5 Obvious Signs You Are Facing a Poker Pro

5 Signs You Are Facing a Poker Pro

This article was written by blackrain79.com contributor Fran Ferlan.

It’s fairly easy to spot a fish at your poker table. Recreational players make so many glaring mistakes it’s easy to spot them a mile away.

But how do you spot a poker pro at your table? Do you just look at the stack sizes and assume the player with the biggest stack size must be a pro?

Not necessarily.

There’s no one telltale sign you might be facing a poker pro, but there are some obvious traits that poker pros will usually have in common.

In this article, we’ll go over 5 signs you are facing a poker pro.

Let’s get right into it.

1. A Poker Pro Will Play Aggressively

One of the common traits virtually all winning poker players have is that they play aggressively, both preflop and post flop.

If you only take one thing away from this article: let it be this: winning poker is aggressive poker.

Most amateur poker players tend to play too passively, which is the exact opposite of a winning poker strategy.

To play passively means to mostly check and call instead of betting and raising.

Here are a few reasons why winning poker is aggressive poker:

a) Playing aggressively allows you to build up the pot with your strong hands.

In poker, most of your profits will come from your strong value hands where your opponent has a weaker hand that’s willing to pay you off.

And since strong value hands don’t come around often in no-limit hold’em, it’s absolutely crucial you get your money’s worth when you actually do get a monster hand.

So if you do get dealt a monster hand, your best bet is to build up the pot with it as soon as possible, and let your opponents call you with weaker hands.

This means open-raising (or 3-betting) preflop, then continuing the aggression post flop.

By the way, a 3-bet preflop is a raise against another player’s open raise.

For example:

You have AQ, somebody raises to $6 and you re-raise to $20.

A lot of amateur players like to get tricky with their strong value hands by slowplaying.

To slowplay means to play your strong hands passively (check and call instead of betting and raising) in order to conceal your hand strength.

While slowplaying can be a viable strategy at times, it’s usually not the most effective in low stakes poker games.

By the way, check out my other article to learn exactly when to slowplay.

When you’re slowplaying, you’re essentially relying on your opponent to build up the pot for you.

This can be a good idea if your opponent is wildly aggressive and prone to making all sorts of crazy bluffs.

But since most players at the lower stakes tend to play too passively, you can’t rely on them to build up the pot for you.

So if you want to build up a big pot, your best bet is to do it yourself, and let your opponents call you with worse hands.

Another problem with slowplaying is that you’re inviting multiway pots.

A multiway pot is a pot with more than two players involved.

The more players involved in the pot, the harder it is for you to win the hands, because at least one of the players may end up with a stronger hand than yours.

You can avoid multiway pots by “thinning the field” preflop by open-raising and 3-betting, and getting to the flop against a single opponent.

b) Playing aggressively allows you to charge your opponents a premium for their drawing hands

Another reason to play aggressively, especially with your strong hands, is the fact that you don’t want to allow your opponents to draw out on you for cheap.

If you have a made hand on the flop (one pair or better), your hand is statistically ahead of all the drawing hands your opponent could call you with (like straight and flush draws, for example).

This means you should charge your opponents a premium if they want to chase their draws.

This is especially the case if you’re playing against recreational players who love to chase all kinds of draws regardless of the price they’re getting on a call.

c) Playing aggressively allows you to win “more than your fair share”

In poker, most of your profits will come from your strong value hands. But these strong hands don’t come around very often.

This means you need to find ways to win an occasional pot even without a particularly strong hand.

In other words, you need to learn how to bluff effectively.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to bluff all that often to be a winning poker player.

In fact, if you’re playing in low stakes poker games against a bunch of recreational players, I would advise against bluffing altogether.

That’s because recreational players don’t really like folding, and the whole point of bluffing is to get your opponent to fold.

But if you’re playing against more skilled poker players, knowing how to bluff effectively is a must.

By throwing out an occasional bluff, you will always keep your opponents guessing at your hand strength.

Not only will this allow you to win an occasional pot even without a strong hand, it will also make it more likely for you to get action once you actually do get dealt a monster hand.

To pull off a successful bluff, it takes more than just nerves of steel and an unshakeable poker face.

You also need to consider your opponent’s range, your perceived range, the board texture, the previous action, the history you have with a particular opponent, the metagame and so on.

If you want to learn how to bluff them out of the pot (even when you're card dead), see my recent video:

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2. A Poker Pro Will Mix up Their Playstyle

If you’re a poker beginner, the best way to start winning quickly is to learn the basics of a tight and aggressive (TAG) poker strategy.

TAG strategy involves only playing strong starting hands, playing most hands in position, and playing aggressively, both preflop and post flop.

TAG strategy works well in low stakes poker games because it exploits the weaknesses from the majority of the player pool you’re likely to play against.

This includes basic mistakes like playing too many hands, playing too passively, chasing all kinds of draws regardless of the price and so on.

Check out my other article on the 5 common beginner poker mistakes most amateurs are still making these days.

While TAG strategy works like a charm in most low stakes poker games, it does have its limitations, namely the fact that your game may become too predictable to other players who are paying attention to your playstlyle.

For example, if you only bet big with your strong value hands (like AK on a K42 flop) and never bluff, your opponents can adjust by simply refusing to give you action every time you make a big bet.

While this won’t be a big issue if you’re playing against a bunch of clueless fish, it can become a real detriment once you start encountering more difficult opposition.

That’s why poker pros know how to mix up their playstyle from time to time.

Poker pros will be comfortable with playing both TAG and LAG (loose and aggressive) playstyle.

A LAG playstyle entails playing more starting hands than TAG playstyle, as well as bluffing more, both preflop and post flop.

If you play more hands on average, it means you’re going to miss the flop more often as well.

This means you’ll need to find ways to win pots even without a strong made hand.

This is why a LAG playstyle means bluffing more often.

In fact, the best poker players are able to switch seamlessly between TAG and LAG playstyle, depending on the situation.

A LAG playstyle means getting involved in more marginal situations post flop, and finding +EV spots other players might have missed.

This can include finding opportunities to thin value bet, or to push your opponent out of the pot with a well-timed double barrel or triple barrel bluff.

This means that LAG style is not the best choice for absolute beginners, but it’s extremely effective once you get a bit of experience under your belt.

Mixing up your playstyle from time to time means you will always keep your opponents guessing.

In other words, a LAG playstyle allows you to balance your game.

To be balanced means to play in a way that doesn’t allow your opponents to exploit any weaknesses in your game.

As to the question of whether it’s better to play in a balanced or exploitative manner, this entirely depends on the situation, namely the type of opponents you are up against.

If you’re playing a bunch of recreational players, playing in an exploitative manner is by far the most effective.

This means identifying leaks in your opponent’s game, then adjusting your playstyle to fully take advantage of their leaks.

For example, if a player likes to call a lot, you value bet relentlessly any chance you get. Or if a player likes to bluff a lot, you slowplay and try to trap them with a strong hand.

If you’re playing against more skilled players, on the other hand, it may be better to go for a balanced approach.

Since skilled players aren’t likely to make as many (or any) big fundamental mistakes like recreational players, the best way to play against them is to make sure you’re not getting exploited yourself.

This means balancing your ranges and using bet sizing that doesn’t give away your hand strength.

When playing in a balanced manner, you won’t be bleeding any money over the long run, but you won’t make a fortune, either.

That’s because if everyone plays in an optimal manner, the money will just flow back and forth minus the rake.

But at the end of the day, the discussion between an exploitative and balanced playstyle is a non-issue.

That’s because in practice, nobody is playing close to a perfect game, especially at the lower stakes.

The truth is, everyone has leaks in their game.

Some players have huge, glaring leaks, while others have more subtle ones.

It’s your job as a poker player to identify and exploit these leaks, while making sure you patch up any leaks in your own game.

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3. A Poker Pro Thinks in Terms of Ranges

Professional poker players have exceptional hand reading skills that allow them to make the best decision possible at every moment.

In fact, some players are so good at hand reading that it may seem like they actually see their opponent’s hole cards.

While it may seem like poker pros have near-psychic abilities that allow them to read their opponent’s souls, the truth is that poker pros simply have superior deduction skills.

And they’ve likely honed these skills over years, if not decades of experience.

So there’s nothing magical about the pros reading their opponent’s exact hole cards, even though it may seem that way.

Poker pros have simply seen similar situations play out over and over again, and they’ve picked up on certain patterns that allow them to make very accurate predictions about their opponent’s range.

It’s also worth noting that poker is still a game of incomplete information, so even the pros are making guesses.

Educated guesses to be sure, but guesses nonetheless.

One of the reasons why poker pros are better at reading their opponent’s hand is the fact that they’re thinking in terms of ranges, not individual hands.

Successful hand reading is not about calling out your opponent’s exact hole by the way your opponent handles their chips or the way they scratch their nose.

These types of tells may make for a compelling cinema, like "Rounders", but don’t have any bearing in an actual poker game.

Instead, successful hand reading is about making assumptions about your opponent’s range, then progressively narrowing down that range based on your opponent’s actions.

Think of hand reading as a funnel: you start off with 100% of the hands your opponent could theoretically hold, then you gradually eliminate the hands from their range throughout the hand.

So when you see Daniel Negreanu calling out his opponent’s exact hole cards, it’s not because he’s psychic (probably).

It’s because he was able to narrow down his opponent’s range so much that only a few holdings in the range make sense based on his opponent’s action.

And even Dnegs is not right 100% of the time. He’s just right most of the time, it seems.

If you want to learn to hand read like the pros, check out Daniel Negreanu’s Masterclass.

Hand reading is arguably the most complex skill you can develop in poker, but it’s also the most useful one.

So how does successful hand reading look like in practice?

First, you need to have at least a vague idea about your opponent’s playing style and tendencies.

One common mistake amateur poker players make is assuming other players play in a similar way they do.

So when they see their opponent making a certain play, they think about which hands they would play in a similar fashion.

This is a big mistake because it can lead you to totally wrong conclusions.

For example, let’s say the villain makes a continuation bet on a flop like: 


You think about which hands you would c-bet on this board yourself, and then assume the villain would play in roughly the same way.

This is a mental shortcut that may work, especially if you don’t have any reads on the villain yet, or if you assume they have roughly the same skill level as you do.

But no two players are the same, and the range the villain could c-bet on this board could look vastly different than the range you would play in a similar spot.

So in order to hand read successfully, it’s good to have at least a vague idea of your opponent’s tendencies.

This means knowing how tight or loose they are, and how passive or aggressive they are.

This will give you 4 distinct player categories that can serve as starting points when hand reading.

I won’t get into details on how to play against different player types, since it’s a topic in and of itself.

Check out my ultimate Texas Hold’em cheat sheet for much deeper dive on this.

After you’ve identified the player type, the next step is to consider your opponent’s table position to get a vague outline of the range they could be playing.

As a general rule, players will play tighter ranges in early table positions, and wider ranges in late table position.

This is true even for recreational poker players to an extent.

Even the recreational players are at least unconsciously aware that they should exercise more caution when they are the first to enter the pot, for example.

Still, recreational players will be less positionally aware, so their table position is not going to impact their range as much as regular players.

It’s also worth noting here that hand reading versus recreational players can often be difficult, since they will often play insanely wide ranges to begin with.

So when playing against recreational players, you don’t really need to zero in on their exact holdings.

All you need to know is whether or not your hand is ahead of all the nonsense hands they could be calling you with.

After figuring out your opponents’ general playstyle and assigning them a range based on their table position, the next step is to narrow down their range throughout the streets based on the actions they take.

This means that the more the hand progresses, the more you can zero in on your opponent’s range.

This is because the ranges get progressively narrower throughout the streets.

This is important because by the time you get to the river, you should have a good grasp on your opponent’s range.

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4. A Poker Pro Will Never Tilt

No poker player in the world is completely immune to tilt, and even the pros aren’t the exception.

However, the poker pros are way better at managing their tilt problems than most amateurs, and can keep playing their best no matter how they’re running.

One of the reasons the pros have a stronger mental game than most amateurs comes down to experience.

Poker pros simply have more experience with prolonged periods of bad luck than amateurs.

In other words, they’ve simply endured more bad beats and suckouts, and they’ve learned that it’s a natural part of the game that can’t be avoided.

5 Obvious Signs You Are Facing a Poker Pro

Better yet, they’ve realized that bad beats and suckouts are actually signs they’re playing in profitable games.

If you suffer a bad beat, it simply means you’ve made the right play and put your money in with a mathematical advantage, which is the best you can do when playing poker.

Another reason  why poker pros don’t mind the bad beats as much is the fact that they already have a proven track record of winning over a significant sample size.

This means they know that bad beats are just small bumps on an otherwise very profitable journey.

They know that losing is only temporary as long as they keep playing their best.

There are many ways you can improve your mental game, but at the end of the day, it’s a skill like any other.

This means that you can improve your mental game by simply putting the reps in.

And this means sitting down to play and allowing yourself to get your ass handed to you over and over again, and finding ways to make peace with that.

This may sound bleak, but it’s actually quite liberating when you think about it.

There’s no way to stop bad beats and coolers except to stop playing poker altogether.

So the best you can do is make peace with them, and try to keep playing to the best of your abilities.

Now, all of this is easier said than done, of course.

Poker can be incredibly frustrating at times, and sometimes the pressure is too much to handle.

Even the pros aren’t completely immune to compounded stress, decision fatigue, burnout, or other problems that beset all poker players from time to time.

This is why it’s important to find ways to effectively manage your stress and have proper rest.

Poker can be incredibly mentally challenging, especially when you play for long hours like I do as a pro.

So the ability to play your A game will depend on what you do away from the felt, as well.

If you want to perform at the highest level, getting enough quality sleep, having proper nutrition, and exercising regularly are a must.

The mind and body are connected, and multiple studies have shown the correlation between proper sleep, diet, and exercise and cognitively demanding tasks.

This is hardly a surprise to anyone, yet a lot of people overlook the importance of these aspects.

They may underestimate the impact these factors have on their overall performance, both mentally and physically.

Bottom line: emotional resilience is a must if you want to succeed in poker, but it’s not some innate that some people are simply blessed to be born with.

How you manage stress does have to do with genetics and your temperament to an extent, but it’s also a skill that can be improved with practice.

If you want to quickly improve your mental game, examine your habits away from the felt.

By fixing the big 3 (sleep, diet, and exercise), you will likely fix 90% of your tilting problems.

For more tips on improving your mental game, check out my other article on how to deal with poker variance.

5. A Poker Pro Will Thin Value Bet at Every Opportunity

What separates truly great poker players from merely decent ones is their ability to extract maximum value in every spot they play.

In other words, poker pros will simply find more +EV opportunities than the rest of regular players.

At its core, winning poker is all about maximizing the expected value (or EV for short).

Poker pros don’t concern themselves with the individual outcomes of certain hands or sessions, but think purely in terms of long term expected value.

This means they’re only concerned if their play has a positive or a negative expected value.

If they continue to make plays with positive expected value, it doesn’t matter how often recreational players get lucky against them.

The math is on their side over the long run.

This long term outlook is one of the reasons why poker pros are better at managing their tilting  problems than other players who get flustered with their bad short term results.

Another reason why poker pros don’t get bothered with bad beats as much is the fact that they can make up for their losses more easily by finding +EV spots other players might miss.

This includes knowing how to extract max value with their thin value betting.

To thin value bet means to bet when your hand is likely ahead of your opponent’s calling range, but not by a huge margin.

For example: 

You have QJ and the River is KJ642

In other words, you can expect to win the hand slightly more often than 50% of the time.

In poker, most of your winnings will come from your strong value hands where your opponent is willing to pay you off with weaker hands.

But the problem is, these monster hands don’t come around very often.

It’s a rare occurrence in no-limit hold’em to have the stone cold nuts and have your opponent drawing completely dead.

Most of the time, your opponent will have a significant chunk of equity against you, even if you have the best hand.

And a lot of players fail to make profitable thin value bets because they’re worried that their opponent may end up with a stronger hand.

5 Obvious Signs You Are Facing a Poker Pro

But this is a mistake that leads to leaving a ton of money at the table.

Failing to thin value bet is especially costly when you’re playing against recreational poker players.

Recreational poker players will often have extremely wide calling ranges, meaning they’re perfect targets to thin value bet against.

If your opponent is likely to call you down with marginal holdings like second pair or third pair, it’s a huge mistake to wait around for the nuts to try and take their stack.

By the time you do get dealt a strong hand, another regular might already stack them with a well-timed thin value bet.

Now, the danger of thin value betting is the fact that sometimes you will run into the top of your opponent’s range and lose the pot.

This is one of the reasons why so many players are reluctant to value bet unless they have a very strong hand.

But again, you always have to take your opponent’s whole range into account when making decisions.

Yes, sometimes you will try to make a thin value bet only to be snap called by the stone-cold nuts from your opponent.

But that’s simply poker for you, and there’s nothing to do about it than to shrug it off and move on to the next hand.

Bottom line: even if thin value betting won’t work 100% of the time, it still pays off to look for +EV spots where it may work.

In poker, leaving money at the table is just as bad as losing money from your own stack.

The end result is the same, even though the psychological effects may not be.

If you want to learn how to thin value bet like the pros, check out The Microstakes Playbook.

5 Signs You Are Facing a Poker Pro - Summary

Poker pros have superior skills and a deep understanding of advanced poker strategy, but spotting one at your table is no easy feat.

However, there are some signs that may indicate that you’re facing a poker pro, and it’s not that they’re wearing sunglasses and a hoodie.

To sum up, here are 5 signs you may be facing a poker pro.

1. A poker pro will play aggressively

Whether they play a tight and aggressive (TAG) or a loose and aggressive (LAG) playstyle, virtually all poker pros will play an aggressive style of poker.

This doesn’t mean playing aggressively for aggression’s sake, but using well-timed betting and raising to exert maximum pressure on their opponents and win “more than their fair share”.

2. A poker pro will mix up their playstyle

Poker pros can switch seamlessly between TAG and LAG playstyles to always keep their opponents guessing.

They will also use their table image and the metagame to their advantage, as well as adapt quickly to the changing table dynamics.

3. A poker pro will never tilt

Aside from their superior technical game knowledge, poker pros also have a superior mental game. 

This means they can keep playing their best no matter how they’re running, and don’t tilt as easily as other players.

4. A poker pro thinks in terms of ranges

Poker pros have superior hand reading skills because they think in terms of ranges, rather than in terms of individual hands.

This means they always take their opponents’ overall range into account, which allows them to make better decisions like huge hero calls or hero folds.

5. A poker pro will thin value bet at every opportunity

Poker pros can spot more +EV situations than other players. This includes their ability to extract max value with thin value betting.

Being able to thin value bet effectively is what separates truly great players from merely decent ones.


This article was written by Fran Ferlan

Poker player, writer and coach
Specializing in live and online cash games

For coaching enquiries, contact Fran at email@franferlan.com
Or apply directly for poker coaching with Fran, right here

Lastly, if you want to know the complete strategy I use to make $2000+ per month in small/mid stakes games, grab a copy of my free poker cheat sheet.

5 Obvious Signs You Are Facing a Poker Pro