Hand Reading: The Most Important Skill in Poker
Remember the scene from Rounders where Matt Damon’s character walks in on the judges’ game and reads the hand of every person at the table? While this level of hand reading may be a bit far-fetched, the scene still captures the essence of what distinguishes the truly great poker players from everybody else.
After-all, imagine if you could see your opponent’s hole cards? You would print money. Your own cards would hardly matter. You would push him off his hand when he was weak, and you would fold when he was strong. This is the ideal. You should make it your mission in poker to come as close to this as you can.
In fact there are certainly times when your opponent has revealed enough information that you can in fact narrow his holding down to two specific cards. But most of the time just getting a read on the overall strength of his range is enough to make profitable decisions.
Hand Reading Basics
At the beginning, you’re simply trying to expand your awareness beyond your own cards. You must remember to spend time during the hand considering what he’s holding, based on what he’s doing.
Most everyone will do this at least on a sub-conscious level, but you want to make it a very intentional, structured mental activity.
It may help to follow a formula. Practice the following steps away from the table for a while until it starts to feel natural, and then practice while you play.
Steps to Reading a Hand
- Categorize your opponent
- Assign an initial range using his first action and position
- Narrow his range using the flop + his action
- Repeat with each new street and/or action
Categorizing your Opponent
Before you can begin to decipher their actions, you need to study their behavior for a while. If you’re playing online, a database and HUD will do this for you.
There are two primary qualities to pay attention to:
- How tight or loose are they? Are they playing many hands or few?
- How aggressive or passive are they? Are they constantly betting and raising or do they do more checking and calling?
It helps to develop a labeling system to place someone along these two dimensions. Many of you may be familiar with this. You can use the quadrant:
- Loose Passive (LP)
- Loose Aggressive (LAG)
- Tight Passive (TP)
- Tight Aggressive (TAG)
Of course, the best strategy for us to follow is usually a tight aggressive one.
Those four are a good starting point, but over time your labeling system should evolve to encompass the wide range of player types that are possible. As your labels get more specific, your hand reading gets more precise.
Assign an Initial Range
Once you have an idea of the kind of player your opponent is, you’re ready to give him a range. If you’re new to this concept, then read my article on the importance of range-based thinking.
What position is he in? Is he even aware of the importance of position? Assuming he is, then of course he’s going to be opening more hands as he gets closer to the button.
You can use poker range software like Flopzilla or Poker Ranger to practice picking hands and creating a range. Or better yet, you will have memorized your own starting hand ranges and then you can use those as a starting point.
For example, let’s say he opens in the Cut-Off and he’s a reg (or TAG just like you). Now you can assume he’s opening the same range as you would from that position. If he’s looser (aka a fish), maybe he’s opening a range that is closer to your button opening range.
If he’s 3-betting preflop, then his range is going to be tighter. If he’s cold-calling, then his range is probably missing the best hands (i.e. QQ+ and AK).
You get the idea.
Narrow his Range on the Flop
Let’s say this reg that opens in the cut-off then decides to continuation bet on a flop of 2 2 2.
Now we must combine our knowledge of his player category with the initial range we gave him. If he has a very wide range, then we must consider that he’s missing this flop a ton. But we must weigh in the second dimension: how aggressive is he? A very timid player, even if he misses a lot, may only be betting here with a strong hand.
Again Flopzilla here is a great practice tool (or barring that, simply a spreadsheet!) Start removing all the hands from the assigned range that you don’t think he bets.
Next, you must make a decision. The whole point of this hand reading activity is to help us choose the best strategy!
If you missed the flop yourself, then you have to think about whether your opponent is bluff-able based on the range you gave him. If you have a weak holding, you must decide whether to bluff catch and how far to go. And if you slam the board, it’s all about whether or not to slowplay.
Continue to Narrow with New Information
With each new card that falls and each new action on his part, you must adjust the set of hands you’re visualizing in your head.
It’s important not to add new cards to the range that you hadn’t assigned him earlier in the hand, as this can sometimes happen. Or sometimes you get so caught up in the current action that you completely forget what the range was.
Don’t sweat it. Hand reading is a difficult skill to master. There are many, many levels that you will steadily progress through. Keep practicing, and slowly it becomes second-nature.
Eventually getting to the place where you can call out his specific hand on the river is a rush! Not to mention extremely profitable.