Basic Player Reading – The Next Step

[FF] Deb the Duchess was being anti-social, tapping away at a Texas Hold ‘Em game1 on her iPhone when Figaro the Fish and Nate the Natural approached. “Haven’t you beaten that game yet?” Figaro interrupted.

[DD] “I’m on the second to last tournament, the National Championship on the top difficulty”, Deb responded. “It’s going to be a long time before computers can beat the pros, but they’re still challenging to me.”

[NN] “Don’t be fooled. Computers will be better than the pros at Hold ‘Em sooner than you think. If IBM can conquer Jeopardy! with Watson by building a large enough information database and crafting a smart enough language parser, other programmers can certainly keep improving their Hold ‘Em algorithms until they outclass even the top poker pros. Paraphrasing The Simpsons,2 Ken Jennings conceded on his Final Jeopardy answer screen, ‘I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.'”

[DD] “How soon do you think that’s going to happen?”

[NN] “I think Black Friday set the timetable back a couple years, since the breakthroughs will probably come outside the U.S. now, but certainly within a decade.”

[NN] “Computers can do the math perfectly. They can calculate odds almost instantaneously with massive lookup tables and powerful processors. They can analyze your hand history to see how you play. All that’s really left are a few advancements in the algorithms that decide what to do with all this information. It essentially comes down to hand reading, and I don’t mean palmistry.”

[DD] “That’s what separates the pros from the amateurs.”

[NN] “The reason hand reading is so daunting to most humans is that there’s so much to keep track of on just a single hand, let alone over a session of hands with the same players. Computers don’t have the slightest problem with it. Which is why most good online players use HUDs (heads-up displays).”

[NN] “To put your opponent on a hand range even before the flop, you need to take into account his stack size; the blinds and antes; his position; the action ahead of him, including who bet what from where; the amount he called, bet, or raised; how he’s been playing recently; and his playing style, which alone can be broken down into dozens of smaller areas; and more.”

[FF] “But how am I supposed to keep track of all that?”

[NN] “To start as simply as possible, the most important element is a player’s style. In a home game, you’ll get to know the regulars quite well without even trying. You two certainly know how I play, and I know how you play. In an unfamiliar ring game or any larger tournament, you’ll have no history with your opponents, but every hand adds to your database of information about them.

  • How many hands do they play (i.e., are they loose or tight preflop)?
  • How often do they 3-bet? 4-bet? 5-bet? (i.e., how tight a range does each of those represent)?
  • Do they correctly value position (e.g., do they play many more hands in late position than early and can you discount their bets in position vs. out of position)?
  • Do they tend to call or raise (i.e., are they too passive or too aggressive)?
  • Do they bluff too often or too infrequently (i.e., can you discount the strength of their bets or should you take them as real)?
  • Do they call too much or can you bluff them out of pots (i.e., should you value bet them or steal from them)?
  • Can they make big folds? (i.e., should you try to make a big river bluff or all-in bluff)?
  • Do they like to chase draws? (i.e., should you charge them more for their draws and/or not try to bluff if you think they have a draw)?
  • Will they bet if they have just a draw (i.e., could your third pair be the best hand despite their bet)?
  • Do they tend to underbet the turn and river (i.e., will you get a good price to hunt for your draws)?
  • Do they overbet the flop when the board is scary (e.g., can you put them on a hand like top pair or an overpair)?
  • Do they adjust to their opponents (i.e., do you need to take into account what they think of your style)?
  • Is their style static or can it change (i.e., once you’ve figured out how they’re playing, can you count on that always)?”
  • Do they play differently when they’re shortstacked? (e.g., can you devalue a shove from them once they’re short enough on chips)?”
  • Do they like to steal the blinds from the button? The cutoff? The hijack? (e.g., can you devalue all of those raises)?
  • How often do they check-raise, if at all? (e.g., if they check to you, can you bluff knowing that you won’t get raised)?”

[FF] “Yikes!”

[NN] “If the event is a tournament, a few more questions are relevant:

  • Are they very afraid of busting out? And do they have any rebuys left if it’s a rebuy tournament?
  • Does their style change as the blinds go up?
  • Are they happy just to cash or are they trying to win it all?
  • Do they play more tightly near a bubble or will they attack if their stack is healthy?”

[FF] “My head is spinning.”

[NN] “I know it’s overwhelming at first, so start by just watching the player on your immediate left or right or the most active player at the table, and note only a few of those pieces of information. As you get comfortable, add more information and more players. You can do it. You just have to try.”

Footnotes:

  1. See “A New Game in Town – THETA Poker Pro”.
  2. You can watch the segment from the “Deep Space Homer” episode.
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