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How to Read Hands - Part I

by Reid Young |  Published: Feb 01, 2014


Reid YoungLet’s cover the fundamental skill of hand reading and the way that professional players approach the subject. The best goal is not to determine exact holdings, but rather to perform in a game the most profitably.

Deductive Process

The deductive process of hand reading begins with knowledge of the typical player in our game. We always have more to go on than an archetype, even before cards are in the air. Look for your opponent’s:

Age — Is he young enough to have played online poker? Typically, the online player is a bit more aggressive all around than his live poker playing counterpart. Not all young players play online and not all older players avoid online poker, but if you have pocket jacks preflop and are staring at an all-in bet from someone’s grandmother, then it’s fairly likely you are in trouble.

Clothes and jewelry — Is the player flashy or wearing expensive clothing? The answer lets you know a bit about his playing style. Solid players are usually detached from their money at the poker table in a way that it does not affect their results. A gaudily dressed player may have taken this attachment a bit too far, or he may just be successful in another arena, which fuels his bankroll for poker play. In either case, you can expect chips to be moving, which means you want to be ready to make lighter than average call downs and thinner than average value bets.

Temperament — Louder players tend to bluff more often than quiet players, which could be an extension of their reasoning for speaking so often. If money talks, then you know these guys are going to be betting a bit more than their fair share when the board runs out poorly for you. Keep vigilant and know that a lighter than average calling strategy is probably best.

Buy-in amount — Did he buy in for the cap of the game, or does he have some superstition or reservation about his money? The best players buy in full to maximally exploit their edge on the competition, but if your opponent is buying in for less, then it could mean he’s already feeling a bit uncomfortable in the game and that a few high pressure situations will take him much farther out of his comfort zone than a full-stacked player.

So with these clues in mind, let’s talk about the actual cards. A lot of players forget that hand reading starts with preflop play.

Start at the Beginning

Consider your opponent’s open-raising percentage preflop from various positions, or what you believe it to be given hands he has shown down. Consider what types of hands he calls with and at what stack sizes. Does he understand that his open-raising range should change as effective stack sizes around the table change?

Low boards and short stacks — If your opponent raises from under the gun (UTG), then how likely is he to hit that 8Heart Suit 7Diamond Suit 5Diamond Suit flop? Several players adjust their opening range based on position and stack size, but then fail to adjust their continuation-betting frequency to align with their new preflop range. If you face a bet from such a player on this board, then it is a great time for a bluff raise.

He plays any ace — If you keep your opponent in the pot preflop by not opting to reraise a hand like A-Q, then you can value raise on boards like ASpade Suit 7Diamond Suit 2Heart Suit and know that you are going to be facing a worse ace often enough to be paid handsomely. Weaker players who play too many aces are often married to the absolute strength of their hand as well, which is why they play the ace instead of hands containing tens, for example. Exploit this by value raising thinly and by betting larger on earlier streets when your opponent has no thought of folding the highest pair on the board.

Facing a check-raise on paired boards — We have all been there, and it sucks when you aren’t the guy with trips. When you are check-raised on a paired board, the best first step is to consider how likely a hand is to be in your opponent’s preflop calling range. Absent other information, relying on the way you play your hands in light of the relative likelihood of particular opponents hitting a board is the best way to make these tough decisions. If we raise from under the gun and a 50 big blind stack calls from the small blind and we are check-raised on a 9Diamond Suit 9Club Suit 4Diamond Suit flop, is he representing anything other than a semi-bluff or pure bluff, and quad nines that he might slow play anyway? These considerations help you with default decisions before you notice glaring tendencies of your opposition.

Once we determine the likelihood particular boards help or hurt our opponent’s preflop holdings, we need to cater our game to best exploit our opponent’s most likely actions. When there is no outside information, the best default plan is going to come from inward, from the cards, stack sizes, and likely board developments and texture changes.

Look at Yourself

Most players have learned to play the man, not the cards. In fact, the way you construct your decision making process with your own cards is likely going to determine how experienced opponents react to your bets. Take lines step by step and determine the most profitable line with a particular hand at a particular time. Playing a hand in any way other than the most profitable way is a mistake, so if you are one of those “well I’ll take this line this time to confuse him” kind of players, then it’s time to shape up.

Dry boards — On a board like KDiamond Suit 8Club Suit 2Spade Suit we want to have a high continuation-betting frequency. Not only because this board is unlikely to hit our opponent, but also it is more likely to hit us as a preflop raiser. If we have K-Q and A-K in our range, but our opponent does not, then guess who is likely to have more kings?

Facing a raise — We know we want a wide continuation-betting range, but how wide is too wide? If our opponent comes over the top of our bet regularly, then we have a few options, but, the important point is that we already consider the possibility and likelihood of facing a raise and cater our strategy to maximize value.

Three-betting flops — How often and with what hands from our continuation-betting range should we three-bet the flop? Keep in mind that three-betting the flop affects the strength of the betting and calling ranges, so if we bet and call our opponent’s raise, are we opening ourselves up for bluffs on future streets with an obviously weak holding?

Clearly, there is a need for balance. Ideally, the expected value of one line should equal that of another; otherwise we would choose to take the more profitable of the two lines with a particular hand. Creating the best ratio of bet/three-betting hands to bet/calling hands that allows us to maximize value is the challenge. Knowing that expected values should be equivalent, absent of other information, is a very big first step.

Check/fold — If we check and fold flops, then do we need to check and call flops? If we check and call flops, then how does that affect our bet/calling and bet/three-bet ranges? Has your head exploded yet? For check/folding and check/calling, a helpful hand reading and range construction tip is that you are saving money, not necessarily making it. The best check/calling strategy works well on different board run outs in proportion to the likelihood of those run outs (and texture changes), but also uses mostly hands that are not good enough to value bet.

To start out, we covered how to quickly get beyond the average player in your game, and who the person playing across from you might actually be. We also discussed preflop play and the implications on several postflop scenarios, including a bit of opponent tendency-based board texture analysis. Finally, we got emo and introspective. If we know how to construct our betting patterns in a way such that we maximize value in all scenarios, then we are profitable. Keep an eye out for Part II! ♠

Reid Young is a successful cash game player and poker coach. He is the founder of