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Head Games: A Big Part of Hand Reading Skill Depends On the Type of Opponent You’re Facing

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: May 30, 2012


Craig Tapscott: How does your hand reading in a particular hand or situation adjust according to the type of opponent you are up against?

Corwin Cole: I’m going to start by saying that the concept of “hand-reading” is better viewed as just one facet of “opponent-reading.” Considering that all opponents and all hands are different, it follows necessarily that I must make adjusted reads for every player in each hand. There exist some useful angles in reading one’s opponents, as well as some perilous ones; in my experience, simpler is almost always better, and instinct generally trumps deduction. I listen to my “gut,” before I entertain any other thoughts.

If there is a part of my non-verbal brain that is giving me a strong “feeling” of dread or positivity, then that is what I am going to trust every single time; if I do not have a significant sense of the situation in either direction, now I must play a careful game of deduction. Every player has a system of reasoning, and there is no singular logical pattern that can accurately describe many opponents. As such, I have to get to know every individual, and familiarize myself with his motivations, his patterns, and his logic. Some are driven by fear, and will show it through instances of plays like blocking bets, probe bets, and pessimistic checks with good hands. Others are driven by ego, and habitually fight for a pot if provoked. Whatever drives an opponent, that is what I must know in order to make a read.

Owen Gaines: Hand-reading is an art developed through attentive play at the tables. We use our opponent’s past actions and tendencies as our tools to create his likely hand range. A single action can have different meanings depending on the player taking that action. Let’s say the stacks are 100 big blinds deep, and you’re dealt QDiamond Suit 10Spade Suit on the button. It’s folded to you. You open with a pot-sized raise, and only the big blind calls. The flop comes down QHeart Suit JHeart Suit 2Club Suit. Your opponent leads out for a pot-sized bet. What should you do? The answer will depend on your opponent’s hand. In order to answer this question with some fair degree of accuracy, we need to know something about our opponent’s strategy. That knowledge may dictate different responses for different opponents. 

For this simple example, let’s examine two opponents, Mary and Bob. Mary is a very conservative player. When she wants to build a big pot, her hand is almost always extremely strong; she virtually never bluffs or semi-bluffs. Bob is a different breed altogether. He loves to bluff large and often attempts to slowplay when he has a strong hand. Now we get back to holding Q-T. If Mary is the one leading out with a pot-sized bet, we can feel confident our equity is very low, and the prudent play is to fold. If Bob is the one making the play, our equity is likely very good, and we certainly won’t be folding our hand to his flop bet.

Frank Wiese: Good hand reading skills will give you a huge advantage while playing by allowing you to make more correct decisions. Ensure that you actively concentrate on what bets each player makes with which hands and make mental notes for future reference. Also, reading the board and reading hands are so closely intertwined that it does no good to try to learn these skills separately. Reading the board is useless if you can’t put people on hands and putting people on hands is useless if you can’t read the board. The term “board texture” refers to how favorable the board looks for your hand and the other players’ likely hands. Being able to read and understand the board texture is a critical skill for every poker player. Fortunately, it’s not a tough skill to master and eventually it will come naturally to you.

Craig Tapscott: What kinds of mistakes do you see many players make in regards to hand reading? Perhaps share some amateur tells to look out for. 

Corwin Cole: By far the most common mistake that I see in hand-reading is the preference for deduction over instinct and experience. Players will start to analyze an opponent’s play based on their own reasoning, and it is not valid for most of their competitors. For example, suppose JoePokerGuy says, “he should bet with a flush here, because if he checks I’m just going to check behind with most of my range.” There are three major flaws with JoePokerGuy’s sentence. First and foremost, his opponent probably does not feel the same way about betting with a flush in that situation. Just one example of a different form of reasoning is that many players feel powerfully uncomfortable representing strength when they actually have a strong hand, so the assumption that somebody else may be willing to play aggressively with a monster is wrong much of the time. Second, the opponent’s assessment of JoePokerGuy’s range is generally not whatever JoePokerGuy thinks it ought to be; in all likelihood, his opponent thinks something at least slightly different.

Finally, JoePokerGuy’s claim that he will check behind with most of his range is often inaccurate too – countless players are delusional about their own tendencies and will claim all sorts of intentions after a hand is over, while their general play is replete with contradictions. If, on the other hand, JoePokerGuy had said something like, “I have played hundreds of hands like this and no matter how much sense it makes that somebody ought to bet with a flush here, I often see people checking instead,” and then acted according to his instincts, he would be correct a lot more often.

Owen Gaines: There are two common mistakes I see when players are developing reads on opponents. The first is getting too aggressive with small amounts of information. This can range from watching the opponent three-bet 33 percent of the time over a sample of three possible attempts to assuming an opponent is a frequent bluffer after only having seen him bluff in one spot. Players often weigh these few actions much too heavily in their decision making processes. The second mistake I see players make is what Alan Schoonmaker called the Egotistical Fallacy. This is when we believe our player feels a given way about a board texture, bet size, or other poker situation because that’s how we feel about it. Often this mistake leads to players giving their opponent a much more sophisticated thought process than is likely. This normally manifests itself in improper bet sizes that can leave a lot of money in their opponent’s stack that could have easily been won.

Frank Wiese: Reading players is something you develop in time. But here are some things you might want to try looking for while at the poker table. Watch for players who start to grab their chips before they realize it. If you know that you are going to be in a hand with this player, take your time and be extremely deliberate about this. Another ten seconds in deciding to call or bet can give the other player time to give you information on whether or not to make that decision. On occasions there will be times when players will “Hollywood” a little bit; they will try to trick you by grabbing their chips to get you to fold, be careful of that as well. Another thing, I want you to do is pay close attention to reaction times. How long does it take the other player to bet, call, or raise on the flop, turn, and river. Watch for quick calls and quick raises, a lot of times other players are doing this to discourage you from playing in the hand any further. Basically, each tell they give off has a certain meaning and it is your job to put it with a pattern. And, at times, players will switch gears just to stay away from being too predictable. ♠