How to Read Hands in Poker
Sports / September 24, 2016

1The final and third key assumption is that your opponent will not chase a draw with blatantly bad odds. The immediate odds may not quite be there if he is banking on implied odds or a chance of bluffing you out later, but he will not for instance call a pot-sized turn bet for 1/3 of the effective stacks with a bare gutshot draw and no showdown value.

To the uninitiated, hand reading can seem like an almost mystical poker skill. Using some incomprehensible sixth sense, the best poker players in the world decipher their opponents’ hidden cards and make mind-boggling bluffs and calls as a result.

Baseline Assumptions

There are a few basic assumptions about your opponents’ play that need to hold true for my simple hand-reading method to work. They aren’t absolutes, but the more accurately they describe an opponent’s play, the more effective this method will be.

Experience, of course, can not be taught. I can, however, suggest some reasonable baseline assumptions to make about an opponent. From these, I derive a simplified method for determining, if not his exact hand, at least the approximate strength of his hand, which is often all that you need to make your decision.

Hand reading may seem like a supernatural talent beyond the grasp of mere mortals, the truth is quite the opposite. Hand reading is a science founded upon deductive logic. Poker players observe data about how an opponent is playing, compare that data to their past experiences to form assumptions about how the opponent will play in the future, and then use those assumptions to interpret an opponent’s actions and zero in on his possible holdings.

2The second key assumption is that your opponent will not turn a made hand into a bluff. He will seek to get to showdown cheaply rather than move you off of your hand if he believes that he has a shot of winning at showdown. It is because he thinks he has little or no chance of winning otherwise when he bluffs.

Only you can determine how well these assumptions apply to your particular opponent, or to opponents in general in the games that you play. My own experience is that these assumptions hold reasonably true for most players in the small- and mid-stakes no-limit hold ’em games online, certainly well enough to make the following hand reading method effective.

The first is that your opponent will not make thin value bets. In other words, he will be fairly confident both that he has the best hand and that you will call with a worse hand before he will try to bet for value. There is no clear standard for what a “thin” value bet is, but the more timid your opponent, the more effective this hand-reading technique will be.

The Hand Categorization Method

The basic idea behind this simplified hand reading technique is not to put an opponent on an exact hand or two-card combination but rather to narrow his range down to one or two of three broad categories: The river is a T. Your opponent checks, and you check. That card may have improved your opponent’s hand, but mostly you are just worried that he will fold almost everything worse than your pair if you bet again.

Monster hands— These are the hands where your opponent wants to play a big pot. That doesn’t mean he’ll raise or bet at every opportunity- some players love to slowplay- but it means that he is confident that his hand is best and that there are plenty of worse hands that will pay him off.

Calling an opponent’s hole cards down to the suits is a neat parlor trick that can impress television audiences and intimidate other players. It is hardly essential to making good decisions against all but the most sophisticated players. Learning to categorize your opponents’ possible holdings is an effective and simple method for improving your decision-making.

These are broad categories, they can give you a lot of guidance with regard to how to play your hand. Eliminating even one of these types of hands from your opponent’s range can swing a river decision from a call to a fold.

There’s an outside chance that he still feels he needs to bluff, but it seems most likely that he now considers one of his better showdown hands, perhaps something like KT, worthy of a small value bet. In either event, it seems unlikely that he can stand a big check-raise. You raise to $125, and your opponent folds.

Drawing/bluffing hands– Drawing hands are hands that need to bluff or improve to have a reasonable expectation of winning the pot. This refers not just to obvious draws such as four to a flush but to any hand which currently has little or not showdown value. Depending on their play style and the value of the draw, players may play drawing hands fast or slow.

Example 1: He’s Got a Monster

You raise to $6, and the big blind calls. You put him on either a drawing hand, maybe a suited connector, or a showdown hand, something like a small pocket pair or a weak suited Ace.

Notice than in neither of these examples did we put our opponent on an exact hand. In the second example, we didn’t even know which category of hand he had. All we needed to know was that he could not have one particular type of hand.

Not many players will decline to bet with a monster when the pot is so small, the effective stacks so large, and there is only one betting street left. Not to mention that there are now quite a few draws out there that he needs to think about.

It seems, then, that he has a hand he is trying to showdown cheaply. To your surprise, your opponent makes a small bet of $25 into the $63 pot.

Your opponent checks, you bet $10 into the $13 pot, and he calls. There aren’t many draws possible: the only ones you could see your opponent playing here are JT or 76. You think his most likely holding is some kind of showdown hand, either a weak King or one of the smaller pairs.

We already determined that he almost certainly did not check two pair or better on the turn. It’s possible that he had one pair and rivered trips, but his bet is awfully small for that, not to mention that trips are just never that likely.

That means that the drawing and monster hands, previously a small part of his range, are now his most likely holdings. The former is now a straight, whereas the latter has turned second pair and is now a showdown hand.

Remember that we were putting him on a showdown hand, with an outside chance of a draw or a slowplayed monster. Why would he bet pot with a hand that he’s trying to showdown cheaply?

Example 2: He Can’t Have a Monster

This doesn’t give much information about his possible hand categories. He would call with any pair 6’s or better, so a showdown hand is very possible. Your opponent might even call with drawing hands as weak as gutshots or Ace-high (most of which are actually ahead of your hand, though that’s probably not how your opponent is thinking about it) hoping to take the pot away later.