Demystifying Poker Hand Reading


Nobody can deny that if a poker player was granted one wish, it would be to know their opponent’s cards. Now although that seems like a far-fetched magical ability seen only in TV shows and movies, poker hand reading requires anything but magic. Patience? Yes. Practice? Definitely. But not magic. Like any other poker skill, mastering hand reading takes a lot of effort and experience. So, if you are here for some quick fix formula then you better get packing. For those genuinely interested in improving their game by honing this much required skill read on!


Unlike the popular notion, poker hand reading is not a product of clairvoyance or luck. It is not an exact science either. Rather, it is much like walking. You have to fall a few times before gaining the right balance. You will inevitably guess completely wrong ranges, read your opponent horribly wrong and be stunned at the showdown a few times before you start making accurate calls and winning games. Hand reading is mostly done to narrow down the range of your opponent’s cards rather than the exact two cards that they hold. It is a process of logical deduction.


In addition to this, knowing the two exact cards is not very important in the bigger picture. Anyhow, unless you have an opponent who is ridiculously transparent, you will not be able to achieve such results. So, let us concentrate on achievable goals and keep our eye on the prize here.


Why is hand reading beneficial?


Many of you must be wondering if I can't know my player’s exact cards then what is the point of poker hand reading? So, before exploring how to hand read let’s look at how it can help you.


Benefits of hand reading


Knowing the range of cards that a player holds can help you in more ways than one. After all, poker is a mind game. Knowing the range of an opponent’s hand can help you bet thinner, bluff more effectively, and make so many more decisions. These will all pay off massively better than they would otherwise with the knowledge of hand readings. Also, hand ranges help you determine which playing style to adopt, to best counter your opponent’s moves. When this is your attitude towards hand reading, even having little bits and pieces of information will go a long way!


All great poker players will attest to the fact that there is no one way to play or win poker. No one style, or betting range or starting hand selection. Poker is a constantly evolving play and a player can either evolve with each betting round or be taken over by others. Once you start picking up on the approximate ranges of hands that your opponents have, you can adjust your style to be tight and aggressive or alternatively, loose and aggressive. This will in turn make you a formidable enemy who can manipulate opponents and is difficult to defend plays against. This backs your enemies up against the wall. This position is exactly what will make them uncomfortable and vulnerable enough to make mistakes against you.


It is needless then to say that advantages of poker hand reading cannot be overstated. Mastering it can win you the pot with nothing in your hand. So get ready to get richer. 


There are three things that you must know about ranges before we get into the details of using ranges for hand reading in poker.


1.As hands progress from the initial rounds of pre flop and flop to the river, the ranges get smaller. Every round gives you more information which helps you narrow down the range.


2. Every action of your opponent helps you narrow the range by eliminating hands that don’t fit the decision that the player just made. Putting players on a range of hands as opposed to a single hand is important. This is so because players can make same decisions in a game with different hands.


3. When you are trying to read hands and guess ranges, you must keep in mind multiple variables. Some of these are; the type of player that you are playing against, the players tendencies, the actions that the player has already taken, the size of the stacks, the size of the pot, the future community cards that are possible, position of your opponents while making decisions and the condition of the cash game or tournament which you are playing.


Are you as excited as we are to learn more? Let's begin with the basics.


There are some laws of hand reading in poker. They are based on logical deduction and are very handy.


1. The first law is that hand ranges are always linear. Hand ranges start from the pre flop and as more information is gathered from the action in the betting rounds the ranges contort. The ranges can narrow or stay the same but they cannot expand. With each round the information that you have increases and your assumed range must get more clear and narrow with this information.


It is not wise to keep adding worst case scenario type guesses in your hand range.


2. The second law is that logic is the king when creating a hand range. Your opponents are always using their logic to play the hands that they have been dealt. So when reading hands also, you must use logic. Once you understand their reasons to play a hand you will be better equipped to read their hands.



Now lets see some effective ways you can read your opponent’s hands.


1. Narrow down the early position


The very first rule of hand reading is a simple assumption. The earlier the position of a better the narrower the range of the hand.


It is easier to deduce their hand range. An early player calling a bet in the pre-flop would likely mean that he is holding a strong pair or is hoping to get a set on the flop for his small pair.


As opposed to this, players in later positions are more likely to join the action with a wider range of cards. This makes it tougher to deduce their ranges, not impossible but surely tough.


2. Take a shot


This one is again pretty straightforward. It is better to have a hypothesis about a player’s cards than to have no clue at all. All great poker players would agree that observing actions and taking a shot regarding the range of cards that your opponent could be holding is a better way to go than shooting in the dark.


Let's take an example of this. You could assume that your opponent is holding a pair of aces, or a similar strong couple of cards when he places a sizeable bet at the table. Now, although this might not be accurate, it gives you a great deal of perspective. You can adjust your play according to this deduction.


A range can represent all the hands that a player could be holding. This is reckoned based on their actions. If a player in the middle position happens to raise the blind, while considering all the other variables you may have observed, you could guess that this player holds anything from a pair of fives to top pair, ace to nines of different suits, ace to eight of same suits to king and queen.


When this turns out to be the case you will want to fold your hands if they are bad or re-raise if you’re holding some good ones. If you have a hand with great implied odds then you can call and seize your opponent’s stack. But remember not to play far-fetched drawing hands in this situation. Remember your odds and the hand range of your opponent and act accordingly.


This gives you the basic idea of how knowing the range of the hand your opponent holds can help you. However, this is a basic simplified version of it all. You could play with a mediocre hand and bluff your opponent if you believe that will work to win you the pot in the subsequent hand.


3. Put yourself in your opponent’s shoes


Thinking what you would have done if you were in your opponent’s shoes really helps put things into perspective in a game of poker. For every action that your opponent makes, think of the position he or she is in, early, middle, or late. After this ,it could do you some good to ponder about the cards that would warrant this action in that particular position.


Beware of assuming that your opponent would think in the same fashion as you. Their strategy will depend on their playing style. Your opponent could be a much more aggressive or passive player than you. He or she may prefer a loose style or a tight one. The way a player chooses to play a game totally depends on them.


Remember, that in the same way that you are trying to read your opponents they are trying the same. If you are trying to outsmart your opponent by making a play that is not in line with your hands then they could be doing the same to throw you off their scent. This is just another one of the hazards of the trade. Regardless of all these complications you should be able to narrow down the hands of your opponent with every action made at the table.


While this may be the case, overthinking will not do you any good. Eventually you will reach a more accurate guess.


4. Ground rules


When you are faced with a completely unknown player and have no idea about their style and thought process, you need to have some ground rules that you can fall back on.


These are some of the basic rules to read an unknown player’s hand based on their actions.


If your opponent is over betting, they probably want to price the draws.


If your opponent is under betting, it could be to trap in callers or block a bet they anticipate their you to call.


If your opponent in the late position is calling a raise then they could be speculating or hoping for a draw.


If your opponent is re-raising then they probably have a strong monster of a starting hand.


Mistakes to avoid while poker hand reading


1. Trying your hand at clairvoyance


Basically, trying to guess the two exact cards that your opponents are holding. Leave these kinds of tricks to the amateurs. Hand reading is not guessing cards but rather ranges of cards.


2. Sticking to your first guess


To err is human. So, don’t be afraid to re-evaluate the range that you narrowed it down to in the last round. At the poker tables things are constantly changing. Opponents try to deceive each other in every new round with their actions. One-upping each other is on every poker player’s mind, which means that rethinking and improving are the two most important skills to have.


3. Treating the knowledge of a range as the end all know all


It is not uncommon for players to think that deducing the range of an opponent means knowing their strategy. While you may get lucky sometimes it is not a fool proof plan. So, take into consideration various variables that could affect their play.


So, at the end of the day poker hand reading has much to do with other aspects of poker. You cannot magically predict the hands of your opponent. What you can do is alter your play according to the range that you deduce with the help of all the pointers explained in this article.


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