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Winners Probe Effectively

Get the information you need

by Alan Schoonmaker |  Published: Jun 11, 2008


Because they know that information is critically important, winners probe much more frequently and effectively than most players.

A "probe" is any action taken primarily to get information. It can be a bet, raise, question, statement, and so on. The critical issue is: What are you trying to accomplish?

If you're trying to get information, you're probing. If you're trying to build a pot, thin the field, express feelings, or do something else, you're not. Many actions are partly probes. For example, you bet or raise, hoping everyone will fold, while trying to learn from their reactions. The critical element is your intentions.

Some actions look like probes, but aren't, and checking may be a better probe than betting. People often say, "I raised to find out where I was," but they don't mean it. They raised "to find out where I was," got reraised, but called every subsequent bet. They may rationalize that they were asking a question, but — since they ignored the answer - they weren't really probing.

Conversely, if you check the flop to see what the preflop raiser does and adjust your strategy to his reaction, checking is partly a probe. Here's an example from Jim Leitner's forthcoming book on puzzles and poker:

You're playing no-limit hold'em, have pocket nines, and limp in behind two limpers. The button raises, and you, both limpers, and the button see the flop of A-7-3 with two spades.

You check behind the limpers, intending to fold if the button bets, but he checks. The turn is an offsuit 8, and both limpers check. Since somebody probably would bet with an ace, you make a probing bet of half the pot, and they all fold. Your bet was small because the button's failure to make a continuation-bet was suspicious. Because you adjusted to all of your opponents' actions, your apparently passive action, checking the flop, was partly a probe. If the button had called your probing bet, your suspicions would have become strong enough to shut you down.

Probing During and After the Hand

Probes during a hand are usually attempts to learn your opponents' cards, while probes after it are usually attempts to learn how they play.

Learning their cards may seem more important because it has an immediate and visible payoff: You save or win a bet, or even a whole pot. But learning how people play may help you to adjust your strategy and win much more later.

Probing Techniques

You should learn when and how to use all of these techniques:

Checking, Calling, Betting, and Raising They are the standard probes, but most players don't use them well. They bet or raise because they like their hand, and check, call, or fold because they dislike it. Decide in advance what information you want to learn and how to get it.

Barry Tanenbaum, the author of Advanced Limit Hold'em Strategy, suggested an example: You raise with A-K suited, one player calls, another three-bets, and someone else four-bets (at Bellagio, which has a five-bet cap). If you cap, you learn nothing. If you call, you find out whether the three-bettor caps, which is important information. Note that the passive action of just calling provides more information than the active one of capping.

Asking Many Questions Most players rarely ask questions, but top pros do it frequently: "Did you make a flush?" "Are you bluffing?" "Why didn't you bet the flop?" They don't expect an honest answer, but they hope to learn something from their opponents' reactions.

When I suggested copying them, a friend angrily disagreed: "That's unprofessional! I don't like people who ask questions, and I'm not going to do it!" She reversed the usual pattern. Normally, people copy top pros' actions. They are the role models who define "professionalism" (even though some of them act outrageously for the television cameras). She unconsciously implied that she is more professional than the best pros.

Nonsense! She is rationalizing her fear of looking "unprofessional." I dislike asking questions, but recognize that not asking them (politely) is unprofessional and from a profit-maximizing perspective "irrational."

You may not ask enough questions because you are afraid of looking ignorant or offending people. Admitting your ignorance may be embarrassing, but poker is an information-management game. Not asking enough questions reduces your information, which will cause mistakes, cost you money, and make you look even more foolish. Fear of offending is natural, but harmful. Remember that poker is a predatory, power-oriented game, and that you gain by discovering and exploiting weaknesses.

Try to ignore your fears and discomfort, and apply this series' central theme: The critical difference between winners and losers is that winners do whatever works, while losers do whatever makes them comfortable.

Asking Both Kinds of Questions -
Closed-end and open-end questions provide different kinds of information.

Use the type that will produce the information you want.

Closed-end questions, which may look like statements, are generally asked during the hand. They are attempts to get specific information, such as, "Do you have a flush?" or, "I put you on A-K." Most opponents will either evade them or lie, but their voice or body language may give them away.

Pros often ask closed-end questions because they are so good at reading voices and body language. Their opponents' reactions may tell them what they want to know. If you can't read body language, do what most pros have done: read Mike Caro's Book of Tells and Joe Navarro's Read 'em and Reap.

Open-end questions are often asked after the hand. They encourage a longer and broader response by asking for opinions and feelings. The answers or reactions to them help you to understand how people think and play. That information often has greater long-term value than their specific cards.

Many people are more willing to answer open-end questions than those that are closed-end. They love to talk about how they think and why they play in certain ways. Besides, when the hand is over, they relax and become more willing to talk. So, ask open-end questions about why they made certain plays. You will often be surprised by how much information you get.

Probing Gently — Gentle probes are questions, statements, or actions that relax people and open them up. They create a natural, conversational atmosphere, which reduces both your discomfort and the danger of irritating your opponents.

The critical points are how you act and how your opponents perceive you. If they believe that you sincerely want to understand them, you will often get information that you will use against them, and they will enjoy giving it to you.

Final Remarks

Since information is the key weapon in poker wars, do whatever it takes to get it, even if it makes you uncomfortable. My next column will discuss other probing techniques, but they are less important than your commitment to getting information. Since you can learn from your opponents' words, evasions, and body language, don't be afraid to probe!

To learn more about yourself and other players, you can buy Dr. Schoonmaker's books, Your Worst Poker Enemy and Your Best Poker Friend, at