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Poker Strategy -- Studying Your Opponents

Relying On Your Observations


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Barry TanenbaumJust as nobody says, “I am going to the cardroom to fold,” no one says, “I am going to the cardroom to study.” There is a desire to play when you get to the cardroom, and an almost equal disposition not to care about what happens when you’re not playing, other than to wish you were.

The times that you’re not in a hand are almost as important as the times that you are. This is when you should be watching your opponents play, and trying to decipher what they are doing and why, and how they might behave when you finally are in a hand against them.

Recently, I played a couple of hands at Bellagio in a $40-$80 limit hold’em game that relied heavily on my opinions and observations of the players involved. The decisions I made were controversial, but they are interesting enough to share.

Hand No. 1: One of the key characters in both hands is a tourist I will call “Jan.” He is an aggressive and highly superstitious sort who was losing heavily during this session, and therefore was constantly changing seats to fi nd the magic one that would turn him into a winner. He also was playing way too many hands, so that he could be in the pot when he finally broke through. At this point, he had few chips left and a small stack of hundreds behind, and had made more than one rebuy.

Jan was in the big blind when this hand was dealt. I had the AHeart Suit KDiamond Suit under the gun, and open-raised. A middle position player called, and, as expected, Jan came along.

Three of us looked at the flop, KSpade Suit JHeart Suit 6Spade Suit. Jan checked, I bet, the middle-positon player called, and Jan raised. I immediately recognized this as a classical raise-or-fold situation, and prepared to reraise, but then I foolishly thought again. If I just called here, Jan would bet again, and I could raise, forcing the other player to face two big bets cold. In addition, I could extract more money from Jan. All I had to do was get by the turn card. I “cleverly” slow-played, and waited for my chance to pounce.

Alas, the best-laid plans do not always pan out. After the turn of the 2Club Suit, Jan unexpectedly checked! What was this? I finally decided that he was trying for what I have heard described as the “inverse free card,” whereby you checkraise the flop out of position, then check the turn, hoping that everyone will be afraid that you will check-raise again and will therefore check. Most likely, Jan had a flush draw and didn’t want to pay any more when he missed the turn. Well, that wasn’t going to happen here. I immediately bet. If he check-raised again, I would deal with it then. Both players called, Jan with his last chips.

The river was the 3Spade Suit, completing the possible flush. Jan slowly put a $100 bill in front of him. I had to decide whether or not he really had me beat. I thought he did, for several reasons:

1. It was consistent with my earlier read.
2. Jan had lost so much money that he would not try to bluff two players when either of us could have made the flush.
3. Jan was clearly depressed. While desperate players make crazy bluffs, depressed players do not.
4. Jan pushed the $100 bill into the pot. Very few players like to bluff when they have run out of chips and now have to risk a bill. This is a surprisingly reliable tell, although, of course, not 100 percent so.

Also, the third player may have made a flush. There were 10.5 bets in the pot, but I thought my chances of winning were almost nil. I folded. The third player also folded, so we will never know for sure.

Sometimes you have to lay down top pair with top kicker for a single river bet when you believe that you have lost. It’s not fun, but I am content with my laydown (although still annoyed with my flop play).

Hand No. 2: The $80-$160 game broke at about 2:30 a.m. and one of its players joined our game; he sat down to the left of Jan. Let’s call him “James.”

On the second orbit after James joined us, I was in the big blind with the JSpade Suit 10Club Suit. James was on the button. Everyone folded to Jan, who limped in from the cutoff. This is red meat for a high-limit player, and I said to myself, “James will raise here with any two cards.” An instant later, James raised. I thought about three-betting, but the purpose of that would be to get Jan to fold, and once Jan put in a bet, he was not folding for anything short of World War III. I called, as did Jan.

The flop came ASpade Suit QSpade Suit QClub Suit, giving me a gutshot. We checked to James, who automatically bet. I still thought he could have any two cards. I believed that raising would be futile, and called, as did Jan.

The turn was the 3Heart Suit. Now, in high-limit play, a player with a queen will call the flop and bet the turn, because the player on the button, fearing a check-raise, will often check a hand as good as A-J. I felt that James would recognize the play, so I bet, representing (I hoped) a queen. I thought that putting Jan in the middle would perhaps scare him into folding, but, of course, it didn’t. He called, but James went along with the program and folded.

The river was a harmless-looking 7. I had no choice but to bet again, just in case Jan held a king-high flush draw. I could have been bluffing with the best hand, but just in case, I had to follow through. As I had hoped, he folded, and I happily collected the pot.

Conclusion: In the course of three orbits, I folded top pair with top kicker on the river, and won a pot by betting jack high. Both of these plays were the result of not only analysis during the hands, but a lot of study in previous sessions and the current state of mind of an opponent.

Studying does not always lead you to the right conclusion, but it does give you a much better chance to make the best possible decisions when you finally get to play a hand. It is the most important thing you can do at the table during the many times that you are out of a hand. Spade Suit

Barry Tanenbaum is the author of Advanced Limit Hold’em Strategy, and collaborator on Limit Hold’em: Winning Short-Handed Strategies. Barry offers private lessons tailored to the individual student. Please see his website,, or write to him at



11 years ago

Wow I never knew 40-80 limit hold em could have players as bad as Jan.