In our quest to refining our understanding of our opponent we need to stay conscious of his playing style while we get a clearer picture of how he approaches specific poker problems. We can’t just blindly paint two players with similar playing styles with the same brush. For instance, two different TAGS may play similarly in some respects, but they will inevitably handle a number of poker situations quite differently. Understanding some of the most valuable differences will help us play each of our opponents optimally.
What to look for
It is impossible to track every single poker scenario for each poker player you encounter. This approach would quickly overload your cognitive resources. All information is valuable at the poker table but some is more valuable than others. This makes player reading an exercise in prioritization. We need to focus on the tendencies and patterns that will give us the most “bang for our buck”. Scenarios that come up often and that are exploitable interest us the most.
Grouping similar situations together
There is no value in tracking our opponent’s actions in situations that rarely come up. For instance, players get dealt pocket aces too seldom to track how they play them. It’s more compelling to track how they play big pairs (AA to JJ), as most tend to play each of those holdings similarly. It is better to track how our villain plays a flop where he has top pair top kicker or an over pair (this situation embodies big pairs). This is common poker scenario and it provides more value than tracking just one holding. But even better is to monitor Villain’s C-bet (continuation bet, the act of raising preflop and following up with aggression on the flop) frequency and ranges. Every hand that has been open raised will have an opportunity for a C-bet and players tend to do so with varied frequency. These two factors make tracking C-bet frequency quite valuable. To track just one of the 4 poker situations above, the last one would definitely be the most useful.
Keeping in mind the need to group common exploitable situations together, here are some suggestions of what to look for when transitioning from knowing our opponent’s playing style, to tracking how he plays specific situations.
The vast majority of players naturally track how many pots their opponents play. It’s a winning idea, but the reasoning behind it needs to be reinforced. The most value you will extract from tracking preflop tendencies is from getting a sense of your opponent’s hole card ranges, which will be useful THROUGHOUT THE HAND. This is the reason players commonly groan how tricky unraised pots can be as limping ranges can be quite wide and they make hand reading difficult.
Open raise frequency
How often does your opponent open raise the pot? Does the frequency vary much depending on position? Does he like to raise multiple limpers in order to “punish them”? How often does he fold to 3-bets?
The Payoff: As mentioned above, figuring out our Villain’s PFR (Pre Flop Raise) frequency lets us define his range and give us useful information all the way through showdown.
Also, if we know that our opponent’s PFR range is very wide, we can 3-bet (expecting a lot of folds) or call him (expecting to be ahead of his range) more lightly. If we know his PFR range is very narrow, we can play very tightly when he raises and set mine (calling with small pairs in hopes of flopping a set) if the stacks are deep enough.
How often does your opponent limp in unraised pots? Some players tend to limp a lot while others favor open raising more frequently.
The Payoff: Having a sense of your opponent’s limping range is crucial. Carving out his PFR range from his limping range is an essential part of hand reading and will pay dividends in most hands you are involved in.
Although it will take considerable time to build significant data, it is quite valuable to track how often Villain 3-Bets, because they result in bloated pots. Does Villain 3-Bet often? Does he do so differently versus different types of opponents? Does he seem to balance his 3-betting range (always for value or also sometimes for a bluff). These are all relevant questions that need answers in order to exploit your opponents.
As mentioned above, 3-bet pots bloat quickly. Being able to gauge your opponent’s preflop range in big pots is crucial. Stealing pots postflop on frequent 3-betters is extremely profitable.
Knowing your opponent’s 3-bet range also pays immediate dividends preflop. You can 4-bet light when your opponent is 3-betting wide and concede when facing a 3-bet from a narrower range.
The flop is a pivotal street. It provides the first glimpse at board texture and it sets up the tone for the rest of the hand. Today’s game is so aggressive, it is important to figure out which of our opponents C-bet frequently and how often they play passive lines in order to faint weakness.
C-betting is a widely understood strategy. After taking the betting lead preflop, when the action is checked back to you on the flop, betting with air will often pick up the pot uncontested. It is such a common situation that there is a lot of value in understanding how often your opponent will C-bet when given the opportunity.
The higher the frequency of C-bets, the more bluffs are in Villains range. Understanding your opponent’s C-bet bluff vs. C-bet for value ratio will allow you to attack the weaker ranges and to proceed with caution against the narrower ranges.
Does he slow play when he hits the flop hard?
Some players love to slow play when they hit big flops. Some have “slow playing ranges” of top pair top kicker or better on most boards and some will do so with 2 pair or better on non-coordinated boards. Knowing how often and what type of hands your opponent likes to get “trappy” with can be quite useful.
Knowing how fond players are of trapping huge flops can save you from losing big pots. As mentioned earlier, some will C-bet most of the time, and a chunk of their non C-bets are big made hands. This tendency extends beyond C-bets as will gain value out of this knowledge in limped pots as well.
The Turn is aptly named because it is typically the turning point of a hand (when the stacks are relatively deep). Players pot commit, represent a fairly narrow range of hands, commit to bluffs and exercise pot control (slow down the betting with marginal hands) on this street. The turn is where the bigger bets come into play and this induces more deception. It is of value to understand what hands our opponents are representing and how deceptive they tend to be on the turn.
After taking the betting lead on the flop, via a C-Bet, a donk bet or a bet in a limped pot, the action will often be checked to the aggressor. The aggressor now has an opportunity to bet again (a double barrel) or back off his aggression. Opting to double barrel is quite telling because it shows a big commitment to the pot. Your opponents will double barrel with varying frequency. Some will do so with strong made hands only, some will add a lot of draws to their range and others will double barrel a wide range of holdings.
As not every hand has betting action on the flop, double barreling opportunities are not as frequent as C-betting chances. But there is still plenty of value in paying attention to double barreling frequencies because the pots are bigger on the turn. It is a crucial street, and establishing the range of hands your opponent is willing to double barrel is crucial.
Are they aggressive with draws?
Having a decent draw on the turn brings up an interesting spot. Even the best of naked draws don’t offer much pot equity when there is only one card left to come. Semi bluffing is always an attractive option. Some players will automatically semi bluff their turn draws without taking stack sizes, implied odds and proper folding equity into consideration. Others will semi bluff turn draws a lot less often, choosing to take a free shot at their draw instead.
When players make a bet on the turn they will do so with varying ranges. Some of them will contain more draws in their range than others. The more draws we can add to their range, the weaker the range’s pot equity. The weaker range means you don’t need to respect the double barrel as much as ranges that include strong made hands only.
Pot control range
Most players recognize the value in taking passive lines with marginal hands. A cheap showdown is a major win when you have just enough showdown value that you don’t feel like bluffing is a profitable option. The perception of which hands are of “pot control” strength varies greatly between players.
For the less creative players, knowing when they will “shut down their aggression” is extremely valuable. Once you get a sense that they are slowing down the action in a hand, you can put them on a fairly narrow range, allowing you to value bet when you feel like you are ahead and even make some over bet bluffs when you feel you are behind.
How “sticky” is your opponent? Does he like to showdown a lot of hands? What percentage of his showdowns does he win? Pots that go to showdown are typically big. The tendency to show down too many or too few pots is exploitable and having a grasp of which side of the spectrum your opponent sits is quite valuable.
One of the most exploitable types of poker players are the ones that like to play a lot of flops, call most flop bets (it’s too early and too cheap to fold yet), folds to more turn bets and folds to most river aggression. These players assist in building medium sized pots to then relinquish them over to you. On the other side of the spectrum, some players absolutely hate to get bluffed on the end and love to make thin “hero calls” on the river. Obviously you need to tone down your bluff frequency against these types. In the middle of these 2 extremes you have those who don’t go to showdown quite enough and those that tend to give up too easily before showdown. Pressure the former with a barrage of thin value bets and bluffs and tone down the aggression on the river against the latter.
River betting ranges
With no more cards coming, betting on the river is done exclusively for value or as a bluff (on other streets sometimes you don’t mind lesser hands folding). Dissecting your opponent’s river bluff (most don’t bluff enough) frequency and his river value bet range will help you avoid making mistakes in big pots.
An opponent’s river value betting range is useful because it helps set the bar on how lightly you can call them. Most won’t value bet without very strong hands and will opt for check/call lines when they feel they are ahead but are scared of getting blown off the pot. More seasoned players understand the benefits of value betting a little lighter; we need to adjust accordingly.
An opponent’s river bluffing range is also quite telling. Most players won’t bluff enough, and you can fold most marginal hands against them. Others will bluff on the river more often. Obviously, consider calling these players more lightly, or better yet, look for spots to raise their river bets as a bluff.
This list is not exclusive
This list of tendencies is not exclusive but it is a great starting point. Once you feel comfortable with monitoring how players handle the situations mentioned above you can definitely add some more. For instance, you can track how often players check/raise (only doing so with strong hands or sometimes as a bluff), how often they like to donk bet (bet into the prior street’s aggressor), and how often they fold to C-bets. This list will grow as you get more skilled at observing the action at the table. You should never have the feeling that you have observed your opponent enough to be able to stop paying attention to him.