In my efforts to understand my opponents better, I've developed a system to help train myself to think about my opponents. I use Focus Sessions of just one table at a time for this practice. By playing just one table, I have enough brain space to observe all the action to make as many reads as possible. And I also have the time to think about all the different exploits I can use versus each individual player.
We've all heard the saying, “Play the player, not your cards”. This is a very important aspect of poker that people often forget. Heck, Ed Miller wrote an entire book about this called “Playing the Player”.
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I play these 1-table focus sessions with a pen and paper to keep track of my reads. You can use the PokerTracker 4 notes editor or even a phone app like Evernote or Microsoft Word, but I find it’s easier having player notes written in front of me.
Which Opponents to Begin With
When you sit down at a new table full of unknowns, who should you work to understand first?
I think you start with the person on your direct left. This player is in the best position against you and has the most opportunities to exploit that positional advantage. They’re in the BB when you're in the SB, and in the SB when you are on the BTN. This is the player most likely to give you trouble at the table.
The next person you must understand is the one to his left. They’ve got the 2nd best position against you and you want to know whether they’re capable of being a positional thorn in your side.
When you look at these two players, you want to consider how often they’ll call or 3bet you preflop, and how likely they are to play back at you with position post-flop.
After you have a good grasp on these two to your left, consider the two to your right. The tables are now turned and you have the best position against these two. Sure, they’ll try to steal a lot of your blinds and potentially make you fold a lot, but do they fold to 3bet resteals? Do they check a lot of flops when OOP so you can easily steal post-flop?
Remember that money flows around the table from the right to the left, so these two are your most likely sources of profit.
Next, you’ll continue analyzing the 3rd player on your right, then the 4th and so on, until you complete the circle. Don’t stop until you’ve hit all the players. Your goal with these focus sessions is to develop your player understanding, so you must analyze each and every one.
General Player Type Analysis
Now, let's talk about some of the things you're looking for. The 1st thing to note about a player is the general player type. Are they TAG, LAG, a LP fish or maybe a super tight nit?
I'm going to focus most of this discussion towards online play because that's where I spend most of my time. For all of you LIVE players, everything I'm discussing today is applicable to you as well. But, you don’t have the benefit of HUD stats to rely on. You need to rely more on your observation skills as well as making some educated guesses about how often your opponents make certain plays.
So, the quickest way to gain a general understanding of the type of player they are is by looking at VPIP & PFR. If you’re a LIVE player, you can estimate these numbers. Here are some quick examples:
- A 15/10 player is a TAG (tight-aggressive)
- A 44/20 player is a LAG (loose-aggressive)
- A 9/7 player is a Nit (super tight)
- And a 45/10 player is a Fish (very loose and passive)
By knowing their general play style, you'll begin to formulate ideas on how to exploit these opponents. Plus, you’ll know which opponents to target and which to probably avoid playing from OOP.
Each poker hand can be broken down into two basic elements: preflop and post-flop. Your opponent’s specific actions in each street gives you a lot of information about them.
If you see a player limp 3 hands in a row? Most likely a Fish.
If you see a player 3bet 3 times in 2 orbits? Most likely a LAG or TAG player.
Maybe the player to your left folds every hand in 3 orbits, he’s a Nit and you can steal his blind every time and not worry about him 3betting nor calling you that often.
If a player opens and calls 3bets every time, he’s a LAG who can’t give up when he faces resistance. Probably because he wants to see the flop first.
And a player who limps then folds to a raise every time? He loves seeing cheap flops but doesn’t look ahead to gauge what the remaining players will do after he limps.
All of this preflop info is extremely useful in planning your own strategies and for reacting to their plays against you.
I’m not going to break post-flop down by street. Instead, I’m going to give some things to look for via useful questions to ask about each player.
What street are they honest on?
Maybe they routinely call the flop cbet but fold versus the turn cbet. If a player is honest on a certain street, that's where you want to put them to the test. For example, if you're IP and they check on that street of honesty, go ahead and fire a bluff bet.
Do they only bet or raise with TP+?
If so, believe their bets and raises.
Do they call down every street with TPWK or even 2nd or 3rd pair?
They probably hate getting bluffed so now you know to mostly value bet against them.
Do they check behind with 1 pair hands?
If so, they like to control the pot size. Make big bets, especially when IP to make them uncomfortable and steal pots when overcards or draw completing cards hit the board.
Are they a spewy bluffer who doesn’t know when to step on the brakes?
The more active and aggressive the player is, the harder it is to play OOP against them. Strive for IP play versus the most aggressive of players and stick around with TP hands.
How do they view position?
If they call frequently out of the blinds, they don’t think about it at all. If they only call in the CO and BTN, and they seem to bet when checked to post-flop, they love position and use it against you. Abuse the players who don’t think about position and beware playing OOP against those who understand the value of it.
Question to You: Are you paying attention to showdowns?
If you see any showdown hand, you MUST replay the action of the hand. Now that you see their rivered nut flush, you can understand what that flop check-raise meant (flopped nut flush draw), why they checked the turn (still on a draw) and why they fired the river when their flush came in.
Notes: Observations and Directives
As you’re taking notes, you want to record simple observations and reads. Things like, “limps with suited-gappers, connectors and suited-Aces” or “3bets big with KK+” or “never calls the turn cbet”.
You also want to write down any exploits you can make against them. I write them down as directives to myself and I put them in all caps to make them stand out. For example:
- If they open and fold to 3bets a lot when OOP, “3BET BLUFF AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE FROM IP”
- Versus a turn honest cbettor, “GET TO THE TURN AND BET IP WHEN THEY CHECK”
- If he’s a Nit only value bets turns and rivers, “FOLD VS DOUBLE AND TRIPLE BARRELS UNLESS YOU’VE GOT THE NUTS”
Writing observations is easy and it’s going to take some practice turning those observations into exploits and directives. So you’re going to have to work at it.
The next step after writing down your directives is pulling the trigger on them.
It might be tough making the 3bet or 4bet re-bluff or check-raising a turn cbet or firing a pot-sized bluff on the river. But, if you’ve been paying attention and you know the exploit has a high chance of working, you must train yourself to pull the trigger to turn yourself into the exploiting player you want to be.
I recommend playing these 1-table focus sessions for the first half hour of each session until you train this process as a habit. Once it’s a habit, you’ll naturally do it for every table you play for the rest of your journey.
This is actually a self-reinforcing habit because as soon you start to see results from this work, you’re going to want to continue doing it.
Here’s my challenge to you for this episode: Start your next 5 play sessions with a 30-minute, 1 table focus session where your goal is to make reads on each opponent and pull the trigger on at least 5 exploitative plays. Take notes on as many observations and directives as you can. This is killer practice and will help to turn you into the exploitative player you want to be.
Now it’s your turn to take action and do something positive for your poker game.
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