Hand reading is the #1 skill in poker, and it's well worth the time it takes to perfect your use of it both on- and off-the-felt.
What is Hand Reading in Poker?
Hand Reading (aka Hand Ranging) is assigning a player a logical range of hands based on their actions, then making the most +EV decision that exploits their range.
Listen to episode #250: How to do Poker Hand Reading
It’s critical that we put our opponent on a range of hands, not just one single hand.
The reason we use ranges is because players can make the same play with many different hands.
For example, if they open-raise preflop, they can do it with AA, JT, 97s and 33 (and everything in between).
And then, if the flop comes AJT and they make a continuation bet, there are many hands that we can raise them with:
- 2 pair: AJ, AT, JT
- Sets (3 of a kind): TT, JJ
- Straight: KQ
You see why you can’t put somebody on just one hand. Depending on their preflop range and the board, there are lots of hands they would play in the exact same manner.
Hand Reading In Action
Hand reading is the most important poker skill because it forces you to consider all the variables in every hand you play.
Weak players just think about their hand and the cards on the board.
But a skilled hand reader will think about so much more on every street in every hand:
- Type of player they’re up against
- HUD stats
- The specific actions the player has taken so far
- Stack sizes
- Size of the pot
- Possible future board cards
- Table or tournament conditions
Because a skilled hand reader considers so many more factors, they make better decisions. This leads to more hands won, more bad situations avoided, more opponents exploited, more money saved and ultimately more profits at the table.
Hand reading is how you’re going to become the poker player you want to be.
You open-raised from the CO, a LAG player on the BTN 3bets.
What range of hands does a LAG BTN 3bet you with?
Answer this right now!
The Logistics of Hand Reading
In its most simplified form, hand reading follows this path:
- You assign a preflop range of hands based on the player’s actions. So, a caller has a different range than a 3bettor which is different from an open-raiser’s range.
- As the hand progresses through the flop, turn and river, you’ll narrow their range based on further actions. Narrowing a range means you’re removing hands that don’t fit into the actions they take. So, if the player called your cbet on the flop from OOP, you might remove all non-pair hands and every draw weaker than a gut-shot straight draw.
- Exploit your knowledge of their range. If you narrowed their range to mostly weak pairs and draws, you might use this information to make an effective bluff bet to get them to fold.
Hand reading, like any poker strategy, requires loads of practice before you turn it into a skill you can successfully use on the felt. Couple this with the fact that you’re making assumptions about a player’s range and how they play their hands, you’ll find yourself making lots of hand reading mistakes early on.
Action is the greatest teacher.
Getting used to hand reading is going to be tough at first, but don’t get discouraged. It takes time and dedication to using it off and on-the-felt and the more time you put into it, the better you’ll become.
If you need motivation to get your butt in gear with hand reading exercises, do it for the promise of greater poker skills. Do it for the idea that you will start exploiting your opponents more. Do it with the expectation that hand reading skills will turn you into the player that you want to be.
I did a full 66 Days of Hand Reading in a row and I put all those videos up on YouTube. You’ll see me make tons of mistakes preflop and through the streets, but this 66 days was the best thing I ever did for my poker game and I improved every aspect of my game through it.
The Poker Hand Reading 2-step Process
We're keeping hand reading simple with only 2 steps: 1) assigning a preflop range and 2) narrowing that range through the streets.
But just because it's simple, that doesn't make it an easy skill to master. The sooner you get to work on it, and the more practice you put in, the sooner you'll use hand reading to exploit your opponents and earn an obscene amount of their chips.
Step 1: Assign a Preflop Range of Poker Hands
When I assign a poker range, I consider it being made up of 5 different hand categories:
- Pocket pairs
- Broadway hands
- Suited hands
- Off-suit hands
To help me build their preflop range, here's my favorite question to ask myself over and over again:
What is the worst hand they play this way?
Whatever the worst hand is, I would include that and better hands in their range.
EXAMPLE: Creating a player’s Big Blind calling range
We open-raised from the cut off. The BTN and the SB both folded and the TAG BB player called.
- What is the worst pocket pair they call with?
- Let’s say they would call with 22 but they would 3bet with QQ or better.
- What are the worst Broadway hands they call with?
- They worst would be JTs, QTs, KTs and ATs, so I would include those and the better hands. And off-suit, maybe just the AT, KJ and QJ hands.
- What are the worst Aces they call with?
- I think they would call with every suited Ace and only ATo and better.
- What are the worst suited hands they call with?
- Maybe 76s is the worst along with 86s and Q9s. So, we can include of those and everything better.
- What are the worst off-suit hands they call with?
- Maybe just those Broadway hands already mentioned.
More Preflop Questions for Ranging a Player
Listen to episode #251: Poker Hand Reading Questions to Ask
What type of player are they?
I will range my opponents differently based on the type of player they are. Nitty players will get very small ranges in general, TAG players slightly wider, LAGs wider still and those LP fish get the widest ranges.
What notes do I have on them?
Your history with an opponent is incredibly important. The more you know about them from paying attention to prior hands and showdowns, the better player notes you can take. Good notes will help you range them and play against them in the future.
What does their action say about their range?
Generally, the more aggressive the action, the stronger the range. The more weak or passive the action, the weaker the range.
What are their action-related stats?
HUD stats are a numerical representation of the history you’ve accumulated with the player. They 3bet 5% or they call 2bets 15% or they fold to steals 74%. All of these numbers help to assign them a pre-flop range, so know which ones can help you in different situations. Plus, try to observe these by position in a HUD popup.
Assigning a 3bet caller's range:
What does their bet sizing say about the strength of their range?
Either online or LIVE, bet sizing can be a big tell. In general, the larger the bet, the stronger the hand.
Why didn’t they CALL/RAISE/FOLD?
Your opponent’s action is important, but when they chose to call, they also chose to NOT fold or raise. What does this say about their range? Often, we can eliminate some of the strongest hands when they play passively (like removing AA and KK when they over-call) or we can remove the weakest hands when they 4bet. If you can put yourself in their shoes and figure out why they chose to NOT make a play, this will lead to more accurate pre-flop ranges.
Flopzilla: #1 in a Hand Reader's Tool Box
Besides PokerTracker 4, Flopzilla is the software I use most frequently when studying poker.
It's a range analysis software that’s designed to quickly figure out how well a range of hands or a specific hand hits the board. It's also perfect for hand reading because it makes it easy to assign preflop ranges then narrow them through the streets based on the strength of the different parts of Villain's range. Learn more about the benefits and uses of Flopzilla here.
You can see how easy Flopzilla makes hand reading practice in this video:
More Hand Reading Action!
Step 2: Narrow Their Poker Range on the Flop, Turn and River
Narrowing a range means to remove hands from it based on their actions and what you know about the player. The smaller and more accurately we range them, the more +EV our decisions become.
To help me figure out what hands to remove, I ask myself The Ultimate Question on every street:
What are they doing this with?
If they call on a monotone board with 3 spades, there’s a good chance they have a flush or a flush draw already. But, if they call your bet on that board, you can easily remove underpairs without a spade and most non-spade hands. You might even be able to remove any 2s, 3s, 4s or 5s hands if you think they would never stay in with such a weak draw.
Here’s where putting yourself in your opponent’s shoes and trying to figure out their logic is super important. Some players love to stay in with any draw, especially flush draws. Other players fold any non-pair and non-nut drawing hand. Others stay in with any pair because they fear getting bluffed.
Some players will only raise on the flop with trips+, and other players bluff-raise on the flop all the time.
More Post-flop Questions for Narrowing a Range
How well does their range connect with this board?
Knowing your opponent’s pre-flop range is one thing, understanding how it interacts with the board at hand is another. The goal is to visualize and understand which parts of their pre-flop range hit specific hands or draws.
Which parts of their range are BETTING/CALLING/RAISING/FOLDING on this board?
This goes along with the previous question. If your opponent raised, and you know that their raise means they’ve got 2p or better on this board, you’ll use that to your advantage and react to their raise and narrow their range properly.
Why didn’t they CHECK/BET/RAISE/FOLD?
Just like with that pre-flop question, your opponent took one option and chose not to take the other 3. If you can figure out why, you’ll use that information to narrow their range even more accurately.
What does a sane person do here?
This question helps us to get to the logic our opponent is using. I first heard it asked by Jonathan Little in a training video once, and I fell in love with it. Some people think they can’t win against fish because there’s no putting them on a hand. Or, they can’t win against a LAG Donk because they just bomb every street and it’s tough to call down without the nuts. Well, both of these player types use some sort of logic in their decision making. Your job it to get in their heads and figure out the logic they’re using. It may be different from yours, but don’t let that stop you from trying to figure them out.
What are my notes on this player?
When in-game, we often forget to look at any players notes we’ve taken in the past. Practicing this off-the-felt, basically looking at the notes as you try to narrow their range, is going to turn “note checking” into a habit.
The 5 Best Things We Learn From Showdowns
Showdowns teach us so much about our opponents. Sure, HUD stats help us gauge their tendencies, but showdowns show us the unvarnished truth of how they played their hand.
Listen to episode #252: The 5 Best Lessons from Poker Showdowns
We see the exact hand they called with pre-flop, the hand they checked on the flop, the hand they check-raised with on the turn and the hand they shoved with on the river.
We get a brief but powerful glimpse into the logic they use and we use this to gain a better understanding of the way they play their hands.
By paying attention to the street-by-street action of every hand, whether we’re involved or not, the poker showdown is our opportunity to confirm our reads on the players and their actions.
1. Showdowns Clue Us in to a Player’s Logic
When we see a showdown, we can replay the action of the hand to determine why they played it the way they did. This insight into their decisions made while knowing their hand strength at the time allows us to understand the logic they use as they play a hand.
This is extremely valuable for future pots played with the opponent because careful dissection now can help us make great decisions later.
The other day I did a hand reading exercise with a student from The Poker Forge. In this hand, he faced off against a player who check-called the flop and turn with a nut flush draw (of course, we knew he had the nfd by paying attention to showdown). My student bet 2/3 pot on the flop then ¾ pot on the turn. When the flush hit the river, Villain donk bet for 3/4 pot and my student called. He lost with 2p, but by paying attention to showdown, we saw that this Villain plays the nfd passively from OOP, but is willing to call really large bets.
We took a player note from this hand that read, “OOP calls w/nfd vs big bets (VALUE BET BIG ON WET AND INCOMPLETE BOARDS, BEWARE OF THE DONK BET WHEN DRAW COMPLETES)”
Now, my student has a new way to exploit this player or possibly to save money. He only got this exploit because we did a hand reading exercise off-the-felt where he lost a huge pot on the river with 2p vs the nut flush.
In your next 3 play sessions, for every showdown you see, run back through the action of the hand in an effort to understand the logic of the players. Did they get super aggressive with a ten high flush draw? Did they play the flopped nuts passively until the river? Try to learn something and take at least one player note for every showdown you see. Now, I challenge you to take action!
2. Showdowns Help Us Spot Bet Sizing Patterns
They give us some insight into a player’s choice of bet sizing. This is important because, whether they know it or not, the size they choose is often a subconscious reaction to the situation they’re in and they don’t realize they have patterns to their sizing.
Some players naturally bet bigger for value and smaller for bluffs. Other players min bet with every draw as a blocking bet so they don’t have to pay too much. Some players 3bet to 9bb’s with AA but only to 7bb’s with JJ.
Here’s a bet sizing example from a prior session:
- 1st Hand: Villain made a ½ pot bluff cbet on the flop with AK.
- 2nd Hand: Villain made a ½ pot bluff bet on the turn with a gs draw.
- 3rd Hand: Villain made a ¾ pot value bet on the flop with a set
- 4th Hand: Villain made a ¾ pot value bet when the 3rd spade hit the turn and he made a flush.
I took a player note that read: “1/2 pot = bluff, 3/4pot = value”.
The goal with taking a player note like this is so that in the future, I can get away from marginal hands when they’re betting bigger, and I can try pulling off some bluffs when they bet ½ pot.
3. Showdowns Help Us Learn the Tendencies of Different Player Types
You might face 8 opponents at a FR table, but those 8 opponents might be split among only 4 player types. There could be 2 LAG’s, 1 TAG, 4 Fish and 1 unknown. The unknown player is named Sam123.
Sam123 is an unknown, so how do you play against him?
Well, first you treat him like the average player. Maybe the average player calls flop and turn and cks behind with TP. Or maybe they check-call the flop and turn with any draw and either fold or donk bet the river when the draw completes. Maybe the average player doesn’t 3bet JJ or worse, but they always 3bet QQ+.
You can treat an unknown player like Sam123 just like the average player, at least until you get to know him.
After 3 rounds you’ve seen him play 27 hands, and that can often be enough to see what type of player they are.
If Sam123 is a 45/4 player after 27 hands, this tells me he’s super loose and passive. So, I’m going to treat him like a LP player.
Loose-passive players at my stakes love to see flops especially with pp’s and suited hands. They just love to set and flush mine. They also find it difficult to fold most draws. So, if I’m value betting, I’ve got to go big to get maximum value from their drawing hands. They also call down with weak TP and 2nd pair hands. If they wake up with bets and raises either pre or post-flop, I have to be careful because they only get aggressive with made hands.
So, this is how I’ll play against Sam123 until I learn differently.
4. Showdowns Confirm a Player’s Use of Exploitative Plays
Sometimes you’ll look at a player’s HUD statistics and you’ll catch a tendency of theirs that looks like an exploit they like to use.
An example of this is seeing a high Turn Float statistic of 60%+. In PokerTracker 4, a Float Bet is defined as the “Percentage of the time that a player bets in position on the turn after the aggressor fails to continuation bet on the turn.” So, they called a cbet IP on the flop. Then their opponent failed to double-barrel the turn. They pounce on this with a float bet intended to steal the pot.
It’s great when you catch an exploitative play like this. Seeing a showdown after they make this play with Ace-high or a busted draw tells you they’re capable of it.
Now, you can use this against them next time by check-raising instead of double-barreling the turn. Or, if it’s multi-way, you can raise them in-position as a bluff once they make the float bet.
The more showdowns you pay attention to, the more plays like this you’ll catch. Now that you notice them, you can learn how to defend against them or use them for yourself to exploit other opponents.
5. Showdowns Help Us Spot Tells
Whether you’re a LIVE or online player, spotting tells helps us exploit others and earn more of their chips.
For LIVE players, when you see a showdown and remember how the player reached for his chips, paused, then checked with an open palm when he turned the nut flush, that can help you in the future. When they quickly 3bet pre-flop by haphazardly moving a full stack in with TT, but later you see them calmly slide a stack in with AA, that’ll also help in the future.
For online players, maybe you remember how your opponent timed down then over-shoved the turn with the nut flush draw, but in a different hand they quickly bet 2/3 pot on the turn with the set.
If you have a hard time remembering the action that just occurred, you’ve got to start paying more attention and try to remember their actions. Tell yourself you can do it, then practice doing it.
Recite the action in your head like a play by play announcer: “The BB called pre-flop, then donk bet for ½ pot on the A92r flop. On the turn he just checked and when the flush completed and on the river he quickly bet out 2/3 pot, like he liked that river card.”
Now You Can Exploit Their Range
Hand reading is the basis for all exploits against other players.
These exploits can start preflop or at any other point in the hand.
Preflop: If you assign the player a very wide raising range, you can exploit this knowledge by 3bet bluffing a lot. If they call vs most 3bets, instead of bluffing, you can value bet really big to exploit their calling tendencies.
Post-flop: If you know they cbet the flop a lot but only double-barrel with strong hands. On a hard to hit flop like J62r, you can call and when they check the turn, take the pot away with a bet. It’s a hard to hit board and they’re turn honest, so bluffing here is an easy exploit to make.
Because there are so many important factors, it takes loads of practice to become a skilled hand reader. Let's get you started…
I challenge you to 5 hand reading exercises, one per day for the next 5 days. Taking action and doing your own hand reading exercises is the only way you’ll learn this skill. Now, I challenge you to get to work!
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