Hand reading is a poker skill which can transform you from an average player into a big winner. When you can put your opponent on a specific hand (or more likely a range of possible hands), your decisions will be easier to make thus you will pick off more bluffs. Learning to read hands is the kind of skill that gets easier the more you play. What this article provides is a basic system for how to read hands. It will give you and understanding of the principals behind this skill, which you can use to keep getting better over time.
First you will find a discussion on ranges, that is the entire set of possible hands an individual would play early in a poker hand. Next I will show you how their bets on the flop, turn and river help you to narrow down this range to specific holdings. After this you will see information on the math involved in card distribution. This shows the likelihood of certain hands being dealt. Finally a word of warning, reading the hands of complete novices who do not know how to play properly can be dangerous and should be approached with caution.
Putting someone on a specific hand based on very little information is known as ‘guessing’ rather than hand reading. When an individual raises from middle position, then the best you can do at this point is to assign a range of hands which they might do this with.
An example might be pairs 55 or higher, Ace-Jack suited or Ace-Queen offsuit or better, suited connectors 7-8 or higher and the occasional stealing hand like King-Nine for good measure.
This will be the baseline which you use to narrow down their holding based on bets throughout the hand. If instead of raising, that same player re-raised an opponent who is known to be reasonably tight, you would assign a completely different range of hands.
Here Aces, Kings, Queens, Jacks and Ace-King or Ace-Queen might be the entire range.
Note that re-raising a looser and wilder opponent could involve a wider range of hands. You need to think of these ranges in terms of position, situation and the different players at the table. This becomes easier with practice.
Your objective is to get to a smaller range of hands by the time the big bets go into the pot. You can do this by gradually narrowing down the possible holdings based on the betting. I will use a simplified example of an extremely predictable player to demonstrate the principals involved. You can practice this when not involved in the hand, as it becomes easier the more than you apply it.
This time there is one caller on the button and the flop comes down with very few potential draws. Our straightforward player bets half of the pot, which he would probably do with most of his hand. What we can do is remove the suited connectors, the smallest pairs and the missed Ace-Queen from his hand at this point.
Now the button raises – effectively stating that he has a strong hand. The initial raiser flat calls, which allows us to narrow his range further.
He would certainly do this with a flopped set or an over-pair to the board like aces. It is far less likely that he would do this with a missed ace-king or random hands which just contain a single pair. We have effectively narrowed his range significantly.
Ok, this example is a little contrived, though it does demonstrate the process of asking yourself what parts of someone’s initial raising range justify their behavior on the flop. You can rule out a surprising number of hands from an opponent’s initial range this way.
Certain hands are more likely to be dealt than others based on how many cards of each type there are in the deck. The clearest example is to imagine a player who 5-bets all-in. You know that this guy is a nit, and would only do this with Aces, Kings or Ace-King. The question is how many times does he have each hand?
There are 12 ways to deal Aces based on suits and the same for Kings. When it comes to Ace-King there are 16 ways that this can be dealt. This means that, from the math alone he has Ace-King 16 times for every 24 times he has a pair. 40% of the time he makes this raise he turns up with Ace-King and the other 60% one of the pairs.
Once you know the proportions you can work out the chances of your own hand winning the pot against these hands in relation to how often they are dealt.
Hand reading works best against players who understand poker strategy and make ‘rational plays’ based on the situation. Against complete novices it is more difficult, since their play is by its very nature unpredictable. You can easily work out when these guys are strong or chasing a draw, and I recommend you focus on getting the maximum value from your own monster hands against them instead of tying yourself in knots reading their hands.
Very good players are also difficult to read. They will deliberately vary their bets a small proportion of the time to stop themselves becoming predictable. Make sure you know who has the experience and ability to do this – and make sure you mix up your betting a little against good hand readers too.