I give you my 4 step process to effective hand reading. This is one of the most important concepts in all of poker, and is useful in every form and stake you play.
In episode 116 I broke down the ever-important MTT/SNG play of 3bet rejamming.
What is Hand Reading and why should I care?
It’s the skill of deducing what hands our opponent likely has, and we use this information to exploit the opponent. We’re either earning more chips because we can go for thinner or greater value, or we’re saving ourselves chips because we’re able to avoid paying our opponent off when we’re likely beat.
If we can put them on a narrow range of cards and make solid decisions based on this reasoning, we’ll be profiting like mad from this skill.
Some other benefits of good hand reading skills:
- An increased understanding of your opponents.
- You’re on your way to becoming the player you’re scared to face.
Hand Reading in 4 Steps
Before you start hand reading practice, you’re going to need 3 things:
- Hand histories from PT4 or another poker tracking software
- An equity calculating software, and I recommend Flopzilla
- My HAND Reading Steps
Hand reading is NOT about putting another player on one specific hand. That’s a very tall order and doesn’t happen too often. What we’re trying to do is put an opponent on a range of hands. A range of hands is a set of hands that a player is likely holding based on the actions taken through the hand.
Great hand readers start by giving their opponent an accurate pre-flop range, then they’re able to narrow it down, sometimes by as much as 90%, based on actions through the streets. At any given time they have this range held within their thoughts and they make +EV actions based on this range.
I developed my own four step HAND Reading Process, and it’s easy to remember because it’s using hand (H, A, N, D) as an acronym for the steps. So, H.A.N.D. is History, Assign, Narrow and Destroy or Ditch (if necessary).
When you’re hand reading a specific opponent, your HISTORY with that opponent will factor greatly in your hand reading success. You have to take into account many things:
- The type of player they are
- Any showdown hands of theirs you’ve seen
- HUD stats you may have if playing online
- Their general image at the table
- How you think they view you
When you’re hand reading you need to get in their mindset. Every player has logic for the plays they make, however twisted it might be. It's your job to find and understand their logic.
If you don’t know anything about the player, then population tendencies will help you understand them. Base your assumptions on the type of player they are within your games. In order to do this well, you need to pay attention to the players at your tables. Don’t worry if you don’t really do that already. The more you practice hand reading, the more you’ll notice that similar player types all make the same sorts of decisions.
It’s time to ASSIGN a pre-flop range to our opponent based on pre-flop actions. Now, it's tough to say, but we have to make assumptions when we assign a pre-flop range.
In poker we’re often working off of assumptions (hopefully they’re educated assumptions based on history and logic, but assumptions none the less).
Assigning an accurate pre-flop range is very important in hand reading, and the reason for this is the pre-flop range is as wide as their range will ever be. If you put them on a range where the worst Aces they can have is AT+, then when they come out firing on the turn with the board as K235, you can’t put them on an A4 for a straight because that hand wasn’t in the pre-flop range you assigned.
This doesn’t mean we want to just assign a wide pre-flop range no matter what so we don’t miss any hands. Use your noggin to assign a logical pre-flop range.
And, we want our range to be as small and as accurate as we can make it. The less hands in their pre-flop range, the easier it is to hand read and narrow their range through the streets. But if you err, err on the conservative side and assign a slightly wider range if you just can’t go too narrow.
You should be doing your range assigning in Flopzilla. All of this practice with Flopzilla and ranges gets easier as you go, and you’ll also get more accurate as you practice.
Remember what Vince Lombardi said: “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”
One very important thing to remember about making assumptions and assigning a pre-flop range is that you’re going to be wrong very often. I want you to expect it and accept it. Don’t let it tilt you and don’t get angry, it’s part of the hand reading territory. But, the more you work at it the better you’ll get.
Now it’s time to NARROW that range as the hand progresses post-flop.
You narrow the opponent’s range based on their actions, bet sizing, board texture and just plain old logic. Once again, perfect practice is going to be the real game changer here. You’ll make plenty of mistakes when you start out narrowing ranges as the streets progress. But, don’t beat yourself up over them. Use your mistakes as fuel to push yourself to get better.
Checking and Calling
These most likely mean weakness. Whether this weakness is a complete whiff, a draw or a weak made hand like TPWK or 2nd pair, it likely means they aren’t too happy with their hand. If the board is super wet, like a 5s6s7s and they just call your cbet, then they could be as weak as an oesd, a one card flush draw, or even have 2p and just be scared that you have a flush or a set. Of course, calling could be slow playing, and that’s why it’s crucial to take notes on what you’ve seen your opponents do in the past. If they slow play every flopped made hand, then you can’t remove any flushes, straights or sets from their range.
This is often a show of strength. A real indication of this is how passive or aggressive this player usually is. If the player is a loose-passive calling station, then a raise often indicates strength. If they’re a LAG and bet or raise a ton, it could mean either value raising or bluff raising. But in general, raising is strength so you can often remove weaker hands and poor draws from their range.
Check Raising and Donk Leading
Now we get into the interesting, tricky plays. It’s key to use stats to help you with these plays. If their check-raise stat or donk lead stat is high, then they often use these plays as bluffs. By high, I’m talking anything over 12% or so over a big sample. Think about that for a second. Check-raising and donk leading end up bloating the pot OOP. How often do you really hit a flop hard enough to bloat the pot OOP? Not often at all, maybe 10% of the time. So, the further away from 10-12% they get, the more likely they use this play with whiffed hands and draws. You can often remove TPWK and 2nd pair hands that would want to see a cheap showdown when they make these plays. So you’d want to keep in their bluffs and value hands.
Destroy (or Ditch)
So now it’s time for the D in HAND: Destroy. If we’ve done the first three steps correctly, we should have a narrow enough range with which we can make +EV plays against.
If their range is weak hand heavy, then a good sized bluff might be in order. We’ll destroy them by making them fold a hand that could beat us if we get to showdown.
If their range is worse than our hand, but would be willing to call a value bet, then we can size it to give us max value when we have a reasonable assumption they’ll call based on the overall strength of the range we’ve assigned.
If they’ve only got the nuts or near nuts in their range, we know we can’t bluff them off the hand. So, instead of destroy, it’s time to DITCH the hand and conserve our chips to fight another day.
Our hand reading skills help us to narrow their hand well enough to lead us to the most +EV decisions, whether that be to value bet, bluff, call to see showdown or fold our beaten hand.
The more perfect practice you put in, the better you’ll get at this skill and the more exploitive and +EV plays you’ll be making vs your opponents.
Here’s my challenge to you for this episode: Every day, do two hand reading hand history reviews on your own. Do one from your own game play, and one from a poker forum or a Facebook group. Use Flopzilla and the HAND Reading steps discussed today to put your opponent on a final range and make a decision as to what to do based on that final range. Work hard and build those hand reading skills!
Now it’s your turn to take action and do something positive for your poker game.
In podcast #118, I'll discuss how to handle the tilt-inducing players you often encounter in your online games.
Until next time, study smart, play much and make your next session the best one yet.