[Note: this is an excerpt from my upcoming book on poker hand reading.]
“When the opponent expands, I contract; and when he contracts, I expand.” —Bruce Lee
Most good poker players understand the adage that to win at poker you have to “play the player” and not just your own cards. They also understand that you can’t bluff a bad player.
To make another player fold a better hand than yours, the villain first has to be aware that they might be beaten. This means that they actually have to be putting you on a hand range themselves, or they will be oblivious to your bluff and can/will blithely call you down with weak made hands. This is why value betting is so important at the low-stakes games; the opponents at these stakes are typically playing only the absolute strength of their own cards, and are unaware of what cards their opponents are holding. Trying to convince them that they’re beaten with a bluff bet is usually fruitless—and costly.
The same type of logic applies to hand reading.
There is no need for you to worry about what hand range a villain is putting us on, or how that might affect his or her play (and therefore their range) if that villain is not actually hand reading themselves. In fact, it’s counterproductive to do so. Let’s see why this is so…
“There are two types of pain you will suffer in life: the pain of discipline and the pain of regret. Discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tonnes.” —Jim Rohn
This quote resonates with me for a number of reasons. It’s applicable to many aspects of life, including health, work, relationships— and of course poker. I was reminded of this fact a while ago when I heard from an old poker-playing friend whom I hadn’t spoken to in months. My friend sent an email congratulating me on something I had done in my career that was big and noteworthy. But then my friend went on about his own “plans” for the future. I had inspired him, he said, and now he was going to do something with his own life.
Sounds good, right?
I wish. Let me explain…
“If you suspect your opponent is bluffing more than one-third of the time [on the river], you should call every time. If you think your opponent is bluffing less than one-third of the time, you should fold every time.” —Ed Miller, The Course
This breakeven percentage value of one-third that Miller cites for villain bluffing frequency derives from an assumption that the villain has made a full pot-size bet into you on the river. For example, let’s say you flopped a set, but now the board has four-flushed on the river. Unfortunately, you don’t have the flush, so you’re either way ahead or way behind (WAWB). The villain’s bet is representative of a strong made flush–or he’s bluffing. You’ve seen the villain play mostly straightforwardly for the past few hours at the table, but you’ve also seen him make a few bluffs, too. So, should you call?
Well, like most things in poker, it depends. In this case, it depends on how likely you think it is your opponent is bluffing in this situation. If it’s greater than a third of the time, you should call. If it’s less, you should fold.
So this means you should almost always fold. Let me explain…
I remember a hand from a $25NL online game I played a few years ago. I was on the button and was dealt a pair of fives. A villain in the UTG+1 seat opened for a standard raise, and the cut-off cold called. Stacks were quite deep (over 150bb) and both players were bad, so I called with good implied odds as a set-mining play. Both blinds folded and we were three-way to a flop. What happened next can only be described as terrible play on my part…
You’re in a $5/$10 NL full-ring 9-handed cash game. Everyone has about $1000 stacks. You raise UTG with Js-Jh. It is folded to an expert player in the SB, who calls. The BB folds, and you see a flop heads up, which is: 2s-2c-Td. The SB leads for $80. You raise to $250, and the SB re-raises you to $650. Your image is tight-aggressive, very tight in EP, and you rarely bluff. What should you do?
- Raise all-in
- Call and fold the turn if he bets again
- Call and get all-in on the turn if no overcard hits
- Call and get all-in on the turn regardless of the turn card
A common leak among beginning poker players is incorrect bet sizing, especially when their bets are too small. You’re not one of these people, right? Right?!
I always shake my head when I see villains making tiny little bets ranging from 25-50% of the pot, and sometimes even smaller. I sat in a juicy online game a while ago where two of the players at the table treated the game like some kind of ersatz limit game, making min-bets that were never larger than the size of the big blind. What exactly were these guys trying to achieve with these itty-bitty bets? I believe they themselves don’t know. Do you? Let’s look a little more closely at this notion…
The staffer handed me a laminated card with 238 on it. Minutes later I was in action for the first time in months, and I wasn’t even excited about it. I didn’t have time for that. I had a movie to catch up on. That’s what it feels like now, every time I join a game in progress. It’s like coming in halfway through a movie. I’m desperate to figure out who these characters are, and what I missed. Who is winning? Who is losing? As the movie plays on, I watch every scene, and I send out my tilt feelers, because the main thing I need to know is: Who is content? Who is agitated? By constantly updating that information, I can make better reads, better bluffs, better calls.” – Tommy Angelo
Here are two hands in which I was dealt an identical pair of ducks in the span of 10 minutes: 2♥-2♦. Both hands took place in a tough full-ring, $100NLHE online cash game. Would you play these two hands the same way I did?
- Hand #1: I have a pair of deuces in the small blind and get open-raised 3xbb by a tricky and aggressive player in late position. He is purposely playing a short-stack of 30bb. He opens for 3x the big blind. The action folds to me. I muck.
- Hand #2: I have a pair of deuces in the CO seat facing a 3xbb raise by a TAg UTG player with a full 100bb stack. I call.
What? Deuces are deuces, right? And the first villain in middle position has a much wider (read: worse) hand range than the second villain in EP, right? Don’t I have the actions in these two hands backward? Nope. Let me explain…
The acid test for any starting hand is the Miracle Flop Test. Take any [hand] and imagine what the best possible flop would be for that hand: If you wish you’d much rather have something else, then your hand is probably trash.” –Jeff Hwang, Pot-Limit Omaha Poker: The Big Play Strategy
A few years ago I was showing a family friend how to play online poker. My friend dabbles occasionally at poker, but he doesn’t believe that the online games are beatable. It’s rigged, he says. It’s filled with ‘bots. And any kind of poker–live or online–is all about hot streaks and lucky runs, anyway. You can’t beat a random chance game in the long-term. So why study and read about the game? Worse, why write a damn blog about it?
My friend is so sure of himself, that he basically calls me a liar whenever I point out that I make a decent hourly wage at this online “hobby,” and thereby fund the occasional large discretionary purchase in my personal life through my winnings at the tables. Well, he doesn’t actually use the word “liar,” instead choosing the less inflammatory, “You’re so full of sh!t” term of endearment.
Anyway, in my long-running effort to convince him that he’s the one who is full of sh!t, I opened a couple of micro-stakes fast-fold “Zone” poker games when he had stopped by to visit with his wife. Here’s what happened: