By Tony Guerrera
Watch televised poker or read the blogs of well-known professional poker players, and you’d think that being endowed with ESP is a prerequisite for becoming a world-class poker player. Becoming adept at reading people is a necessary part of poker, and it takes both practice and hard work. But reading people isn’t what popular culture portrays it to be. Reading opponents isn’t about being able to guess exactly what cards all your opponents hold. Instead, reading opponents is about putting opponents on reasonable hand ranges given the following:
- Hand starting requirements
- Betting patterns
- Physical tells
- Online tells
Hand Starting Requirements
To start, you should try to put opponents on generic hand ranges (tight or loose). After playing a few orbits, seeing some showdowns, and having a decent idea of general action frequencies, you should refine as much as possible. Figure out what hands players play in what position as a function of action that’s already occurred in the hand. Winning play is about playing well across all betting rounds, but starting hand requirements is where everything begins. Assigning opponents to ranges beyond the first betting round should be nothing more than an exercise in whittling down their initial hand ranges.
Though you’ll use betting patterns to help you assign starting hand requirements to your opponents, betting patterns are valuable throughout a hand. When playing pot-limit or no-limit poker, do different bet sizes from a particular opponent reveal information about his cards or his intended action on future betting rounds? What kind of implied odds can you expect a particular foe to cough up? How does an opponent play in position? Does an opponent abuse blocking bets when out of position as a way of trying to neutralize positional disadvantage? How often does an opponent check-raise? When is an opponent aggressive with a polarized distribution versus just the top X% of his distribution? These are just a few of the questions that you should be asking about each of your opponents.
If you play online, playing tracking software equipped with a heads-up display will help you answer these questions. But you still need to pay as much attention as possible to catch nuanced information that can sometimes be tough to extract from the numbers. And if you’re playing live, then your ability to pay attention is the only thing you have-if you don’t like losing money, don’t play if you’re in a distracted state of mind.
When most people think about reading opponents, they first think about physical tells. They say, “how can you play poker online when you can’t see your opponents.” The reality is that reading opponents is mostly about pinning opponents to starting hand ranges and identifying betting patterns. If you play live and you happen to be in a situation where an opponent gives off physical tells, consider it to be a bonus (especially in the modern era of poker, where players are generally much more sophisticated than they were just a few years ago).
However, some players you encounter in brick-and-mortar games will exhibit physical tells, and in a game where every small edge counts, you should learn as much as possible about deciphering them.
Tony Guerrera is the author of Killer Poker By The Numbers and co-author of Killer Poker Shorthanded (with John Vorhaus)
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