by Andrew Brokos
To the uninitiated, hand reading can seem like an almost mystical poker skill. Using some incomprehensible sixth sense, the best poker players in the world decipher their opponents’ hidden cards and make mind-boggling bluffs and calls as a result.
Though hand reading may seem like a supernatural talent beyond the grasp of mere mortals, the truth is quite the opposite. Hand reading is a science founded upon deductive logic. Poker players observe data about how an opponent is playing, compare that data to their past experiences to form assumptions about how the opponent will play in the future, and then use those assumptions to interpret an opponent’s actions and zero in on his possible holdings.
Experience, of course, cannot be taught. I can, however, suggest some reasonable baseline assumptions to make about an opponent. From these, I derive a simplified method for determining, if not his exact hand, at least the approximate strength of his hand, which is often all that you need to make your decision.
There are a few basic assumptions about your opponents’ play that need to hold true for my simple hand-reading method to work. They aren’t absolutes, but the more accurately they describe an opponent’s play, the more effective this method will be.
The first is that your opponent will not make thin value bets. In other words, he will be fairly confident both that he has the best hand and that you will call with a worse hand before he will try to bet for value. There is no clear standard for what a “thin” value bet is, but the more timid your opponent, the more effective this hand-reading technique will be.
The second key assumption is that your opponent will not turn a made hand into a bluff. If he believes that he has a shot of winning at showdown, then he will seek to get to showdown cheaply rather than move you off of your hand. When he bluffs, it is because he thinks he has little or no chance of winning otherwise.
The third and final key assumption is that your opponent will not chase a draw with blatantly bad odds. The immediate odds may not quite be there if he is banking on implied odds or a chance of bluffing you out later, but he will not for instance call a pot-sized turn bet for 1/3 of the effective stacks with a bare gutshot draw and no showdown value.
Only you can determine how well these assumptions apply to your particular opponent, or to opponents in general in the games that you play. My own experience is that these assumptions hold reasonably true for most players in the small- and mid-stakes no-limit hold ’em games online, certainly well enough to make the following hand reading method effective.
The Hand Categorization Method
The basic idea behind this simplified hand reading technique is not to put an opponent on an exact hand or two-card combination but rather to narrow his range down to one or two of three broad categories:
Monster hands– These are the hands where your opponent wants to play a big pot. That doesn’t mean he’ll bet or raise at every opportunity- some players love to slowplay- but it means that he is confident that his hand is best and that there are plenty of worse hands that will pay him off.
Showdown hands– In these cases, your opponent believes he has the best hand, but he is not trying to build the pot. Usually players will exercise pot control with these hands, checking when they can and calling when they have to. Some may make small bets or raises as blocking bets or to “see where they’re at”.
Drawing/bluffing hands– Drawing hands are hands that need to improve or bluff to have a reasonable expectation of winning the pot. This refers not just to obvious draws such as four to a flush but to any hand which currently has little or not showdown value. Depending on their play style and the value of the draw, players may play drawing hands fast or slow.
Again, we are not dealing in absolutes here. There are no clear criteria for what a “thin” value bet is or how strong of a hand should be turned into a bluff. But the more your opponent maintains these distinctions, and most do to a lesser or greater extent, the more effectively you can categories his hand.
Although these are broad categories, they can give you a lot of guidance with regard to how to play your hand. Eliminating even one of these types of hands from your opponent’s range can swing a river decision from a call to a fold.
Example 1: He’s Got a Monster
The action folds to you on the button in a $1/$2 NLHE game. You raise to $6, and the big blind calls. Right now, it seems like he probably does not have a monster, or else he would have re-raised. You put him on either a drawing hand, maybe a suited connector, or a showdown hand, something like a small pocket pair or a weak suited Ace.
The flop looks like a good one for you: K89, all different suits. Your opponent checks, you bet $10 into the $13 pot, and he calls. There still aren’t many ways for your opponent to have a monster here. You think he would fold K8 or K9 pre-flop and re-raise AA and KK, so you are only worried about 88, 99, and 98. There aren’t many draws possible: the only ones you could see your opponent playing here are JT or 76. You think his most likely holding is some kind of showdown hand, either a weak King or one of the smaller pairs.
The river is a T. Your opponent checks, and you check as well. That card may have improved your opponent’s hand, but mostly you are just worried that he will fold almost everything worse than your pair if you bet again.
The river is a harmless 2. However, your opponent surprises you with a pot-sized $33 bet. Some players feel obligated to call here, since they have top pair top kicker and they feel like they induced a bluff by checking on the turn. But how often does the big blind have a hand that needs to bluff?
Remember that we were putting him on a showdown hand, with an outside chance of a draw or a slowplayed monster. This river bet, though, all but eliminates the showdown category. Why would he bet pot with a hand that he’s trying to showdown cheaply? It might be reasonable for him to bet a worse King for value, but you think he would make a smaller bet if he were doing so.
That means that the drawing and monster hands, previously a small part of his range, are now his most likely holdings. But recall how few draws were possible, only 76 and JT. The former is now a straight, whereas the latter has turned second pair and is now a showdown hand. Thus, only a monster, probably a slowplayed set or a turned straight or two pair, makes sense. Folding is correct.
Example 2: He Can’t Have a Monster
The button open raises to $6 in a $1/$2 NLHE game. He has about $400 in his stack, and you have him covered. You call with 98 suited. The flop comes K76, all different suits. You check, he bets $8, and you raise to $25 on a semi-bluff. He calls. Unfortunately, this doesn’t give much information about his possible hand categories. He would call with any pair 6’s or better, so a showdown hand is very possible. This would also be a natural time to slowplay a monster, so sets are a possibility. Your opponent might even call with drawing hands as weak as gutshots or Ace-high (most of which are actually ahead of your hand, though that’s probably not how your opponent is thinking about it) hoping to take the pot away later.
The turn brings a 4 and a possible flush draw, and you check, ready to give up on your draw to most bets. Your opponent checks behind. Now it’s time to start eliminating categories from his range. If he called the flop with a drawing hand, it was with the intention of bluffing. You gave him the chance, and he didn’t bluff. So while it’s not entirely impossible, it seems like he isn’t on a draw.
Could he have a monster? This is an awfully unlikely time to slowplay. Not many players will decline to bet with a monster when the pot is so small, the effective stacks so large, and there is only one betting street left. He had the opportunity to build the pot, and he didn’t take it. Not to mention that there are now quite a few draws out there that he needs to think about.
It seems, then, that he has a hand he is trying to showdown cheaply. The river is another 6, pairing the board. You check again, prepared to lose to something like 97 at showdown. To your surprise, your opponent makes a small bet of $25 into the $63 pot.
We already determined that he almost certainly did not check two pair or better on the turn. It’s possible that he had one pair and rivered trips, but his bet is awfully small for that, not to mention that trips are just never that likely.
There’s an outside chance that he still feels he needs to bluff, but it seems most likely that he now considers one of his better showdown hands, perhaps something like KT, worthy of a small value bet. In either event, it seems unlikely that he can stand a big check-raise. You raise to $125, and your opponent folds.
Notice than in neither of these examples did we put our opponent on an exact hand. In the second example, we didn’t even know which category of hand he had. All we needed to know was that he could not have one particular type of hand.
Calling an opponent’s hole cards down to the suits is a neat parlor trick that can impress television audiences and intimidate other players. But it is hardly essential to making good decisions against all but the most sophisticated players. Learning to categorize your opponents’ possible holdings is a simple and effective method for improving your decision-making.
This article originally appeared in Two Plus Two Magazine.