5 Easy Ways to Read Their Poker Hand (Works Every Time!)

5 Ways to Read Their Poker Hand (Works Every Time)
This article was written by blackrain79.com contributor Fran Ferlan.

Reading your opponent’s hand is more art than science. When playing poker, it’s nearly impossible to zero in on your opponent’s exact hole cards.

However, there are techniques you can use to narrow down your opponent’s range to make better decisions on the felt.

You don’t have to be a poker savant or have psychic abilities to read your opponent’s hand.

It’s just a matter of using basic deduction and paying attention.

With that said, here are 5 ways you can use to read your opponent’s hand (almost) every time.

1. Knowing Your Opponent is Winning Half the Battle

In order to read your opponent’s hand, you need to at least have a vague idea about their playing tendencies. 

While no two players play the same, there are some commonalities between players based on the way they usually play. 

The more you know about your opponent’s playing tendencies, the easier it will be to hand read against them. 

Some reads can be very specific, but before getting into the specific reads that are largely situationally dependent, it’s useful to categorize your opponents into basic player types. 

These player types depend on the number of hands your opponent chooses to play (i.e. are they tight or loose) and the way they play these hands (i.e. passively or aggressively). 

Based on the combination of those two variables, you can put your opponents into four basic categories.

This will make hand reading against them far easier and more accurate.

Let’s make a quick rundown of basic player types and how to hand read against them.

Hand Reading vs Poker Player Type #1: Loose and Passive

This type of player is by far the weakest, and they are more than likely to be a recreational poker player. 

In fact, you will often find them in home games. I wrote an entire article recently about how to beat your friends in home games.

Anyways, they usually have a very poor grasp of the game, which is why you’ll often see them playing an insanely high number of hands. 

They will also play these hands passively (i.e. check and call a lot as opposed to betting and raising).

Narrowing down the range of these players is almost impossible. 

Since they play such a wide range preflop, it’s really hard to narrow down their range to only a few combinations. 

The fact that they have such a poor grasp of the game makes it theoretically possible for them to have virtually any card combination imaginable.

This means it can be frustrating to play against them when they smash the flop in a very unlikely way.

To smash the flop means to connect with it making a very strong hand combination, like two pair or better.

Hand Reading Example #1

Effective stack size: 40 BB

For example, let’s say you are dealt AK on the BU (button). A loose and passive player open-limps in the CO (cutoff). 

You iso-raise to 4x. Fish calls.

Pot: 9.5 BB

Flop: A92 Fish checks. 

You bet 1/2 pot, fish shoves all in. You call, and the fish turns over 92.

Fish will often play hands no other player in their right mind would play. 

This means they can be very unpredictable to play against, and hand reading against them can be challenging.

Now for the good news.

Hand reading against fish can be challenging, but you often don’t even have to do it to play profitably against them. 

Most of the junk they choose to play won’t connect with the board most of the time.

Most hands miss most flops (two out of three times, to be precise), and junk hands miss even more often, since they can connect with the flop in very limited ways. 

If you have a strong hand, it’s enough for you to know that your hand is comfortably ahead of all the junk they may call you with.

In the previous example, you got unlucky and ran into the top of their range, but consider all the other hands that could have given you action: weaker Ax hands, 9x hands, weak straight draws like 87 or 86, backdoor flush draws and so on.

The hands that have you beat only make up a small portion of your opponent’s overall range. 

When you’re narrowing down your opponent’s range, you need to take into account ALL possible hands in their range, not just the ones that you beat, or just the ones that have you beat.

It’s also worth mentioning that you need to examine their range from THEIR perspective. 

Just because you wouldn’t play a certain hand in a certain spot, or you would never play a certain hand a certain way, the same isn’t true for your opponents. 

You need to put yourself in their shoes, and try to think in the way they would if you want to hand read against them successfully.

Loose and passive players usually have an insanely wide calling range. So if you have a decent value hand (as in the example above), you can value bet it quite comfortably against this type of player. 

You are value betting when your hand is comfortably ahead of your opponent’s calling range. This is the opposite of bluffing, when you expect stronger hands than yours to fold.

However, if an otherwise passive player starts betting or raising out of nowhere, it’s usually a good sign they have something to show for it. 

In these cases, you might consider letting go of your hand. This is one of the 7 most simple poker tips that will immediately skyrocket your winnings.

An exception to this rule may be if the said player is clearly tilting, as recreational players are prone to do. 

Check out Nathan's recent video on how to spot a recreational player at your table.

Hand Reading vs Poker Player Type #2: Tight and Passive

These players are arguably the easiest to hand read against, as they typically play fairly straightforwardly. 

Unlike their loose and passive counterparts, they play way less hands, but bet and raise them only if they have something to show for it. 

They rarely, if ever, go out of line with some sort of a bluff. 

When hand reading against them, it’s exactly as advertised: strength means strength, and weakness means weakness. 

If they start betting or raising aggressively, you can be certain they think they have you beat, and they’re usually right. 

This is especially the case if they start betting and raising on big money streets (i.e. the turn or river), and especially if they are doing it while not being the previous street’s aggressor.

For example, if you fire a c-bet on the turn and they check-raise you, they are almost guaranteed to have a monster hand. 

Unless you have the stone-cold nuts, or close to it, your best bet is to just fold the hand, no matter how “strong” it might be.

The nuts is the strongest possible hand combination you (or your opponent) can have on a certain board).

If a tight and passive player raises you on big money streets, look out for potential straight and flush draws completing.

If you spot one, there’s a pretty good chance they have it. Otherwise, why would they start raising you all of a sudden?

Making big laydowns with a seemingly strong hand can mean the difference between being a losing or breakeven player and a solid winner.

This is discussed in more detail in Crushing the Microstakes.

The last two categories (TAG and LAG players) are harder to hand read against. But the fact that these are stronger players than their passive counterparts makes the necessity to hand read against them all the more important.

Hand Reading vs Poker Player Type #3: Tight and Aggressive

The tight and aggressive (TAG) players are more skilled than the previous two player types. 

They will make way less fundamental mistakes and have probably studied a proven winning poker strategy away from the felt.

However, this doesn’t mean you can’t accurately hand read against them, especially if you know what to look for. 

If they fall on the more straightforward side of the spectrum, they will likely have way more strong value hands than bluffs in their range, especially on big money streets (i.e. the turn and river). 

They won’t show up with random nonsense hands, which arguably makes hand reading easier against them than the unpredictable fish. 

This is especially true if they don’t balance their ranges properly.

To have a balanced range means to have an optimal ratio of both value hands and bluffs in your range, so as to not give off your hand strength.

If you want to learn how to hand read against skilled TAG and LAG players, as well as how to make your own hand unreadable, enroll in Blackrain79 Elite Poker University.

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Hand Reading vs Poker Player Type #4: Loose and Aggressive

There are actually two types of loose and aggressive (LAG) players: 

They can either be decent players who play a wide range and use a well-timed aggression to put pressure on their opponents, or bad players who like to splash chips around with little rhyme or reason (aka the maniacs).

By the way, I have already written entire articles on how to play a LAG style of poker correctly and how to crush LAG players.

Check those out for a deeper dive on this player type.

Anyways, when hand reading against the latter category (bad LAGs), you’ll encounter the same problem you face when playing loose and passive fish: the fact that they can have virtually any hand in their range.

However, this unpredictability rarely works in their favour. Because they love to splash chips around, they will have an insane number of bluffs in their range. 

So you often don’t even need to put them on their exact hand; just wait for a decent hand and call them down wider than you would against other players. 

Let them do the betting and raising for you, and simply wait around for a decent hand to take their whole stack.

When playing against more skilled LAG players, on the other hand, more caution is advised, as they will likely have strong value hands in their range to balance their bluffs. 

2. Narrow Their Range Throughout the Hand

You can’t actually put your opponent on their EXACT hand most of the time. That’s because poker is a game of incomplete information, and the only way to know your opponent’s exact cards is if they show them to you. 

But the goal of hand reading isn’t to put your opponent on their exact hand. 

Rather, it’s about putting them on the RANGE of possible hands they can have based on the available information.

When you see your favourite poker pro call out an opponent’s exact hand, they don’t manage to do it thanks to their soul-reading ability, psychic power and what have you. 

They can do it because they’ve managed to narrow down their opponent’s range so much that they’ve pinpointed their opponent’s exact hand because no other hands in their range make sense. 

And even then, it’s often just an educated guess.

By the way, Daniel Negreanu talks about this in much more detail in his poker Masterclass series if you want to learn how to read souls like him.

When someone calls out their opponent’s exact hand, it’s impressive to be sure, but it’s important to bear in mind that poker pros sometimes just make a lucky guess. 

An educated guess, but a guess nonetheless. 

You just don’t see many Youtube clips of instances where they guess wrong, because these clips are obviously not as exciting.

Still, top poker pros can often pinpoint their opponent’s exact hand with an incredible degree of accuracy. 

Again, they don’t have a sixth sense that allows them to do that. Rather, it’s their experience and superior knowledge of the game that allows them to narrow down their opponent’s range to just one or two combinations.

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3. Use the Funnel Principle to Narrow Down Your Opponent’s range

There are a few methods to narrow down your opponent’s range, but most of them revolve around the so-called funnel principle.

The funnel principle entails narrowing down your opponent’s range street by street (or even action by action). 

You start with a 100% of all starting hands your opponent could theoretically have. Then you narrow down their range by each action they take. 

The funnel theoretically gets narrower on each consecutive street. 

By the time you get to the river, you’ll ideally have managed to narrow down your opponent’s range to just a few combinations.

Of course, different players will have different starting ranges to begin with, as not all players play the same way. That’s why the previous point of identifying your opponent’s player type is so crucial.

Tight players will have narrower ranges on average than loose players, so it’s theoretically easier to narrow down ranges from tight opponents than their loose counterparts. 

On the other hand, tighter players will usually be more skilled as well, so they will likely balance their ranges better as well, which will make hand reading against them more difficult.

For example, let’s say a player is very nitty (plays only strong starting hands) and is 3-betting only strong hands. Their 3-betting range is very unbalanced. 

A 3-bet preflop is a re-raise against another player’s open-raise.

Let’s say this hypothetical player is 3-betting 4% of their hands. They’re betting exclusively for value, and have no bluffs in their 3-betting range.

A 4% 3-betting range would look like this: pocket Aces through pocket Jacks, Ace-King and Ace-Queen.

Abbreviated it would look like this: JJ+, AQs+, AQo+

Or something like: pocket Aces through pocket Tens, Ace-King and Ace-Queen suited

Abbreviated: TT+, AQs+, AKo

The “plus” symbol simply means: or stronger, for example, pocket Tens or stronger pocket pairs, or Ace-Queen suited or stronger suited hands.

If you’re playing poker online, you can add notes next to your opponent’s usernames when you pick up on a tell, which will make hand reading easier against them in the future.

By using a tracking software like PokerTracker, you can make comprehensive notes on your opponents even with limited time you have available. 

And if you want to know all of the poker software I use as a pro, here is my full list.

4. Pay Attention to Betting Patterns

One of the best ways to narrow down your opponent’s range is to pay attention to their betting patterns. 

Some players, especially at the lower stakes, make certain bet sizes depending on their hand strength. 

For example, they bet a bigger amount when they have a strong value hand, and a smaller amount when they have a mediocre hand or when they are bluffing. Others may do the exact opposite. 

More skilled players are aware that betting patterns can tip off their opponents on their hand strength, so they take extra care not to give off any tells by either mixing up their bets and/or using a balanced bet sizing, as to not give off the information about their hand strength.

For example, you always c-bet on the flop with a half-pot bet, regardless of your hand strength. This way, you’re always keeping your opponents guessing.

The downside to this strategy is that you may not extract enough value with your strong hands if your opponent would actually be willing to pay more than, say, a half-pot bet. 

Also, if you’re bluffing, you may be risking more money than necessary if your opponent would fold to a smaller c-bet, like a 1/3 pot c-bet, for example.

Check out my recent preflop bet sizing and postflop bet sizing for more info on the topic.

Another way to keep your opponents from figuring out your hand strength is to mix up your bet sizes from time to time. 

For example, if you’re usually betting 1/3 of the pot on the flop as a bluff, you might use the same size when you have a strong value hand as well.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that most poker players aren’t in fact perfectly balanced, especially at the lower stakes. This means that you can probably pick up on a few bet sizing patterns to hand read against them.

More skilled TAG and LAG players will be more likely to balance their ranges or mix up their playstyle from time to time, but they still may have some bet sizing tells you can pick up if you know what to look for.

If you’re feeling stumped when putting your opponents on a range, start by asking broad, general questions, and work from there.

A good place to start is to ask yourself if their range is strong and narrow, or weak and loose.

For example, a player who 3-bets in the middle position will have a far stronger and narrower range than a player who flat calls in the late position.

Then, you ask yourself which hands they could be doing this with.

Protip: instead of listing all the individual hands they could have in their range, it’s more useful to determine the top and the bottom of their range. 

You do this by asking yourself two questions: 

1) What is the strongest possible hand they could be doing this with?

2) What is the weakest possible hand they could be doing this with?

After doing that, you figure out which hands are more likely based on the other information you have on the player. 

For example, a tight player might have more value hands than bluffs in their range, and a loose and aggressive maniac will have far more bluffs in their range.

For more info on how to properly balance your ranges, check out the Microstakes Playbook.

5. Find Out All You Need to Know from Showdown Hands

Poker is a game of incomplete information, and the most important piece of information you do not have access to, is of course, your opponent’s hole cards. 

The only time you get to see your opponent’s hole cards (save for your opponent showing them to you on their own) is when a hand gets to showdown. 

Paying attention to showdown hands is arguably the single best way to read your opponent’s hand in the future.

That’s because you can reverse engineer the way they played their hand, which can reveal to you how they play similar hands in similar spots. 

When you see your opponent’s showdown hand, the first and most obvious thing to note is their overall hand strength, i.e. if it’s a strong value hand, a complete bluff, or something in between. 

Then, you need to play the hand backwards and figure out if you can learn something based on their betting patterns. The importance of paying attention to betting patterns has already been discussed. 

Now, you just need to pair it with the new available information, i.e. the showdown hand.

There is an entire step by step video by the way on how to do this in BlackRain79 Elite Poker University. 

If you keep track of the action sequence throughout the hand, there’s a ton of information you can pick up on from only one showdown hand. 

That’s why it’s important to keep track of what’s going on at the table, even if you’re not directly involved in the hand. 

As a matter of fact, ESPECIALLY when you’re not involved in the hand, because it’s easier to pay attention to certain details like betting patterns when you don’t have to think about how to play your own hand at the same time.

If you don’t keep track of the action sequence (i.e. who was the preflop aggressor, which positions at the table are involved in the hand, how much they bet/raise etc.) looking at showdown hands is nearly useless.

For example, your opponent shows AKs at showdown and they have a top pair, top kicker on a certain board. But you zoned out during the hand and can’t remember if they double barreled or triple barreled, or what bet size they used when they c-bet the flop. 

The secret to successful hand reading is paying attention at all times, and half-assing it just isn’t going to cut it.

If you pay attention to the action sequence from start to finish, there’s a bunch of info you can pick up on, which will be an immense help with hand reading in the future. 

As mentioned, poker is a game of incomplete information, and the player with more information available will usually come out on top.

Here’s a couple of things to make a mental note of when looking at showdown hands:

a) what is their overall hand strength? 

Is it the stone-cold nuts, a complete air, or something in between? 

b) did they play the hand aggressively or passively? 

This can tell you a lot about your opponent’s playing tendencies. For example, if they had a strong value hand, did they play it straightforwardly (i.e. bet and raise a lot), or did they try to get tricky by slowplaying? 

If they had a drawing hand, did they play their draw aggressively or did they wait for their draw to complete before they started betting or raising? If they didn’t have a strong hand, did they try to bluff or not?

b) how much did they bet/raise on flop, turn, and river? 

This one is about paying attention to betting patterns based on your opponent’s overall hand strength. If they had a strong hand, how much did they bet or raise? 

Did they make a big bet to extract more value, or did they make a smaller bet so they don’t give off their hand strength? If they tried to bluff, did they use a smaller bet size or an overbet?

An overbet is a bet that is bigger than the current pot size. For example, if the pot size is $20, any bet bigger than $20 would be considered an overbet.

For more info on how and when to use overbets to extract the most value out of your opponents, check out Modern Small Stakes.

5 Ways to Read Their Poker Hand - Summary

You don’t need to study a ton of advanced poker strategy in order to read your opponent’s hand.

In order to successfully read your opponent’s hand, first you need to know what type of player they are to begin with. This alone will make hand reading against them far easier and more accurate.

You can narrow down your opponent’s range street by street using the funnel principle: 

After each consecutive action, the funnel gets narrower, until you’re left with only a few, or even a single hand combination that makes sense given your opponent’s actions.

Another thing to watch out for is the betting patterns. A lot of players, especially at the lower stakes, often give off their hand strength by using certain bet sizing. 

For example, they’ll use bigger bet sizing for value bets, and smaller bet sizing for bluffs (or vice versa).

When you pick up on a tell from your opponents, the best way to confirm it is to pay attention to their showdown hands. 

Then, play the hand back in your hand in reverse to determine which way they’re likely to play similar hands in the future.

At the end of the day, successful hand reading has little to do with some innate talent. It’s just about paying attention and asking the right questions.

By paying attention even when you’re not directly involved in the hand, you’ll be able to read your opponent’s soul in no time.

Not only will it be cool as hell, you’ll also make a lot more money in the process, which is a nice bonus.

Lastly, if you want to know the complete strategy I use to make $1000+ per month in small stakes games, get a copy of my free poker cheat sheet.

5 Ways to Read Their Poker Hand (Works Every Time)