Poker is magic, or some would assume. It seems at every game I play in, someone at the table is able to accurately call out the hand another player is holding. I know that I am able to do it on a regular basis.
There is a great story about Stu Ungar, when he was playing in a $50,000 head’s up game against another WSOP champion, Mansour Matloubi. After the turn card, with a substantial amount of money already in the pot, Stu’s opponent shoved all in with a board of 3-3-7-K-Q. Stu Ungar looked at him for awhile, and said “I know you either have 4-5, 5-6 or 4-6 in your hand, so I call”. Then Stu turned over 9-10, and had made the call without a pair, and only a 10 high in his hand. But he turned over the winning hand, as Matloubi had 4-5 offsuit in his hand.
So what makes people capable of calling out the other guy’s hole cards? It certainly isn’t because they actually know what they are, or that they have seen them. The answer is simple: Betting patterns and continually refining the range of hands the other person might be playing. It is that simple.
For example, when someone raises preflop, I look at who the player is, any previous play I’ve had with him, and where he is sitting in comparison to the button. I then immediately establish a range of hands in my head that I think he might be doing that with. A super tight player would lead me to believe that he has J-J, Q-Q, K-K, A-A, and possibly A-K (either suited or unsuited). I would also put the possibility of J-J at the back of the list, unless he raised way more than he should. A giant raise normally indicates weakness rather than strength.
Then, based on my initial assessment of the hand possibilities, I look at my cards to see if I have a hand sufficient to play against the hands I have put the other person’s range at. Once I decide to play (call), I then begin the process of narrowing the other person’s possible holdings. If the flop comes down A-A-7, the person’s betting (or checking) patterns allow me to start narrowing things down. A check on the flop could be a slow play of A-K, or it could be based on fear from someone holding K-K. A check on the turn would almost completely eliminate the possibility that the person is holding an Ace. Remember I said “almost” though. Good players can check monsters to the river if they think the other person won’t be able to control himself and take a stab at that point.
If, on the river, I make a bet that is hesitantly called by the other player, I know that normally I can call out “A-9?”, and I have a great chance of being pretty close. If I had only called out “Ace-rag?”, then my chances of being right increase dramatically. And, abracadabra, the magic of seeing through the backs of the cards happens once again.
If you look at the hand played above by Stu Ungar, you will see that the flop came 3-3-7. Stu bet at it, and Mansour only called. The turn came King, Stu bet again, and Mansour again simply called. When the river came Queen, and Mansour just shoved all in, Stu knew that it didn’t help him. How could it have? Why would he have only limped preflop, called both post-flop and post-turn, and then suddenly have a monster hand worthy of a $37,000 all-in shove when the Queen hit? The obvious answer he was trying to portray is that he held either K-Q or Q-Q. But with either of these hands, he surely would have raised at other points in the hand. So the only answer that Stu Ungar was able to come up with was that he was chasing the straight, and had missed.
Putting your opponent on a range of hands before you make any decision is critical at every step of play. If you play simply based on what you hold, you will never become a winning poker player. Knowing what they hold is critical to deciding what to do with your hand. Let’s be honest, if the flop comes three Hearts, and you’re holding the K-9 of Hearts, I think it is critical for you to know whether I am holding the A-8 of Hearts, simply the Ace of Hearts with a Club, or no Heart at all. Your actions from this point forward should be based on the range you’ve put me on. If you have me on the Ace high flush, you should check and then fold to any bet. If you have me on the Ace of Hearts and a flush draw, you should bet large enough so that I don’t have the correct pot odds to chase the 5th heart. And if you have me on no Heart at all, you should play somewhere in between in an attempt to extract the maximum amount of chips possible out of me. That being said, most of the people I play against would simply be willing to put all their chips in the middle with the 2nd best flush without regard to what I might possibly be holding. I call these people “Car Payments”.
Your assessment of someone else’s range of hands should also be refined with every card that hits the board. Monitor the other person’s preflop bet with their post-flop action. Do they match up, or do they create questions in your mind? My favorite saying is “When I’m confused by your actions, I call”. All this means is that you’ve done something post-flop that doesn’t match up with what you did preflop. For example, say you bet 3 times the big blind preflop, and the flop comes down 2-4-7 rainbow. If you check raise me at this point, and I’m holding an overpair or a 7, I will probably call the check raise. Your preflop raise indicated strength, so I don’t put you on 2-2, 4-4 or 7-7…or anything associated with these cards. Your check on the flop indicated either you have A-K and have missed completely, or you have A-A. In my experience, the A-K is a far strong possibility than the A-A. It is simple math.
Now, replay the above hand, only instead of checking the flop, you put forward a normal continuation bet of around 50-75% of the pot. Now you are telling me that the low flop didn’t have any bearing on the strength of your hand, and you are willing to continue on and play it, and that I better be bringing some horses to the party. Since your post-flop action matched your preflop action, I am not confused, and I can easily fold the same hand I would have called with in the first example. You’ve confirmed to me that my range of hands for you is correct, and that I might want to reconsider any further chips committed to the pot.
Anyway, the purpose this week wasn’t to write a textbook. It was simply to remind you that having some idea of what the other person is holding is far more critical to your success in the game than what you are holding. If you have A-K, on a flop of 2-4-7, and I know this, I can bet away at will. If I’m leading the betting, and I bet the flop, turn and river, it is nearly impossible for you to not believe I have at least a pair of 2’s!
So your task for the coming weeks is to practice reading other’s hands. Turn off the damn iPod, take off the sunglasses, and pay attention. I’m not only talking about paying attention to your hand either. When you fold, concentrate on those that are in the hand and try to figure out what they are holding. Keep track of how often you are right (or at least close enough). If you can improve this one aspect of your game, I guarantee you that you will increase your winnings too.
With that, I leave you with this one last bit of advice: I said it above and I’ll say it here. Take off the sunglasses in home games and low limit cash games. Seriously. If Doyle Brunson, Phil Ivey, David Williams, Daniel Negreanu and a host of other amazing poker players don’t need sunglasses to win millions, why do you need them to win a hundred bucks at a kitchen table? In the past 2 years of home games, I have won as much money as anyone I play with that wears sunglasses. They don’t improve their play anymore than not wearing them hurts mine. They are just a prop.
I do play with 2-3 people who understand the purpose and problems associated with wearing sunglasses. This section of the article is not intended for these types of players. They know who they are.
Same thing with the iPod. If you’re jamming to tunes, you can’t be paying attention to the game. I used to have my iPod, and have the earpiece in my ear. But the iPod wasn’t on. I just wanted people to think I wasn’t paying attention. What people say is every bit as important as what they do. A sigh means a lot more than a big raise. If Bon Jovi is giving love a bad name in your ear, you’ll miss that important little tell.
- Never wear sunglasses or listen to your iPod when you are dealing. Many home games use player dealers, and this rule goes double for them. A dealer must be able to fully concentrate on the action at the table, and cannot be distracted by music. They must also be able to see the cards and chips clearly.
- Never listen to an iPod while playing if you are easily distracted. I can’t count the number of players I’ve seen that had to be reminded that it was their action because they were lost in the music.
- If you insist on wearing sunglasses, make sure they are glasses designed for better vision. Normal everyday wear sunglasses darken what you see. Most poker tables are poorly lit anyway. Put the two together, and I promise you’ll call the Hearts on the board with a couple of diamonds in your hand.
- Never wear dinosaur eye sunglasses unless your name is Greg Raymer. He doesn’t wear them because they make them play better. He wears them because they are his trademark. He could beat you without them on, trust me.
- While we’re out it, a couple of more hints. Take a shower. Brush your teeth. If you smoke, chew some gum. Apply deodorant. Ladies, cut back on the perfume. In other words, don’t smell bad at the table. We’re sitting shoulder to shoulder for hours.
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