When it comes to getting better in an early stage of your career, hand reading is a premium. You can understand poker as much as you’d like, but it’s not going to help if you can’t read hands well. It’s hard to know what to do when you have no idea what your opponents hand is, but poker is easy when we can narrow his hand down to 1 or 2. That being said, getting better at hand reading takes experience. The number one way to get better at hand reading it to play, play, play. But you can speed the process of learning up by using the correct philosophies and some useful tips.
The 5 group system
Hand reading isn’t a general process, and it depends on our opponent. However, most of your regularly play with a type of player many call a TAG, a tight aggressive player. This player runs from a 25-15 VPIP, and PFR of 20-10. These type of players tend to group their hands into 5 types. And while the following may apply to many categories of player, I’m only specifically applying it to one.
When evaluating what hand or type of hand our opponent may have, I often think of his range in a few different categories. The first is his strong or his nut hands, such as a set or two pair, and sometimes as weak as an overpair or top pair. These are hands that are playing for stacks, that is, hands that the player is either trying to put 100bb into the pot (by the end of the hand), or is not folding when someone puts their entire stack in (albeit extreme circumstances, maybe if someone open shoved 10 times the pot, they may fold!). The signs we will see if our opponent has a strong hand is first, if he is “playing for stacks” as previously stated, and also when we see him raising and building the pot size.
The next groups is medium strength hands. These are defined as hands that may not be willing to put his entire 100bb+ in with, but are willing to call two streets with. This is a relatively small category of hands. An example of a medium strength hand is something like KJ on a KT6,x,x board. Or maybe JJ on that same board. It’s a hand that our opponent is willing to call two bets with, and may bet twice himself, but no farther than that.
Then we have the weak hands. These are one tier down from medium strength. They rarely put money in on more than one street, whether it’s betting or calling a bet. These are hands like bottom pair or mid pair, even a hand like ace high. It’s likely your opponent has this hand if he has called a bet or bet but then proceeded to check twice on the turn and river. He was also likely to have this hand if you fired two barrels and he folded.
Then there are draws. Everyone plays these hands differently, and different spots are likely to have different actions. These hands are flush draws and straight draws, even two pair or set draws. When these draws hit, they become nut hands, and therefore will play like one. When they haven’t or don’t hint you are likely to see some checking and calling. Many good players mimic their moves with nut hands to match their draws though, and that play can be hard to beat.
Bluffs and air are the most random of the categories, and really cannot be defined. Bluffs don’t look like any of the previous. They likely try to represent a strong hand, and sometimes are successful. But sometimes they don’t quite tell the right story, and when you sense that you should be suspicious.
I thought I would add one more category as well, which is the combo draw. These are either super strong draws, like a pair and a flush draw or a straight flush draw. Generally you’ll see your opponents just put as much money in as possible as fast as possible.
Hands with blockers and hands without them
One factor that will sway how your opponent plays a hand is if his hand has a blocker or not. For example if your opponent called a raise out of position with 87s and the flop comes 732 rainbow, he’s going to be uncomfortable checking and calling as you can hit an overcard very easily. But if he has something like A7 on that board, he knows that he has a possible overcard you have in your hand and can extract some extra money if he hits it, so he’s fine with check calling. So in summary, when people have blockers they are more comfortable checking and calling a bet, but when they don’t they are more likely to lead out or even raise. This can be conscious or subconscious.
Timing and Bet sizing
Timing is an all important part of hand reading. I said this in an earlier post, but I remember reading a thread by one of the greatest online poker players of all time, Bldswttrs, and I was amazed about how exact he was being with his reads. He asserted he knew his opponent had a certain exact hand an enormous percentage of the time in many of the hands he posted. This is because he examined his opponents timing and bet sizing tendencies precisely… well that and he is a genius! The best advice I can give you here is to examine what type of bet sizes and timing your opponent is doing with each category of hands. For example, with bluffs you will see some players act very quickly, while with strong hands they will wait for the time bank. Often I see when people time down and then make a bet, that it is often a thin value bet. Although as I said, everyone is different, and you need to pay attention to see what they are doing. Bet sizing is the same thing, however it is likely you will see bigger bets with better hands, and smaller bets with weaker hands. Bluffs will probably be somewhere in between.
Hope this helped!