Sunday, March 8, 2015

Hand Reading at the Micros

Hand reading in micro stakes poker
Hand reading is a term that has been around in poker for a long time. It basically means exactly what it sounds like, reading somebody's hand. But the usage of this term has decreased in popularity in recent years at least in online poker parlance. The reason why is that the phrase "hand reading" sort of comes from the old school live poker way of thinking about the game where somebody actually calls out their opponent's hand. We have all seen examples of this by the TV poker pros especially. Although nevermind how much editing is actually done behind the scenes so that we only see the times when they look like a genius!

Ranges, Not Hands


However the reason why hand reading (at least understood in this sense) is a bit silly in the modern online game is that we don't think in terms of an actual hand very often anymore. We think instead in terms of ranges. So for instance when I am facing a bet on the river I might break down my opponent's range as such: he has the flush 30% of the time, a pair/two pair/set type hand that beats me 30% of the time, a pair hand that I beat 20% of the time and a bluff the final 20%. In this way you can see that I never list any actual hands. I am more interested in the frequency with which my opponent has different types of hands. I am analyzing my opponent's range. Whichever specific hands are included within this range are not important.

Poker is Not a Black or White Game


Another bad habit from this live poker old school way of thinking is seeing the game in a black or white sense. I can't tell you how many times in the past a student has told me that he is folding because his gut tells him that his opponent always has the flush here. I try to gently remind them that their opponent rarely ever has anything 100% of the time. While it is true that they might have the flush X% of the time, they will also have a variety of other holdings in various frequencies as well.

It should be noted that there may actually be real cases at the micros where according to some relevant HUD data your opponent absolutely has a specific hand or type of hand 100% of the time. I will discuss this in a bit. But black or white thinking about an opponent's holdings which is based off nothing more than a hunch is simply the wrong way to view the game the large majority of the time. Almost everyone has a range in every spot even if it is 90% skewed to one particular type of holding.

Hand Reading: Old School Versus New School


It may seem that I am bashing live poker so far in this article. I can assure you that this is not my intention. However, heavily edited TV poker shows and Hollywood depictions of the game have (for better or worse) often presented a distorted image of poker in the mind of many casual players. In fact much of the general public still thinks about poker as a game of luck and machismo played in dark smokey rooms by mafia kingpins with guns on the table. The reality of course could not be anything further from this. Modern day poker is a mathematical/logical skill based game often dominated by young college educated professionals seated behind laptops.

The popular depictions of poker in our culture though have created a way of thinking about the game that is often short sighted and devoid of any logical or mathematical thought. This is fine by me most of the time because it is this romantic allure of the game which still draws the casuals in. The big call, the table talk, the bravado, the "poker face," the millions on the line! And the TV pros (most of whom in actuality aren't anywhere near the top of the game skillwise) have done a great job in perpetuating this image and drawing in the recreational players.

But it often instills the exact opposite view of the game to what I try to teach on this blog, in my books and videos which is a systematic, sober, long run approach to beating low stakes cash games. Indeed, for many people just starting out in this game they cannot begin to have success until they start deprogramming themselves of many of these myths and archaic ways of thinking about the game.

The Micros (as Usual) are "Different"


Now with all of this said, the ironic thing is that once you have played enough hands at the micros you can actually call out your opponent's specific hand in some spots and expect to be right a large amount of the time. Those of you who have seen my training videos for instance will know that I regularly do this. Sometimes I am wrong (and I don't edit it out) but more often than not I am right.

I am able to do this because many micro stakes players have absolutely zero balance in their game. For instance when the 18 tabling 11/9 nit at NL5 raises my double barrel I can just look at the board and pick from the possible sets that he can have. This is because he literally has one of those hands every single time given his actions in the hand. I don't even need to look at the HUD data. Indeed, one of the main reasons why poker gets a lot tougher at higher limits is because people don't play like this anymore. They do in fact have non-nut made hands, semi-bluffs and even air in a spot like this. Therefore, it is impossible to call out their hand.

Truthfully though this is still not a good habit to get into even at the lowest stakes and I should stop doing it. You should always try to hand read in terms of ranges even at these limits. In most cases, especially on the earlier streets, your opponents will actually have many different types of holdings. And even if they are one of those absolutely no balance nits it is still a good idea to train yourself to think about the game correctly for when you face more quality opposition at higher limits.

Use Your HUD Efficiently


Your HUD can help a lot in this respect. By looking at the actual numbers you are forced to think in a more mathematical modern way about the game rather than the black and white "feel" approach which I have tried to warn against in this article. So for instance if I am trying to assess my opponent's calling range on the flop I will look specifically at his Float Flop CBet%. I am of course assuming a proper sample size here. For many nits at the lowest stakes their Float Flop CBet may be as little as 10% because they play a fit or fold game. Therefore, if they call me on the flop I will assign them a very narrow range of overpairs, top pairs (good kicker) and big draws.

However, with a more sticky reg or a recreational player who might float the flop 30% or 40% of the time I will assign them a much wider range of overpairs, top pairs, middle pairs, bottom pairs, big draws, weak draws and even total air on occasion. I will therefore be more likely to bet again against this type of player on the turn unimproved. If they were to raise me on the turn then I will once again refer to the appropriate HUD stat (Raise Turn CBet% in this case). I will again put them on a range of hands based off of the data and make my decision from there.

Perfection is Not Required


I want to also mention that I am not looking for perfection when analyzing an opponent's range with HUD stats like this. Often I don't even take the time to assign specific percentages to the various types of hands within their range. I just want a general idea of the types of hands that I am facing and the rough frequencies with which I think they will show up with them.

So for instance, here is what I might say to myself when facing a double barrel with middle pair versus a nitty opponent who CBets the turn only 30% of the time. "I think my opponent's range here consists mostly of top pair and overpair hands. While he may be barreling a draw or continuing to bet on a scare card from time to time, given the player type and the HUD stats, I think I am behind here much more often than not." And the obvious conclusion, "Therefore, I fold."

Some people take it to the other extreme these days though and go completely overboard with the math in a situation like this by counting card combinations and trying to get exact range frequencies. Don't do this either. The most obvious reason why? You don't have time to be doing this stuff while multi-tabling micro stakes cash games! The practical (not perfect) approach that I just laid out above is much more conducive to success in the real world. Being off by a few digits is not going to affect your bottom line by any large degree in the long run. Being the world's greatest "poker theorist" but never having the time to actually play the game is what is really going to hurt your bottom line.

Final Thoughts


I hope that this article has shed a little bit of light on the idea of hand reading especially as it applies to the micros. I really think that the term should simply be retired and we would do better to call it "analyzing your opponent's range."

While it can be tempting to use the old school approach of calling out hands against many of the un-creative players at the micros these days it is better to train yourself to start thinking about the game in terms of ranges. And the easiest way to do this is to make good use of your HUD stats. By constantly referring to actual percentages this will help you to start seeing the game more in terms of frequencies and ranges rather than specific hands. You can go check out my mega article on HUD setup for all of the exact stats that I suggest having on your screen.

Also, you should avoid going overboard in the other direction by overanalyzing every situation and using complex mathematical theories against very simple opponents. This stuff is often ineffective and impractical in the real world of multi-tabling low stakes online cash games. If you hang around in poker forums too much and get caught up in every new "theory" that comes out it can become very easy to overwhelm yourself with a lot of nonsense that doesn't actually make a difference to your bottom line.

The biggest winners are at the tables putting in big volume day in and day out. They know not to oversimplify the game but also not to overanalyze it either. They use simple but effective common sense, logical approaches bolstered by effective HUD use to dominate today's games. They analyze ranges to make their decisions, not hands. But they do so in a way which seeks efficiency and not perfection.

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Hand Reading at the Micros

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for a good article and a great blog!

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  2. First of all, thank you for the good blog and book: CTM (I read it for two weeks maybe 50 times on vacation and I have this year doubled my win rate to double digits!)

    On hand reading: how do you evaluate your opponent when you face all the inn bet pre flop? In last few weeks I have lost significant amounts of buy-ins due to this.
    In the limits I am playing (NL2 and NL5) there can be up to three to five of this situations and greatly affect the end result when it is almost always at least one buy-in to call (playing about 2-3k hands per day).
    Same thing about calling 3bets? Now I am just re-raising or folding as it seems like calling will almost always end in losing the hand.

    Thanks!

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    Replies
    1. Hi David,

      Awesome, glad the book helped so much! At the lower stakes you will find many regs who have no balance to their preflop game in situations like this. Basically when they 4Bet or ship it means AA or KK only. So you can make folds sometimes versus these players once you identify them with hands as big as AK or QQ. These aren't easy spots though, same thing with 3Bet pots. You can't get it right every time but you will get better with experience.

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  3. Good stuff Nathan, thanks for all the work you do! Keep it up!

    ReplyDelete