One of the great thrills of playing live No Limit Hold’em poker is looking across the table at an opponent who’s just put you to the test with a large river bet and trying to figure out whether the moment is right for an epic hero-call. Get it wrong and you’re the dummy busting out with bottom pair against the nuts, but get it right and you instantly acquire “soul-read” status while putting the fear of the almighty into your opponents. The truth of the matter though of course is that soul-reading is not some mystical power bestowed upon skilled poker players by the heavens above, but rather a combination of simple poker hand-reading strategies, a touch of intuition, and more often than not, a healthy dose of luck. And although we are powerless against the forces of luck, when it comes to our strategy and, to a lesser extent, our “intuition” at the live poker table, there is a simple process that will maximize the value of these cornerstone skill-sets and help you develop your soul-reading abilities.
The 5-Step Process To Soul-Read Your Opponents At The Poker Table
1. Pay Attention!
In the age of mobile phones, tablets, and social media, simply paying attention at the poker table is an edge available to all players, but one that is willingly sacrificed by a significant portion of live poker players.
With the exception of solid fundamentals, there is no greater edge to be had at the poker table than that of attention.
However, although it’s clearly important to pay attention during hands you’re personally involved in, as well as during sizable pots elsewhere at your table, since the majority of your opponents will be paying attention in these situations too, that’s not where the true edge is hiding. Instead it lives within the many seemingly-insignificant pots that occur when very few players are paying attention; it is these pots that will allow you to establish your opponent’s baseline, which will be a significant aspect of the upcoming Step 5. By observing how each player behaves when comfortable, be it when not involved in the pot or, better yet, when playing a small one, you provide yourself with a reference point to use in future high-stress situations.
Remember, live poker isn’t like online poker, there is no hand-history to check after missing the first half of a big pot between the two chip-leaders. There is no hand-history because you have to be the hand-history. So when you feel your attention waning at the poker table and that deep unquenchable thirst for a quick twitter scroll rears its ugly head, remind yourself that in the moments that matter most, you’re either going to have sufficient data points to make an educated decision…or you’re not.
2. Use Your Time Wisely
While live poker players have a disadvantage compared to their online counterparts when it comes to reviewing the action after the fact, they do possess a couple of significant advantages themselves, the first of which takes the shape of life’s greatest luxury: time.
Unlike online poker tournaments where each decision has a very specific amount of time allocated to it thanks to the ever-present shot-clock, live poker tournaments offer players an abundance of time, perhaps too much so! So until all live poker tournaments institute a universal shot-clock mechanism, it’s important to squeeze as much value out of it as we can when attempting to hand-read our opponents.
But let’s be clear, this does NOT mean that you should be stalling or taking an unreasonable amount of time unnecessarily, only that in those few moments each tournament that require a truly deep analysis, be comfortable allowing yourself to tune out all distractions, both external and ones coming from within, and work through the hand in the methodical and systematic manner outlined in Steps 3 & 4 below.
3. Review The Situation
Since you’re already following the advice in Step 1 of Paying Attention, Reviewing The Situation, should take you all of 2 seconds, but is a critical component of putting yourself in profitable soul-reading situations.
The quickest way to Review The Situation is to turn your attention to the pillars of hand-reading – Position, Stack-Size, and Opponent Style – and ask yourself three simple questions:
I. What position did my opponent raise or call from?
The answer to this question should reveal some general insight into your opponent’s holdings. One effective strategy when noting your opponent’s position is to immediately create a mental image representing their likeliest range of hands.
For example, when your opponent opens from Under The Gun (UTG) at a 10-handed WSOP tournament, begin the hand-reading process by picturing the opening range displayed above, taken from UpswingPoker’s Poker Lab.
Related: Read Our Complete Review Of UpswingPoker’s Poker Lab.
Starting your analysis with this crucial step will help you maintain consistency as you attempt to narrow your opponent’s likeliest holdings while evaluating the merits of making the call.
II. What was my opponent’s stack-size at the start of the hand?
Whether the opponent who just opened from middle position began the hand with 15 Big Blinds or 60 will have a significant impact on their hand-range and is therefore a critical piece of information for us to note as we analyze the situation.
Generally speaking, excluding extreme short-stack scenarios, the shallower a player’s stack is, the tighter they play in early and middle positions and looser they play in the steal positions. Keeping this in mind, it’s often preferable to attempt the coveted soul-read in situations where a player’s range is either as wide as possible, meaning it includes a large number of bluffs, or as narrow as possible in the sense of not containing enough value-hand combinations.
III. How would I categorize my opponent’s playing-style?
Once again, since you’ve been using Step 1 to Pay Attention to the happenings at your table, you now get to realize some of that equity by evaluating the data you’ve collected so far to determine whether your opponent is capable of pulling off a significant bluff or not.
How often have they entered the pot?
Have they done so aggressively or passively?
Have they made aggressive actions on the river before the current hand?
Have they shown down any hands and if so what insight did you gain from them about the player’s style of play?
In the absence of any such information – perhaps because it is the first level of the tournament or you’ve just arrived to a new table – you can sometimes turn to some common generalizations (ie. old = tight, German = aggro) to round out your preliminary examination of the situation. Just make sure you realize appearances can often be deceiving, as proven in the case of Old Man Legend John Smith who has put on a heads-up clinic over the past couple of years in one of the world’s toughest tournaments, the WSOP’s 10K HU Event.
4. Evaluate The Story
Now that you have all the relevant information in mind, the time for the soul-read work really begins.
As you sit there on the river contemplating putting your tournament on the line with nothing but a bluff-catcher, return to the original mental image you created of your opponent’s preflop range and begin the meat & potatoes of the analysis by asking yourself another seemingly straight-forward but often highly-complex question:
What story is my opponent trying to tell me, and does it even make any sense?
Let’s expand by looking at a simple example:
Imagine you’re playing a tight opponent who opens to 2.5x from early position with 15BB and checks down the 2x 7s 8x 4s Jx board only to snap check-raise all in after you try going for a thin value-bet on the river with the 67dd you elected to pot control on the turn. At this point the hero-call alert system in your head should be deafening! Here’s why…
In this scenario, our opponent is trying to sell us a story that he has a top tier value hand, those being 56, 9T, sets, and overpairs. However, when we examine his actions throughout the hand, his story starts to seem highly incongruent.
Does this tight player really open 56s, or even 9Ts, UTG at such a shallow depth? And if so, do they really check three streets? And what about 77-88 or JJ-AA, are any of those hands actually checking three streets on this board and then springing to life like this on a somewhat connected river card?
Seems pretty unlikely, doesn’t it?
So does that mean we are now ready for a soul-read?
Almost, but not quite yet.
5. Examine Your Intuition & Live Reads
In recent years, the term “Live Reads” has been primarily used to mock live tournament players who use it as an excuse to make fundamentally-unsound plays. However, there is a reason some of the legends of the live poker scene continue to succeed in today’s competitive poker climate. These players have spent decades collecting data points, both consciously and subconsciously, on how players act in pressure-filled situations and have thus developed what some people refer to as “intuition”.
Intuition: a thing that one knows, or considers likely, from instinctive feeling rather than conscious reasoning.
However, there are a couple of important factors to keep in mind when employing the use of Live Reads while hand-reading your opponent.
Firstly, unlike in the movies, tells are very rarely overt gestures or mannerisms that you’re going to uncover like some kind of Rounders-trained detective. Rather, they are most often nothing more than a subtle deviations from the baseline we mentioned in Step 1. Things like a sudden absence of chatter from a talkative opponent, a comfortable demeanor in what should otherwise be a high-stress situation, or perceived unease while collecting chips for that large river bet, can often carry valuable insight into a player’s hand-strength, particularly when coming from a non-professional opponent. Therefore, although they’ve acquired a bad rep in recent years, the concepts of live reads and intuition should not be cast aside like some type of sorcery, but should be looked upon as just another tool in your hero-call arsenal.
And most importantly when it comes to Live Reads is a point Doug Polk stressed during a recent WSOP stream:
Live reads should not replace solid fundamentals, they should be used to supplement your default strategy in close situations. ~ Doug Polk
Essentially, adjustments to live poker tells should be seen as the zoom and focus functions on a camera, the act of shooting a photograph will remain the same regardless, but the tools at your disposal help you gain a clearer picture.
So the next time you’re facing that dreaded river jam with a weak holding and begin considering trying to soul-read your opponent, remember to work your way through Steps 1-4 before “going with your read.”
If you practice hand-reading in this way, you’ll be well on your way to seeing that satisfying look of astonishment on your opponents’ faces as you scoop a monster of a pot with the bottom of your range.
~ Share your greatest soul-read in the comments below and we’ll award our favorites with a copy of our premium poker hand-charts for the Jackpot Sit & Go games. ~
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