision. For this player, I decide that he has flopped a monster, because if he had a good hand, he probably would have bet it to protect his hand like he had in the past; plus there were no apparent draws on the flop for him to go for. I also raised quite a bit pre-flop and he has been quite conservative and unwilling to commit many chips. Finally, he has never been hesitant before and it was quite an obvious ploy to show me something that he wanted me to see. Therefore, I am pretty certain that he had flopped a set.

Now that you have decided this, try and guess what his next play would be. I am fairly certain that he will check again to me on the turn, hoping that I will fire off another round.

Now the more you play, the better you will get at reading players. As you get better, you will also find that your assumptions are correct more often. At this point, if your opponent is doing what you predicted he would be doing, you probably have the right read and should go with your gut instinct. It's impossible to be right 100% of the time, but as long as you are getting it right often enough, then this skill should save and make you a lot of money in the long run.

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