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Poker Strategy With Ed Miller: How To Analyze Hands

Miller Offers Helpful Tips For Reviewing Hands

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Ed MillerIf you want to get better at poker, the most important thing you can do is write down hands from your play and analyze them. But just writing hands down and going over them isn’t enough. You have to ask the right questions.

There are a few ways to analyze hands in a constructive way. I detail an in-depth method in my most recent book, Poker’s 1%. If this topic interests you, and you want to see what I believe to be the most powerful way to improve at poker, please check that book out.

The method in Poker’s 1% is too involved to discuss in a single column, however, so I’ll give you something simpler here. This method is different and also quite valuable. Ideally, you should analyze your hands using both methods, as they approach the game from two different directions. In this method, we’re trying to answer the question, “What are we trying to accomplish?”

The first step is to select hands to review. I prefer to start with hands that end on the turn or river without a showdown. But any hand where you have legitimate questions about the play are worth reviewing. Pick two-to-four hands from a given session.

The next step is to identify the strategic arc of the hand. While poker seems like a series of confrontations over random hands, long-term money is won or lost on a strategy versus strategy level. Your opponent plays with a strategy. You play with a strategy. If your strategy is better, you will win money over time. If your strategy is crafted to exploit the specific vulnerabilities in your opponent’s strategy, you will absolutely crush over time.

Therefore, once you have chosen a hand to analyze, the next thing to do is to identify the key characteristics of your opponents’ strategies.

Let’s say you choose a hand that ended on the turn. One player limped in, and you were to act on the button. This limper is the key opponent. What are the key characteristics of this player’s strategy? If this was a live no-limit hold’em game, we can assume (especially since he happened to limp in this hand) that he plays many hands preflop. He probably wants to see a flop and hopes he makes a hand of some sort. He likely plans to fold the flop if he doesn’t hit much. He likely plans to continue one or two streets if he makes a hand — from there he will play it by ear. If you show weakness, he might try to steal the pot. If he makes a big hand, he’ll likely try to figure out a way to get you to call a big bet. This might mean trying to slow play, or it might mean raising early in the hand.

So this is his strategy. He sees lots of flops. He folds easily without much hand. He plays a street or two and evaluates his options when he hits the flop. If he senses weakness, he might throw in a bluff. If he makes a big hand, he tries to get a big bet called.

This is a pretty standard strategy many live players adopt. What are the weaknesses of it? I count a few.

1. The player plays many hands preflop, but is usually willing to fold on the flop or turn without much hand. This means that you can bluff the turn freely when your opponent checks and expect to show an automatic profit.

2. The player usually tries to get a big bet in with a big hand. This means that when you have position, you can bluff fairly safely on the river after having your turn bluff called. With a big hand, your opponent would generally be uncomfortable slow playing all the way to the river and then checking it to you, offering a free showdown. Since this player’s strategy is to try to get you to call a big bet with a big hand, checking the river means he’s likely willing to consider folding.

3. When the big bets come, they are usually big hands and not bluffs, so you can safely fold your bluff-catchers.

These observations form the counter strategy. Basically our plan is to build pots early while our opponent is playing too many hands. Bet the turn and often also the river when our opponent checks. Fold to big bets. If we build our strategy (when we play in hands with this opponent) around his weaknesses, we will win the strategy versus strategy matchup.

So back to analyzing hands. Now that we have a strategy in mind, we apply it to the hand. Is the way we played the hand consistent with or at odds with our strategy? Or, a third option, is the hand not really relevant to the strategy?

Here are a few examples. In each case, it’s a $2-$5 game, the opponent described above limps in preflop, and we are on the button.

First hand. We have 9-7. We limp behind the limper. The small blind (SB) calls, and the big blind (BB) checks. The flop comes Q-J-7. Everyone checks, and we check. The turn is the 5Spade Suit. The blinds check, and our opponent bets $10. We fold.

Second hand. We have A-7. We raise to $25. The blinds fold, and the limper calls. The flop comes K-7-6. The limper bets $25, and we call. The turn is the Q. He checks, we bet $100, and he folds.

Third hand. We have K-K. We raise to $25. The blinds fold, and the limper calls. The flop comes Q-5-4. He checks, we bet $40, and he folds.

The first hand is an example of one that is at odds with our strategy. Our goal is to bluff turns and rivers, and 9-7 on the button is a fairly good opportunity to do so. We should raise preflop to build a pot worth stealing. Since we didn’t do that, we let the blinds in, and we created a situation for which we have no positive strategy. In this hand, we squandered an opportunity to play our strategy, and therefore the hand should have played differently.

The second hand is an example of one that is consistent with the strategy. We raise preflop to build a pot to steal on the turn or river. With the flopped pair, we call a small bet. No reason to give up yet. The turn check is a green light to bet, and it works.

The third hand is an example of one not relevant to the strategy. We got a big hand, bet it, and he folded.

The goal is to make sure we are playing with purpose. To see that every little move we make, as much as possible, is in service to a broader goal. Next time you play, write down two-to-four hands. Decide what strategies are appropriate to beat your opponents in the hands. Then analyze the hands to see whether you carried out or ignored your strategies. If you think things through this way, you will become a much tougher opponent. ♠

Ed’s newest book, Poker’s 1%: The One Big Secret That Keeps Elite Players On Top is available now at his website edmillerpoker.com. You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the brand new site redchippoker.com.