Reading your poker opposition a crucial skill

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Competition is at the heart of the game of poker, whatever variety you choose to play. Consider the game of Texas hold’em played in a casino.

At a full table, typically you will have eight or nine opponents vying against you to win the chips in the pot. Of course, in the long run, players with greater skills are expected to win most of the chips (less the casino’s rake).

Based on observations, I dare say only 10-20% of players go home winners. An important part of those skills is “reading” opponents and their hands, so you can make the best decisions.

In that regard, the question you would like to answer is: “What hand does my opponent have?” Unless, he flashes his down cards, the best you can do is guess. The better the guess, the more likely you will make the best decision. Good information is the key.

First, let’s decide what type of player each opponent is: Tight (conservative) or loose? Passive or aggressive? How aggressive? A maniac? A calling-station? Deceptive (often bluffs)? Timid (tends to fold to a raise)? A combination? That’s easy to understand.

But, in practice, how can you tell? Observe the “enemy” as they play. Tight players fold the majority of their hole cards. Loose players are just the opposite. (They came to play!) Most of their hands will be poor starting-hands. Is he on tilt? (His actions may well be irresponsible. Don’t let him chase you out of the pot if you have lots of outs.) The same may apply to an opponent who has lots of chips in front of him. By all means, don’t try to bluff out a calling-station; there could be more than one at your table.

On that basis, you should have a pretty good idea what types of hands your opponent is likely to be playing – actually a range of hands.

Check your notes: What has been your opponent’s betting pattern and types of hands he has played? Does he play all pairs, no matter his position or how many stay to see the flop? Does he like to play all suited hole cards? Does he play small and medium connectors from early/middle positions?

That’s using data readily available, if you focus on it. Most don’t. Perhaps, they’re too absorbed with their own hands. Taking notes can help.

Look for tells. Inadvertently, your opponent may give you vital information by his body motions, facial expressions, or even the sound of his voice. It’s best to correlate his tells with how he played that hand. Then you can use that information in subsequent hands. Considering a typical hold’em hand runs two minutes, you can expect about 150 hands (opportunities), perhaps more, during a five-hour session.

That’s a lot of information. You have to be constantly thinking about it to use it effectively. It’s best if you find yourself heads-up on the turn – just one opponent to worry about.

Example: You semi-bluff on the turn with four to an Ace-high flush. One opponent calls. Glance at your notes. He is a loose, somewhat aggressive player, and not a calling-station. He frequently raises. In previous hands that he won with a big hand, he often raised on the turn. Not this time.

Occasionally, he is prone to bluff. But, he has a tell: He covers his mouth with one hand when bluffing. Not this time. Put him on a small/medium pair or a drawing hand, perhaps to the same flush for which you aspire. The river fails to make your big flush; all you have is Ace-high.

Now, with all this information for your “read,” you can make the best decision: Use the Esther Bluff to get him to fold in case he has a small pair that would beat your busted flush draw.

“The Engineer,” a noted author and teacher in Greater Los Angeles, is a member of the Seniors Poker Hall of Fame. Email: [email protected].

About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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