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Head Games

Exploiting an Opponent’s Tendencies in Tournament Play

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Oct 01, 2010


Sometimes it’s hard to get a straight answer from a professional poker player. Ask three players a question, and you’re liable to get three different answers. Why? Because it depends on the situation, opponent, stack sizes, table image, and many other variables.

Head Games will peer deep inside the twisted minds of today’s top players. We’ll reveal why they do what they do in sticky situations. Let the games begin.

The Pros: Sorel Mizzi, David Williams, and Eric Baldwin

Craig Tapscott: What kind of information are you looking for when scouting an unfamiliar opponent or when encountering a past nemesis?

Sorel MizziSorel Mizzi: When I’m trying to figure out my opponent’s tendencies, any information is good information. I want to know his level of education, what he does for a living, how many kids he has, what his favorite movie is, and so on. You get the point. Every piece of information can be used to begin to build a profile of that person’s life, and in turn figure out how he plays poker. I want to know what he’s capable and incapable of doing at the table. Paying attention is so important. Once you’ve gathered this array of information, you must then know how to correctly analyze and interpret it. This will make close decisions that arise against known and unknown opponents a lot easier to make.

David Williams: Pay attention to the hands that a player is playing, and just as importantly, pay close attention to the hands that he’s not playing. You have to examine every tough situation he’s in, and of course pay attention to whenever you get to see his hand on the river. That’s not too often in live play. Online, you can look at the hand histories to see what your opponent’s hand was, so do it. Also be aware of when opponents get called or don’t get called, and when they fold to certain bets in different situations. It’s also important to make a mental note of how often a person is playing a hand or how often he isn’t. Know how and why players are attacking certain flops, and whether they are calling or betting a lot. All of this helps you to begin to create a profile of your opponents.

Eric BaldwinEric Baldwin: Most players tune out of a hand as soon as they fold their cards or look down at a bad hand. They don’t realize how much valuable information they are missing out on. Most players remember the big hands they were involved in, and maybe a few huge pots played by others. The edge that can be picked up on in regard to player tendencies has to be worked for, by attentively assessing the ordinary and even the small pots played by other players. Simply having a good read on player types won’t do you a bit of good on its own.

Metagame comes into play by adding additional levels of thinking to the hand. In addition to playing your hand strength and an opponent’s tendencies, you also must consider what has happened in similar situations with this opponent in the past. That’s information that will help you in future hands against him. Against observant but straightforward players, you should often play a hand differently than you did the last time, as they expect you to play it the same way. Against good but not super-sicko players, you should often play a hand exactly the same as last time, as they will expect you to mix up your game. Against super-sickos, the levels can get so deep that it’s often best to just throw metagame out the window and play the hand in a way that is optimal against their general style of play — mainly because when the levels get very deep, players often default back to their base style.

Craig Tapscott: So, you’re armed with some solid reconnaissance regarding the opposition. What’s the best way now to adjust to your opponents and exploit their weaknesses?

Sorel Mizzi: In terms of adjusting to and exploiting each player’s style, that’s where being a good poker player and a good analyst of information is important. I’d say that almost every player has subtle leaks or tendencies that can be exploited. For example, I recently played in a poker event in Prague in which there was a player at the table who raised and reraised very frequently. He often picked up a stack of chips, not knowing how much was in the stack, and aggressively put the chips into the pot. He also did things like open for 10 times the big blind. Against this type of player, your shoving and calling ranges have to be adjusted accordingly. You can make a lot of accurate assumptions about this type of person based on this information alone. You can assume that he doesn’t understand optimal push-fold strategy. You also can assume that he can’t figure out situations in which he has to call with any two cards, because of the amount of money in the pot. One hand, he opened for 7,500 at 500-1,000 blinds from middle position, and I shoved for 21,000 with 4-4. Normally, someone who opens that big is not going to fold for 13,000 more, but because I had the information that he was opening for that amount with a wide range of hands, I knew that I was probably beating his range. I knew that a decent percentage of the time, I could win the hand uncontested. Obviously, this is an extreme example of very easily exploitable tendencies.

David WilliamsDavid Williams: There are many factors that I weigh before making a decision. By continuously gathering information, you can exploit opponents and combat something they are doing frequently. If they are continuation-betting a lot, you might want to check-raise them a little more. If they are opening a lot of pots, you might want to three-bet more. You are pretty much creating a pattern for that person by watching the hands that he plays and developing a counterstrategy. I really don’t have any set rules; it depends so much on my opponents, my image of them, how aggressive my own image is or what my perceived image is at the time, and so on. Then, I can proceed accordingly.

Eric Baldwin: You have to formulate a game plan that will exploit an opponent’s tendencies in order to profit from them. The concept is simple in theory, but it’s amazing how many players fail to execute. I often find it helpful to ask myself the question, “How is this player likely to react if I (check, bet X amount, bet Y amount, and so on)?” You’d be amazed at how often your answer is right if you’ve been closely observing your opponent. Answering this simple question really simplifies the process of deciding how to play a hand. Spade Suit

Sorel Mizzi has amassed tournament winnings online and live of more than $4.5 million. In 2010, he finished third in the Aussie Millions. Also, this year, he won the Borgata Spring Poker Open event No. 4. Mizzi is sponsored by Titan Poker.

David Williams won the 2010 WPT Five-Star World Poker Classic. In 2003, he finished second in the World Series of Poker main event. He has career tournament cashes of more than $7.8 million, and owns one WSOP bracelet from a 2006 seven-card stud event. Williams is a member of Team PokerStars.

Eric Baldwin won his first WSOP bracelet in a 2009 $1,500 no-limit hold’em event. He has career tournament cashes totaling more than $3.9 million. In 2009, he won the Card Player magazine Player of the Year award. Baldwin is a member of Team UltimateBet.