April 1, 2011

Learning How to Read Hands in Poker

Learning How to Read Hands in Poker

Editor's Note: This was originally written for the purpose of publication with the Two Plus Two forums online magazine; however it never ended up being used. I think it's useful, so I'm posting it here.

The core of no limit holdem, and indeed all poker, is getting good at reading your opponents' hands.  If you can do that well, you should be at least a moderate winner in your games, even if your other skills need work.  Many players have trouble getting beyond basic generalizations like “he may have a draw or a moderate made hand, but not a strong hand,” and even good hand-readers often tell us that they simply have a “feel” for it.  Few players are able to fully explain how they come to very accurate deductions about their opponent's hand, and it is rare to see any discussion of this in print. Well card sense is not always a god-given gift.  It can be learned and developed, and with practice, you can get a surprisingly accurate “feel” for hand ranges.

The first step is to get in the habit of being specific in the ranges you give your opponents and the reasons you give them.  This will allow you to correct errors later on and also give you better input when you are analyzing ranges later on.  When a good, generally tight opponent opens under the gun, refrain from merely assigning him “a tight range”.  Instead, identify exactly how tight and specifying what hands he may or may not have.  Would he open pocket twos and pocket fives, or only pocket sevens and higher?  Why do you think he would or wouldn't play pocket fives?  Is it because you personally think fives is or isn't a clear open?

When you consider what he may have, you should be thinking along the lines of: “He would definitely raise with nines or better, ace-jack through ace-king, king-queen, and I've seen him turn over 87s and A6s before after raising under the gun, so adding in all suited connectors five-four and higher as well as all suited aces is reasonable.  Because he plays at least some suited aces and suited connectors, I think having all pocket pairs in his range is reasonable as well.  So I'm putting him on a range of 22+,A2s+,AJo+,KQ,54s-AKs right now, but that range is open to change with new information.”

Thinking like this does two things:  First, it allows us to get very specific data when we want to start seeing how we fare against his range in programs like PokerStove; more importantly, it allows us to correct errors in logic and make more accurate deductions later in the hand.  If we are looking at a flop of K94 and we are thinking about what a UTG opponent can have, if we merely gave him “high cards” we might think he can have a lot of gutshots and two pair type hands.  But if we have seen him play and are very sure he would only play QJ or JT if it is suited, and never play K9, suited or not, that significantly reduces many of the threats we might have been worried about.

The next step in hand reading is to start trying to always think about how your opponents would react to every action you can take with each hand in his range.  If an opponent opens UTG preflop and you are next to act, how would he react to a 3-bet?  What hands might he call with?  What would he fold?  What would he 4-bet?  If he 4-bets, which hands that he 4-bets would he call an all in with?  What would the players behind you do?  Remember from the last step that all of the answers to these questions should be in specific ranges with specific reasons.  So when you ask yourself how he might react to the 3-bet, the answer should be similar to:

“He will probably be happy to 4-bet and go with JJ+,AK and he might go with 99 and TT as well.  I've 3-bet a few times already and my VPIP is very high for the session, so there's a reasonable chance he might even go with 66-88, or just jam all lower pairs on me, but he's caved a few times to pressure even when he was getting run over, so I think he's disciplined enough to not do that, even though I appear to be fairly wild.  He could legitimately think AQ or AJ is good, and he may also try 4-betting me as a bluff with some of his weaker suited aces and suited connectors, although again, he's been staying tight even under pressure, so I don't think that's too likely.”

Even if you're wrong in your assessment, by verbalizing it so specifically, you allow room for change.  You can talk with your poker friends and let them spot errors you may have missed, which is impossible when your reasoning is as vague as “I haven't made a move recently, so now seems good.”

Also, remember to not only use this thinking on the “main” player, such as the opener.  If you are preflop, you should be considering the other players who have yet to act, and even if you are heads up, you should ask yourself what would happen if he was a different type of player.  The goal of this step is to get you thinking about why you should or should not do certain things and how your opponent's range can be narrowed down based on how he responds to whatever you may do.

The third step is a continuation of this process, and it is to plan ahead for future streets.  If you have raised the flop, you should be not only considering what you'll do if he re-raises, but what you'll do if he calls and bets/checks/check-raises/check-folds on a turn card of (insert card here).  Of the hands he can have up to this point, which hands are helped or harmed or unchanged by this card?  Once again, be specific; list them out, along with why you think they are affected by that card.  Do this for the river too.  And of course, practice doing it when you are not in the hand.  Watch the lines other players take and start to ask yourself which hands they might do that with and which ones they certainly wouldn't.  You might not be right, but doing the exercise is what's important.

Although the prior exercises have only helped develop a clear and logical thought process, it was necessary so that we can finally combine that process with the board texture, prior action, and other information to accurately reduce our opponent's possible set of holdings to as small a range as possible.  (Note that sometimes keeping an opponent's range wide is more profitable.  For example checking back and keeping in the worst of his range may be preferable to a bad bet which gives good information but not enough to make up for the cost of the bet.  The purpose of this article is to get better at narrowing ranges, so I am ignoring exceptions of this type.)

Let's say you, a good tight-aggressive player, open UTG with pocket tens, and only the button, another good tight-aggressive player, calls you.  Before he called, I hope you were considering what you would do if various other players had 3-bet.  Now that he has called and it's only you two, you should be thinking about what he can have.  He would probably have called you with a lot of pocket pairs, suited connectors, one-gappers, suited aces, possibly some high cards as well.  As you verbalize each possibility to yourself, you should realize that pairs above yours and ace-king are less likely than normal because he would probably 3-bet those hands more often than something like 76s.  So tentatively, you give him a calling range of (22-TT, 54s-KQs,64s-AQs,A2s-AJs,AJo,AQo) and then maybe one-quarter of the time that he gets them, he might also have (JJ+,AK) and you also allow for the possibility of worse off-suit aces as well as other complete junk that just plans to float you.

The first flop we'll look at is the extremely dry flop of 2c-2h-2d.  This is the easiest type of board to analyze.  How do each of the hands he can have fare on this flop?  Most of his suited connectors and one-gappers are near worthless, all of his pocket pairs are now full houses, any high cards he may have have six outs against you, and one lone hand in his range (As2s) is now a 99.9% lock.  What will he do if you bet though?  His lower pairs have to fear that you have him crushed, and hands like AJ and KQ are behind all pairs you might have, as well as your possible AK or AQ.  What would a raise by him mean?  Is he finding out “where he's at” with a hand like 77, or simply turning much of his range into a bluff?  Or would it almost always just be As2s hoping you have a high pair like you do?

Even though we are first to act and the only new information we have is the flop cards, we can still make reasonable guesses about how he might react with various portions of his range. We know that we are almost certainly ahead, and if he raises and is even moderately prone to bluffing or over-valuing his mediocre hands, we can happily re-raise and get it in.  We also know that if we bet and get called it's very likely a pocket pair.  Let's say you bet the flop and bet a 3s turn and that he calls those bets.  He almost certainly will have a middle pair like sevens, eights or nines.  All of his lower pairs are probably going to be too scared to continue, as are his high cards.  The rest of his range, the suited connectors and suited aces probably would have just given up on the flop.  By articulating his possible holdings and thinking about the most likely way he would act with those, we are able to narrow his vast preflop range down to a very small subset of likely holdings.  Sometimes we will be wrong; he may make a horrible float or just do something completely unexpected, but that's ok—you will get better at predicting those sorts of things as you play more with him and get a “feel” for that particular player.

Let's change the flop to 9s-8s-3d.  Now all his low pocket pairs (except 33) are likely to abandon ship, and only 76s, 98s, and JTs have much interest in staying in.  Similarly, three-quarters of his suited aces whiffed, and all of his high cards that aren't spades are likely to get out too.  So even though this flop is somewhat drawy, a bet will win fairly often.  But when it doesn't, what is he likely to have?  A raise on his part could be a set, 98, a straight draw, or a flush draw (and sometimes an outright bluff).  If you've seen him flat bets with draws a few times before, then you could very precisely pin-point his range to only sets, 98, a few combo draws like JsTs and 7s6s, and outright bluffs.  Knowing that he is much more apt to call with a  draw can let you make a very tight (but in this case correct) lay down to flop raise, simply because you've seen him call with a draw a few times before.  By being able to narrate to yourself each of his hands and how much they like or dislike that flop and knowing that he plays his draws passively, you can pinpoint his range again to a very narrow subset when he raises.  Of course, when he calls, it may be more difficult.  Because you don't know when he calls if he has a straight or a flush draw, he can represent either one when it comes in, and still be reasonably balanced.  However, if they don't come in and he's called down, you can snap off a lot of bluffs by knowing that a lot of his range is draws compared to strong value hands (which probably would have raised the flop anyway).

Narrowing down an opponent's range takes a lot of work.  You have to commit to constantly thinking about it, always going through the steps listed above.  As you get used to it and that process becomes second nature, and as you play against and gain information about your opponents, you will find that you are reading them with surprising accuracy.  Some boards make it more difficult, and many good opponents balance fairly well and are thus be harder to read, but that's just how life goes—you work with what you get.  If you take the time to really work at the skills (and mess around with PokerStove while you're at it), you will become proficient at hand reading and knowing how you're doing against your opponent's range in almost every situation.  It take dedication, practice, logic, and discussing hands with friends, but if you practice, you will soon be making soul reads and hero calls with the best of them.