A Primer to Hand Reading

One of the harder poker skills to develop is hand reading – trying to figure out what hands your opponent is likely to have.

What makes hand reading challenging is that there are so many things to consider in such a short amount of time. What hands could he have? How much did he bet? What does he think I have? You need to consider every element possible if you hope to make an accurate read, and optimal play.

The great thing about hand reading, though, let alone any poker skill, is that there is no prejudice. Anyone can learn how to do it. In fact, my goal now is to help you get the ball rolling on your hand reading skills. Read on and learn.

Want to Read Hands Better? Then Learn How to Break Them Down…

How well you read hands comes down to your ability to break hands down. You need to be able to assess one street, and then reassess the next street based on the previous betting round. I think this will be easier to understand with a few examples. So what you’ll find below are 3 examples hand, based on an example flop, turn and river.

Our example flop, turn and river will be: 4h-9d-Jd | 2s | 7c

Scenario #1

Preflop: The blinds are 100/200/25 with 9 players at the table. The under the gun (UTG) raises to 500, leaving 5,000 chips behind. We know that the UTG is an ok player, more on the tight side. You’re on the button with AK suited (hearts) and it folds to you. The pot has 1025 in it.

We know the UTG is (relatively) good and tight, so we can assess his range here to be 22+, AT+, KJs+. Knowing this I would call with AK. We have position, which makes our hand stronger automatically. And by calling we keep hands like KJ, KQ or weaker pairs in the pot, whereas a 3-bet would likely fold those out and keep hands like JJs+ and AQs+ in the pot.

There is now 1525 in the pot.

Flop (4h-9d-Jd): Our opponent c-bets for 900, making the pot 1425. What do we do?

Given that he’s a decent player, he could continuation bet here with a lot of hands. However, before we assume he has nothing, we need to compare his range to the flop and see what types of hands he could have.

  • AJ
  • KJ
  • KQ – Straight and/or flush draw.
  • Pair
  • Set

So, his c-bet here could be nothing, but chances are that he has an actual hand. And if you consider our range, we don’t necessarily hit this flop minus a flush draw, backdoor flush/straight draw or a set of jacks. An over pair is likely, too, although jacks up aren’t since there aren’t too many hands we flat with that have a jack in it. All in all, his hand range is better than ours.

Given all of this, I think it’s best to fold.

Scenario #2

Preflop: The blinds are 50/100. The UTG+2 limps in for 50 and the hijack over limps. Their limping ranges (especially in early levels) are very wide, and can consist of pairs, broadways, suited connectors, etc. You have A8o, so you re-raise to 225. The first limper folds, but the second one calls. The pot now has 650 in it.

Flop (4h-9d-Jd): Since the player limp/called the flop, monster hands like JJs+ and AK are less likely. The types of hands this player is more likely to have is broadways and suited connectors, like KQ, QJ, T8, 98 and so on. There are some hand combinations that make a pair or set, too. All in all, we’re only slightly ahead against this range (according to PokerStove). We decide to continuation bet here – 350 - and our opponent calls. The pot has 1350 in it.

Turn (4h-9d-Jd-2s): Once our opponent calls the turn, we can adjust his range some more. Given that the flop is draw-heavy, we could rule out top pairs and possibly sets, as these types of hands would want to get more money in against the draw. A jack or nine is possible, but I would lean more towards a straight draw, flush draw or pair plus draw. And given that we isolated preflop, we could very well have an over pair or jack here, so I would bet again, since so many hands that he could have are draws. We bet 950 and our opponent calls. The pot has 3250 in it.

River (4h-9d-Jd-2s-7c): The 7 is a relatively safe card. It only completes the a T8 hand. But the other draws missed, like KQ, KT, Q8, etc. Our opponent checks to us again. Now, in this spot we could bet again, but a jack won’t fold. A 9 that came along for two streets probably won’t fold, and any other (stronger) hands like two pair and sets won’t fold.

My thinking here is that we have showdown value with A8 – it’s good a lot of the time because our assessment of his range puts him on a lot of draws. And if he does have a good hand, he’ll re-raise us, forcing us to fold. So based on that I think it makes more sense to check. We do, and he shows up with KTo.

Scenario #3

Preflop: The blinds are 75/150 and we have AJs. We raise to 400 and it folds to the cutoff, who then 3-bets to 1200. We know that the player is on the loose side and he’s aware that he has position. Given our (middle) position raise, his range could be a little wider -- maybe hands like 88+, A9s+, KTs+. If we re-raise here, we fold out all of his weaker hands, and get re-raised with only hands that beat us. So we elect to call the extra 800 chips. The pot has 2625 in it.

Flop (4h-9d-Jd): We hit top pair. Given that the flop is draw-y we go ahead and continuation bet. We can get some value from 2nd pair type hands, jacks and straight/flush draws. So we fire a 1800 chip bet. Our opponent re-raises us to 5,000.

This creates a gross situation. There is 9425 in the pot and it’s 3200 to call. We have to decide whether or not this opponent is loose or aggressive enough to do this with a draw, or if we think he actually has an over pair.

Looking at our stats, he’s moderately loose at 23/18, but it’s nothing far out there for us to think he’s making a move. According to our notes he’s never re-raised us either. So while a hand like AJ, KJ or a straight/flush draw making a move is possible, I think it’s more likely that he has a premium hand like AA, KK, QQ and JJ. Even with AJ and KJ included, PokerStove has this as a breakeven call. The turn isn’t a whole lot better unless we land a jack or an ace.

The bottom line is that since this is a breakeven call, it’s a swingy play. I don’t think it’s worth it to call, even with top pair, without additional reads. I recommend folding.

Our opponent tables KK.

Reading Hands is About Piecing Things Together

The point of this article is to get you thinking in such a way that you put players on ranges based on their position, image, stats and so forth, and not an individual hand.

And to be clear, I’m not saying the way the hands above were played is the right way. That’s not the point. What you should takeaway is the process – the way you think – that leads you to what hands your opponents are likely to have. The better you get at that, the more money you’re going to make in your poker career. It’s as simple as that.