#5 Hand-Reading

Being able to process information from your opponent, the texture of the board, and past experiences will help you become a better hand-reader. Improving your hand-reading skills will allow you to make more “correct” decisions in a session, thus resulting in making plays with higher expectation.

David Sklansky’s Fundamental Theorem of Poker explains why this is so important:

“Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents’ cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose. Conversely, every time opponents play their hands differently from the way they would have if they could see all your cards, you gain; and every time they play their hands the same way they would have played if they could see all your cards, you lose.”

Developing the following are keys to improving this skill:

1.Reading opponents bet sizes, timing, and patterns

2.Analyzing board texture

3.Process of elimination


1.Reading opponents bet sizes, timing, and tendencies

Our opponents tend to provide us with a lot of information regarding the relative strength of their hand. It is up to us to determine what means what and then apply this information to the hand in question.

Bet Sizing

A lot can be determined through an opponent’s bet-sizing. There is no exact rule to determining which sized bet means strength and which means weakness. It is up to you to diligently observe your opponents and take notes on which was which.

In general, very small bets tend to be made with weak holdings. You will see weak opponents bet into a PF aggressor with a small bet, this generally is a hand that cannot stand a lot of aggression. If you observe a player bet a small amount into the PF aggressor and then call or raise make sure you note that their small bets do not necessarily mean weakness.

Bet-sizing can also be the sign of a strong opponent or a poor one. It can also be indicative of what I call the “cookie-cutter TAGG.” This player uses “standard” bet-sizing on all streets. They play poker as if it is a paint-by-numbers game, rarely deviating from the norm.

Typed-out bet-sizes are generally a display of strength. Usually someone has to be very comfortable with their hand/action to take the time to bet 1757 instead of moving the slider to 1700 or 1800. Picking up on this could save you quite an amount of money in the future. As always, take a note on these bets. If an opponent surprises you and shows up with a weak hand after making a typed-out bet it would benefit you to note it.

Timing Tells

The major difference in online poker compared to live is that the visual cues/tells you receive in a casino are not present online. However, this does not mean our opponents are un-readable. Timing tells can give away a lot about a player’s hand strength and their possible subsequent action on future streets.

One disclaimer: against someone playing a large amount of tables at one time, these may not hold true.

The most frequent timing tell is when a check, bet, raise, or call is done instantly. To determine what this typically means, one has to dive into the mind of their opponent. When an opponent can determine an action in a split-section the decision must not have been a difficult one. Generally when someone acts very quickly their hand strength is polarized meaning it is either very strong, or, in most cases, very weak. If your opponent had a hand of medium-strength he/she may have taken more time to determine the proper action rather than acting instantly.

Using timing tells can help you on different streets. If your opponent checks and calls a continuation-bet very quickly, you may discern they have a weak 1-pair hand that cannot stand a lot of aggression. They called the flop so quickly because they knew their hand was too good to fold but to weak to raise with. This could allow you to make a turn bet with a weak hand yourself that could steal the pot away from your opponent.

Opponent’s Tendencies

As you move through limits, you will begin to encounter smaller and smaller player bases. At 25nl you could play all day and possibly not encounter the same opponent twice. The same cannot be said for higher limits. The faster one is able to adjust to an opponent’s tendencies, the better they will play according to the Fundamental Theorem of Poker.

The best high-stakes players are, without a doubt, the best at identifying their opponent’s patterns and then making the appropriate adjustments. Here are just ten examples of patters that could be worth noting:

1.Villain raises PF from Early Position and shows down KJo

2.Villain 3bets PF and shows down 97s

3.Villain calls a raise PF and shows AKo

4.Villain calls a raise PF from the SB and shows 78o

5.Villain calls a continuation bet, checks the turn and river and shows a flush draw

6.Villain Raises PF, checks the flop, bets the turn and river and shows a flopped top-pair hand

7.Villain 4bet PF and folded to a 5bet shove

8.Villain 4bet PF and showed AQ

9.Villain called PF, check/raised a flop, and showed down a flush draw

10.Villain called PF, check/called a flop, and showed down a set

All of these observations could better help you determine your opponent’s hand strength in the future. It is good to note villain does not 3bet AKo or that he/she opens KJo in early position because in future pots you will have a better idea of what they are holding.

2.Analyzing Board Texture

Plain and simple the texture of the community cards will determine a lot of the possible holding our opponents could have.

A flop of J:s: T:s: 8:h: which would be considered a “wet” flop is much more dangerous than…

A flop of K:d: 8:c: 4:h: which would be considered a “dry” flop.

The first flop contains a wide variety of possible draws and 2pair hands. The second flop contains no draws and, in general, there are only a few possible strong holdings that could hit this board. If you were up against an opponent playing aggressively on the first flop it would be hard to deduce what hand they hold. They could have a hand like three-of-a-kind, or an Ace-high flush draw, or even a hand like J9 which is top-pair and an open-ended straight draw.

Contrast this with the second flop. If your opponent plays aggressively on this flop he either has a strong hand like AK/KQ/88/44 or a bluff. There typically is very little middle-ground on such a “dry” flop.

Being able to analyze which flops are good for continuation-betting or which flops are good to bluff-raise can help improve your win-rate. Generally, you want to choose the boards where your opponent cannot possibly have a wide array of strong holdings. As you move up in limits you will come across other opponents who have learned this, so once again, adjusting to their tendencies will be key.

3.Process of Elimination

Being able to use the process of elimination is the key to reading hands in poker. In general being able to narrow your opponents’ possible hands is a multiple part process. The more information we gain the more we are able to reduce our opponents’ possible holdings. Let’s look at a typical hand and break it down street by street:

Our main villain is the Villain1 in the Small Blind

PokerStars No-Limit Hold’em, $1.00 BB (7 handed) – ACR Poker Converter Tool from FlopTurnRiver.com

UTG ($39.45)

Villain2 (MP1) ($62.80)

Hero (MP2) ($100)

CO ($112.45)

Button ($96.90)

Villain1 (SB) ($98.60)

BB ($49.90)

Preflop: Hero is MP2 with Q, A

1 fold, Villain2 calls $1, Hero raises to $5, 2 folds, Villain1 calls $4.50, 1 fold, Villain2 calls $4

Through the use of tools such as PokerTracker and a Heads-Up Display our opponent can be classified as very aggressive. He plays nearly 40% of his hands PF and raises 30% of them. We have seen him 3bet AKo and AQs PF as well as call a pre-flop raise with A5o.

Therefore, after he calls PF we are able to eliminate some stronger holdings from his range. We deduce he cannot possibly have JJ-AA, AK.

Flop: ($16) J, A, 7 (4 players, 1 all-in)

Villain1 checks, Villain2 checks, Hero bets $11, Villain1 calls $11, 1 fold

The flop is a good one for us. Top-pair good kicker is obviously a strong hand against an opponent like this. He check/calls a standard-sized continuation bet. His range is now Ax, Jx, and possibly some gutshot straight draws. A note on villains shows we have seen him play 2pair aggressively in the past.

Turn: ($38) K (3 players, 1 all-in)

Villain1 checks, Hero bets $30, Villain1 raises to $82.60 (All-In)

On this turn our opponent decides to check/raise us all-in. Understanding his tendencies makes this call much easier than it may appear to be. Hero knows he would 3bet AA/KK/JJ/AKo PF and call with hands like A7o or KJo. Also, hero knows he likes to play 2pair aggressively, making AJ and A7o less likely. Therefore, on the turn the only three hands Hero has to be concerned about are 77, KJ and QT. However, this opponent can be bluffing or value-shoving worse, which, fortunately for Hero was the case here.

Hero calls $52.60

River: ($203.20) 4 (3 players, 2 all-in)

Total pot: $203.20 | Rake: $3


Villain1 had A, 8 (one pair, Aces).

Hero had Q, A (one pair, Aces).

Outcome: Hero won $200.20

Being able to break down our opponent’s actions on each street allowed Hero to successfully determine he was a favorite against villain’s turn c/r range. Had he not taken notes on this opponent and studied his past tendencies, hero’s actions may have been different. This is where being able to eliminate hands from an opponent’s range is so critical. Using all of the possible information to your advantage will help you greatly narrow your opponent’s range, thus enabling you to make the correct decision much more easily.

4.Note Taking

One of the most under-utilized tools in online poker would be note-taking. In online poker we tend to come across the same opponent’s frequently. Observing their patterns and taking notes on them will help improve your earnings in the long-run. The tendencies we discussed before are great examples of what to take notes on.

Notes should be kept short and simple; some players have even developed a certain form of short-hand to expedite the note-taking process. Remember, the more information you have on your opponent the better chance you have of making a correct decision.

Programs like PokerTracker or Hold’em Manager allow you to review your opponents play and take notes on them. From there you can export your notes to the poker site of your choice, thus giving you an incredible advantage the next time you play. Sort your database to find the ten players you have the most hands logged against. Look through their biggest hands played $ amount wise and note how they played them. Having this information could make/save you a lot of money in your next session.

By using all of the available tools/programs/resources to your advantage you should be able to improve your hand-reading skills. The best way to continually improve your hand-reading is through trial and error. Determine what you think your opponent’s hand or range is and every time you are proven wrong make sure to take notes. The more and more you work on this skill the better it will become, along with your winrate.

I hope you enjoyed this 5-part series looking into major leaks in a losing NL player. Stay tuned for more poker-insights in the near future.

Be sure to see the other parts of this article, which is a 5 part series!

Spenda’s 5 Biggest Leaks of a Losing NL Player

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