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Learning How to Read Hands

Page summary:This page provides some hints and tips of how to get started with poker hand reading. The factors below give you a starting point for assessing the potential range of hands an opponent might have.

How to Start Hand Reading in Online Poker Games

As you gain experience in online poker games, adjusting your play to your opponent’s hand strength becomes a profitable strategy. To do this you need to develop hand-reading skills. This is an area where you will never stop improving. The more experience at different buy-in levels you accumulate, the better you’ll become.

This page provides some hints and tips of how to get started with poker hand reading. The factors below give you a starting point for assessing the potential range of hands an opponent might have. Remember, just because you fold a hand does not mean you can’t keep learning. Try watching the action of other players – and trying to work out what types of hand they might hold.

Poker Hand Reading – Before the Flop

With so many hands possible before the flop, your first task should be to put an opponent on a plausible range of starting hands. You’ll never be able to tell if that mid-position raise is exactly ace-king – what you can do is make a best guess. For example, a particular player would raise with pairs 5-5 and up, ace-jack and up and some smaller suited aces or suited broadway cards. If you see different hands at showdown, you can backtrack through the action and reassess the range you assigned. As the streets of betting continue, you can refine this range further.

There are several factors which will help you adjust the starting hands ranges you apply to different players.

Experience: A novice / new player will tend to play far too many hands. You might include suited cards (queen-eight suited for example), any ace-x hand and plenty more. A more experienced player will be adjusting to the table. For example, with aggressive players still to act, someone observant might be opening a tighter range than usual.

Position: With experience, players will adjust their starting range based on their position at the table. UTG and early position raises will usually mean stronger hands, while a raise from the button can be a wide range of holdings. Again, novice players will not make these adjustments.

Tendencies: Some players are naturally looser and more aggressive than others. A loose-aggressive player may be raising a huge range of hands. Conversely a nit might be only raising the top 5% of hands from early position.

You can also look for bet sizing tells before the flop. Some players will limp with their speculative hands, while others will raise them. It is always worth looking out for players that limp with premium hands – or bet a different amount based on their hand strength.

Hand Reading After the Flop

The ‘texture’ of the flop (whether there are high cards and / or multiple draws possible) is a big inflection point in any poker hand. If you have assigned a starting hand range to an opponent, the flop is where you will start to narrow that range.

Some players will continue betting if they raised before the flop by default. While others will bet big when they hit the flop and smaller when they are not so sure. If an experienced player bets into several opponents on the flop, you can be fairly sure that their hand connected in some way. Tricky players might even play ‘backwards’, checking when they are strong and betting out when they are weak.

I recommend making notes about how different opponents in your game play draws to straights or flushes. If you see that one player always bets draws aggressively, and the flush card missed on the turn (for example) – then you might spot an opportunity to take the pot away. If you know that another opponent limps suited and connected cards preflop, only they raise this time – then that flop containing a lot of draws is likely to be scarier for them than it is for you.

These types of opportunities will win you a lot more money over time than simply waiting to make a powerful hand yourself.

Hand Reading in Poker Tournaments

When stacks get short in poker tournaments, players will often shove all-in instead of betting over multiple streets. This makes sense, as the math would leave little room for post-flop play.

It leads to another type of hand reading – understanding what kind of hand strength a player needs to go all-in preflop.

If your opponent is experienced, you’ll find this is more dependent on the range of hands they think you would call with than their own cards. For example, if they expect you would only call with 8-8+, and Ace-9+ (and maybe King-Queen), 12% or so of your possible hands, then they might push all-in with any 2 cards. This would be ‘correct’ since 88% of the time they’ll win the pot right away, and the 12% of the time they get called there are still some winning possibilities.

This can lead to mind-games between pros. If player A knows that B will call with 12%, they can adjust by only shoving all-in with the top 30% of hands (example numbers only). Now, if B figures out that A has adjusted in this way, he can profitably call with 9% - and so on until you hit an equilibrium point.

There are push-fold charts available for tournament play – though experience will show you how to read hands in all-in situations based on the tendencies of opponents and phase of the tournament.