The Art of Reading Your Opponents
By Tony Guerrera
You are playing in a $500NL game with $2-$5 blinds. You are on the button, and action folds to you. You look down at your hole cards and see JJ. You raise to $20. The small blind folds, and the big blind calls. You have about $600 left, and your opponent has about $400 left. The flop is 248. Your opponent checks to you, you bet $25, and he calls. The turn is 2. Your opponent checks to you, you bet $60, and your opponent calls. The river is 2. Your opponent bets $100, and after thinking, you decide to just call because you can’t imagine your opponent calling a raise with many hands that you have beaten. Your opponent shows JT and says “I can’t believe you called me with AK” As he says that, you show your JJ and take down the pot. Your opponent made a fundamental error made by many poker players; at the beginning of the hand, when you could have done the same action with several hands, your opponent put you on a specific hand. In addition, he never changed his mind about his read as he gained more information throughout the hand.
Becoming a winning poker player involves several steps. When we first begin playing, we are barely aware of what we hold. We are really focused on our own cards, and we have no idea what our opponents have. As we play more, we begin to get an idea of the average hand required to win a pot, and we also become more comfortable with reading our own hand. However, at this stage, we are still primarily concerned with our own cards. After awhile, though, poker becomes a game that you play against other people as opposed to a game that you simply play with cards.
You are still focused on your cards, but you are thinking of your own hand in relation to what your opponents have, and realizing that poker is a game of relative hand values versus absolute hand values is a huge epiphany. If you think that your opponents have you beaten, you fold. If you think that you have your opponents beaten, you stay in the hand. After playing like this for awhile, you realize that, to some extent, your own cards don’t necessarily matter. If you suspect that your opponents won’t fold, then you evaluate your hand strength relative to what your opponents have and act appropriately. If you suspect that your opponents won’t fold, you play as you did before, when you were looking at the game simply as a game of relative hand strengths. But if you sense weakness in your opponents, you are willing to bet in a manner that will make them fold, even if you have absolutely nothing. Once you’ve reached this point, you are approaching a very high level of play.
As sophisticated as this thought process is, many players make a big fundamental mistake while implementing it. When reading their opponents, they often try to pick a specific hand. It would be nice if we could always narrow our opponents’ holdings to just one card; however, it’s usually the case that such a precise read isn’t possible. It isn’t possible because, often, an opponent will act the same way with more than one hand. As an extreme case, suppose you are playing against a maniac who raises preflop with any two cards. In the absence of any physical tells, you are forced to say that such a player has any two cards after he raises. You could venture a guess every hand. For example, one hand, you might say “he has T8,” and on the next hand, you might say “he has AA.” However, by trying to narrow such a player’s range of hands down to one specific hand, you are actually making a big mistake.
Being skilled at reading opponents does not mean being able to figure out the precise cards held by your opponents. Instead, being skilled at reading opponents means putting your opponents on the most accurate and narrow hand distributions possible. If a player is raising every hand preflop, then the most accurate and narrow read that you can make is [random]. If a player raises preflop from the button, he may be on a distribution looking something like [AA,22]||[AK,A8]||[KQ,K9]||[QJ,QT]||[JT]. To magically say that such a player has AK is a big mistake.
Now, as the hand progresses, you may end up with enough information such that you can put your opponent exactly on AK-remember that you always get new information to process throughout a hand. If at some point in a hand, you are able to piece together the information to narrow your opponent’s holdings to a single possibility, then that’s great. There are other times where a player gives off blatant physical cues. For example, a player may be capable of raising preflop with a large distribution of hands, but on a particular hand, he may give off tells indicating that has AA. If you have such a tell on an opponent, by all means use it. I’m not saying that you can never put an opponent on a single hand. I am saying that the distributions need to be as narrow and accurate as possible-when reading an opponent, you need to think of all the possible hands he can hold and narrow his range as much as possible without excluding any feasible holdings. Often, but not always, that means that you’ll have a read on your opponent that includes more than one possible holding.
Will you be wrong sometimes? Of course you’ll be wrong sometimes! But being comfortable with the uncertainty involved is part of the process. As humans, we have an urge to want to know everything, and oftentimes, to satisfy ourselves psychologically, we make up answers to questions that we actually don’t know answers to. Ironically, saying “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” can reflect more wisdom and understanding than saying something like “the answer to A is B.” Keep this in mind the next time you want to put your opponent on a specific hand. By keeping your reads honest with respect to your state of knowledge, you will be doing a great service to your poker game. May your EV always be positive!
Tony Guerrera is the author of Killer Poker by the Numbers.
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