Friday, January 11, 2008

Hand Reading 101

Hand reading is one of the most important skills in poker, but I don't know of any formal methodology for going about it.

I wing it, doing the best I can based on experience, reasoning and process of elimination.

It would be useful to develop a system, like a kind of mental checklist, to think through hands before making a decision.

The most common way to read hands is to put together what you know about the hand and compare whether your opponent's betting pattern matches what he's trying to represent.

You combine the pieces of the puzzle, and you can eliminate holdings from your opponent's range when pieces don't fit. For example, if you're in a hand with a limper who you know would raise preflop with any Ace in his hand, you can effectively bluff on most Ace-high flops no matter what you hold.

This approach works fairly well, but it's most helpful in determining what your opponent doesn't have than what he does.

This kind of thought process led me to make an enormous blunder the other night when I raised an UTG limper from UTG+1 with KK. Everyone folded except for the limper. The flop came down Axx, all clubs. The limper check-raised me, and I went all-in (I held the King of clubs for the nut flush draw). I reasoned that I knew my opponent didn't have the Ace and I had a good draw, so maybe I could push him off the hand. This logic was terribly flawed, as I saw when he turned over T9s for the flopped flush and I didn't improve. I was clearly beaten but bet my hand too hard because I correctly determined that he didn't hold an Ace.

I have a couple of ideas for other ways to narrow hand ranges to complement deductive reasoning:

1) Think of a hand as a flow chart or a series of If/Then situations. If my opponent doesn't have top pair, what other hands could he be check raising with? I want to come up with a decision-making tree for hands like this:

If opponent can't have top pair, then he has either

a) A strong draw.
b) The flopped flush.
c) A set.
d) Nothing.

To pinpoint exactly what action to take, you would need to assign probabilities for each potential outcome and mentally estimate the EV of raising, folding or calling.

It doesn't have to be that complicated though. In my previous example, it's pretty easy to see that just because my opponent didn't have Aces, he wasn't necessary bluffing. Given the action and the other possibilities, it seems highly unlikely in retrospect that he would have anything but a hand with strong equity against my KK.

2) Divide hands into groups and consider the appropriate action to take against each category.

There are basically four types of hands your opponent can hold on the flop:

a) Made hands.
b) Drawing hands.
c) Combination draw hands.
d) Air.

The likelihood of each type depends heavily on the flop complexion. Coordinated flops take equity away from made hands. Static flops favor made hands because there are fewer possibilities for draws that steal equity from top pair, for example.

I'm not sure where air hands fall, perhaps because they're situation dependent.

Only after your opponent's hand is sufficiently transparent based on your read can you evaluate your chances of winning and take the appropriate action.

I'd like to be able to tie these kinds of thought processes into some kind of "universal theory of hand reading," but that's probably not possible.

Instead, I try to remind myself to think through as many of these possibilities as I can in each hand I play. If I go step-by-step, put my opponent on a range and don't act too quickly, I can make correct decisions more often.

And that's the goal of the game: to make the right choice given the information at hand.

I know none of this is new, but attempting to quantify hand reading may lead to new ideas for better ways of narrowing ranges.

I'd like to hear other ideas for other methods of hand reading in comments.


HighOnPoker said...

Do you get any opportunities to play live, Gnome? Hand reading online can only be based on a few things, but the greatest thing, as you've mentioned, is the action in a given hand, particularly with reference to how your opponent has played earlier hands. You also need to consider the timing of bets/raises. A quick call and a slow, "15 seconds left to act" call can mean very different things.

But the bottom line, live or online, is that sometimes your reads will be wrong. You'll put someone on a bluff but in reality, he just happens to have flopped a set but fears the turned flush board. Or you read a slow raise as a guy stalling before ultimately deciding to bluff (for instance) when in reality, he is talking to his roommate and just didn't realize it was his turn right away. The bottom line is, the most you can do is sniff out a hint of what your opponent is doing, but ultimately, you need to read the actions before you. I wish there was more to it, but sadly there is not (at least online).

If there is anything to add, its that you should add notes on your opponents once you see them open-raising with hands like ATo or making bad bluffs. That info will make later hands much easier to read.

Alan aka RecessRampage said...

I know you've mentioned this before but to me, hand reading is all about deductive reasoning. On every street, the opponents actions tell you a story. Then I try to remember what my actions look like and what type of story it's telling the opponent. In other words, if I'm showing nothing but strength but the opponent is all of a sudden making a strong move, then he clearly has a strong hand.

A person's betting tells you a lot about the hand they have. I don't take too much into account the whole stalling and then checking or betting type of things for the same reason HOP mentioned. Having said that, 9 times out of 10, when someone stalls then checks, he's got nothing or he wants to see a free card and by stalling, he's trying to make you think he's got something, debated whether he should bet or not and opts to check. To me, that's a tell and I bet pretty much 100% of the time when someone stalls then checks. Sure, it could just be coincidence and I don't have stats but I can't recall a time I felt that my read on that one was off.

Aside from that though, hand reading is exactly everything you mentioned. You just have to think through what he's trying to represent, what you've represented so far, and how he's acting despite your actions. That should tell you a lot.

Fuel55 said...

Excellent post - 95% of players dont make any effort to hand read though.

Greylocks said...

I posted a fairly lengthy response on my own blog. The short version: (1)this isn't really a hand-reading situation so much as it is one where you need to consider what your opponent would do with various possible hands; and (2) you probably shouldn't bet the flop at all.

Manny said...

I like your elimination process approach.

But whether or not this is a hand reading situation depends on some information you left out. Meaning whether it was a bad read that got you in trouble or some other factor requires us to know what the other two cards were, stack sizes, the size of your preflop raise, the size of the pot on the flop in relation to the stacks, and just how loose your opponent was.

I noticed you think he would raise with any ace, so you can bluff on any ace high flop. But would he raise something like A4s UTG? Is he prone to limp calling from the moon like that with only suited connectors, or would he be in there with something like J8o? And how aggressive is he post flop? Would he check raise you on a flop like that with a pair and a four card flush draw?

Put all these questions together and you can get a scenario where your opponent is loose enough to limp call UTG with something like Jc 8d and aggressive enough to take a shot at a check raise on a flop of Ac 8c 2c as a semi-bluff, hoping to have enough outs and fold equity against your possible Ad Ks to make his play good.

To me, the stack sizes are even more important than whether your guy is just loose pre flop and a bit aggressive post or a maniac bluff addict. The larger your raise is in relation to the stacks, the bigger the pot on the flop in relation to the stacks, and the less important your post flop hand read. Your preflop range is all you will need when the flop comes to deciding whether to commit right there.

For example, if he had 120BB and you had him covered and you raised it to 6BB, he calls and you go heads up to the flop, there would be 15BB in the pot. Now if you bet 2/3 the pot on that suited flop with an ace, an aggressive player likely to have a wide range of hands and likely to check raise you on a semi bluff or even a stone bluff has a lot of leverage because a check raise to 35BB is going to create a big pot that sets up an all in on the turn from him...something you don't want to face with KK on that board from any opponent. and you don't want to put in 1/3 of your stack only to fold to an all in on the turn getting 2 to 1 to call.

Change the stack sizes and you might get a situation where he has 50BB and you raise to 6BB again. Now there is 15BB in the pot on the flop and you bet 10BB again. If he check raises you, he is committed, no matter what his raise is. If he pops it all in, you don't face some huge all in on the turn, you just have to decide if his preflop range and post flop aggression make this worth an all in against him. You would be considering calling for 34BB into a pot of 69BB and that's 2 to 1. Wrong to fold even if you did not eliminate top pair from his range because you still have outs to the nut flush.

Anyway, maybe your read was fine if the stacks were small enough and maybe it cost you a lot of long term value if the stacks were large.

Good luck!