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WPT Champion James Romero: Improving Your Hand Reading Skills

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Jan 25, 2023


James Romero broke out on the tournament circuit back in 2016 when he took down the World Poker Tour Five Diamond Classic at Bellagio for a massive payday of $1,938,118.

In the years since, the University of Oregon graduate has put together an impressive poker résumé that includes a third-place showing at the 2018 CPPT Venetian main event for $291,448 and a runner-up finish at the 2019 Hard Rock Poker Open for $250,527.

Romero started 2020 off strong before the pandemic shut down live poker with a third place at the partypoker MILLIONS United Kingdom main event for $420,000 and a win in the partypoker South America high roller a month later for another $325,000.

The contributor also put together a great 2022 campaign. He opened with a January win at the Lucky Hearts Poker Open for $167,285 and in March made three final tables, including the Wynn Millions event for $160,840. In June, Romero returned to Wynn for the Summer Classic and took sixth, banking another $129,041. In total, the high-stakes tournament regular has more than $5.6 million in cashes.

Card Player caught up with Romero to discuss hand reading, which is one of poker’s most important skills.

Craig Tapscott: From your experience, what are the most important factors a player must comprehend about an opponent to begin to place them on a range of hands preflop?

James Romero: To range players preflop, the most important factors are position, tournament details, player history, and action.

Position: Raise first in frequencies (RFI’s) vary drastically based on player position. Good professionals will raise about 20 percent early position (EP), 26 percent middle position (MP), 35 percent cutoff (CO), and 50 percent button (B). Recreational and weak regulars routinely miss GTO (Game Theory Optimal) opens from middle and late position, with an average RFI of 24 percent MP, 30 percent CO, and 40 percent button. Generally, non-professional players don’t appreciate the dynamic nature of changing preflop ranges, and this is apparent with the frequencies shown above. 
GTO three-betting frequencies vary drastically as well. An EP versus EP three-bet might only be five percent, but a small blind vs button three-bet is 16 percent. Recreational players will have a more static three-betting strategy preflop, just like they do for preflop RFI’s.  

Tournament Details: The second most important variables to consider when ranging an opponent preflop are broad tournament details. The main details are tournament structure, ICM (Independent Chip Model), buy-in size, and opponent skill level.

You can expect much wider ranges during the re-entry period, especially from the regulars. This is even more exaggerated if the event features several starting days. Many have the bankroll for several buy-ins and want to build stacks in high-value events.  

ICM is another factor that drastically affects preflop ranges. Approaching the money bubble, the players with stacks below average in size are forced to play tighter. Similarly, when there are three or four tables remaining in a tournament, we can expect preflop ranges to tighten for most of the field.  

The size of the buy-in also has an effect on the majority of the field. Higher buy-ins mean more variance and stronger opponents, so regulars and recreational players (recs) adjust by decreasing their VPIP (Voluntarily Put In Pot) accordingly. 

Skill level is the last detail that impacts preflop ranges. Generally, unstudied and intimidated recs end up playing very tight preflop ranges. In cash games, these tight recs can get away with waiting for premiums and not losing too much money because there is no ante, and the rake is high. In tournaments, these ranges don’t work.  

Player History: Player history is an important factor when determining preflop ranges. Most players adhere to a GTO preflop strategy, but some play significantly tighter and some play significantly looser. Identify the players that are out of line and exploit them as much as possible! Usually, players that have a high VPIP will also have high betting frequencies and low folding frequencies. The opposite holds true for tighter players as well.

Action: The last important factor to consider is preflop action. Raising ranges get tighter if there is more action in front of the player being analyzed. The incentive to be aggressive preflop decreases as more people decide to limp or raise. We should assign much tighter ranges to isolation raises or squeezes than we would with a simple RFI (raise first in). In live poker, players often call too frequently facing a three-bet, so adjust accordingly.

Craig Tapscott: What are the three major mistakes players make when assigning opponents a hand range preflop?

James Romero: I would say emphasizing live tells too much, being biased by hand strength, and assuming opponents have static preflop ranges. 
Too Much Emphasis On Live Tells: Mike Caro didn’t have results for a reason. Poker is mostly a game of math and strategic positioning. It’s important to learn game theory and exploitative adjustments. This is the driving factor when it comes to winrate and should account for 85 percent of your decision making. After learning strong fundamentals and exploitative flair, the last 15 percent of your thought process can be saved for things such as game flow, table image, and live reads.

Newer players often focus on live tells and make extreme adjustments based on what they see and how they feel. In general, I would suggest not believing table talk or table actions/reads. It’s easy for others to give off fake “tells” to throw you off. Watch their frequencies and sizings, not their body language.

Somewhere down your path to success, you can start picking up on small live tells to slightly improve your win rate and affect your decision making in edge cases.

Hand Strength Bias: It’s important to respect the power of position and polarization. Too often I see recs being biased by their specific hand strength rather than their position when making preflop and post-flop decisions. 8-9 offsuit is a bad hand, but that doesn’t mean it should be folded on the button! GTO says we need to open this hand at most stack depths because we have position on the players left to act.

It’s also very important to call down with less valuable hands when playing in late position. Just because you have a “bad” pair on the river after facing a bet, doesn’t mean you should fold it. You shouldn’t have strict rules about how strong a hand has to be to call a river bet, as different positional battles call for different value thresholds when value betting and calling.

Additionally, recs aren’t using polarized strategies when three-betting preflop. Generally speaking, our three-bet bluffs should be derived from a hand class that doesn’t play particularly well as a flat call.  

Static Range Assumptions: Recreational players raise too tight from mid-position and late position and therefore assume their opponents are doing the same. It’s hard to imagine what a 35 percent cutoff opening range looks like because it’s roughly 500 combinations of hands. Make sure you are often referencing a preflop guide to become familiar with how much raising ranges change from UTG to button. 

Craig Tapscott: How can a player best continue to place an opponent on a hand range after the flop? What should he/she be paying attention to the most?

James Romero: The three most important factors to focus on when analyzing your opponent’s hands post-flop are bet sizing, bet pattern, and range vs board interaction.

Bet Sizing: On most flops, your opponents will be betting the majority of the time at a high frequency for an average size of 40 percent pot. There is not too much to take away from bet sizing. On turns and rivers, however, most players will size up with their value hands to what they are worth. Then, they will be trying to match their bluffs to that same size. It’s important to look for inconsistencies in their strategy. If their bet sizing doesn’t match well with a value range sizing, they are more likely to be bluffing. 
Bet Pattern: Some players think the population bets too frequently. In response, they will leave their checking ranges uncapped and somewhat strong. Some players think the population bets too infrequently and will do the opposite. Try to identify which camp your opponent is in to better deduce his post-flop ranges.  

Range Vs. Board Interaction: It’s important to get comfortable with hand combinations and preflop ranges to see just how well certain boards interact with certain preflop ranges to exploit your opponents. There are spots where making strong hands will be very hard for your opponent. If you aren’t pressuring them in these spots with wide call downs, you are missing out on profit.  

An easy example would be defending the big blind versus a button open and getting a 4-4-6-2-9 board. This specific board doesn’t hit the button’s range very hard. There are only a few value hands that the button gets to triple barrel for large sizings. In addition, the button has a lot of bluffing options because his preflop range is so wide. Paired, disconnected, low card boards are bluffed at a much higher frequency than other boards such as K-Q-J-9-5.

You should always be asking yourself how many value combos your opponent is representing. Then, weigh this against how many possible bluff combos your opponent might have available. The lower this ratio is, the more profitable it is to bluff catch.

Craig Tapscott: How do you approach putting a player on a hand when you are in a blind-on-blind battle? It seems their range can be quite wide much of the time.

James Romero: GTO ranges in blind battles are quite wide preflop. The ante is an added incentive for both players to be sticky and VPIP at a high frequency. Because of this, both players usually get to post-flop with a wide range. Wide range post-flop battles consist of unusually thin value betting and wide call downs. Here are the main differences of how blind battles are different from most.

Opponents Bluff More: Since opponents have wider ranges preflop, they are more likely to bluff post-flop. They will have plenty of combinations to choose from when trying to execute a mixed strategy of bets and checks with the air combos in their range. In order to counter this, it’s important to strengthen our checking ranges and call down much wider than we would in other post-flop scenarios.

Opponents Three-Bet Wider: Because the big blind has position on the small blind, and there are no other players left to act, we can expect the big blind to be three-betting at a high frequency. In response, we must keep our opening ranges in check from the small blind and four-bet wider for value when three-bet. You can have a deeper look into the preflop ranges for this spot to get a better feel for which specific hands to use in different scenarios. This spot plays much differently than many other spots we are used to.  

Opponents Value Bet Wider:  Because small blind versus big blind is a wide range game, players value bet much wider. In turn, that means that people get to bluff at higher frequencies as well.  

Craig Tapscott: What are the protocols you go through when thinking about making a hero call with a hand like ace high or similar when facing a river bet?

James Romero: The most important factors to consider when hero calling the river are the price, bluff availability, and opponent tendencies.

The Price: It’s very important to get comfortable with pot odds and price when facing river bets. The smaller our opponent bets, the less frequently we need to be correct when making a hero call. If your opponent bets 50 percent of the pot, our hand must only win 25 percent of the time to break even. If our opponent bets 100 percent of the pot, our hand must only win 33 percent of the time to break even.

Bluff Availability: When players have more bluff options in their range getting to a river, they end up bluffing more. Imagine these two scenarios:

Scenario A
A player arrives at the river with 300 combinations of hands with no showdown value and decides to bet 20 percent of the time. A total of 60 combinations of hands will be used to bluff.

Scenario B
A player arrives at the river with 30 combinations of hands with no showdown value and decides to bet 20 percent of the time. A total of 6 combinations of hands will be used to bluff.

We should hero call much wider than GTO in scenario A usually, and much tighter in scenario B.

Opponent Tendencies: The third point to consider when deciding whether to hero-call a river or not is the opponent’s tendencies. Many players will have preconceived notions about how the population responds to bets. Some players severely over-bluff because they think everyone folds too much. Some players severely under-bluff because they think people call too much. Identify these players and make minor adjustments.

To learn more from James, check out You can find him on Twitter @skielanskis.