The Importance Of Playing Your Opponents

Guide To Winning Poker (7)

  • How our opponents play is of critical importance
  • We need to track and analyze our opponents' overall tendencies
  • We also need to look closely at how the hand we're in has played out so far

The Sooner You Play Your Opponents, The Better

When players first start learning the game, they tend to focus on their own cards only, meaning that they assess their chances of winning hands based solely upon how a hand would do against one or more random hands. This is an important skill to have, as we need a default view from which to be able to adjust, by way of additional information that we gain about the possible ranges of our opponents. However, it's never too soon in the process to start thinking about gathering and incorporating information about the range our opponents may have, by observing both their overall playing style and then putting that in reference of how they are playing the current hand.

First off, our hand strength is only meaningful versus how it compares to what our opponent may have. Knowing how our hand compares against random hands is fine, but that's only applicable if nothing is known about the hands we're up against. In practice, there is always information out there that we can use. Even if this is the first hand we've ever played against an opponent, there will still often be some things that we can pick up. As we gain more hands against him, we can get to know this player very well, and move further and further away from the unknown, the randomness, and move towards the known and the well known in fact.

Your Own Hand Often Does Not Even Matter

One of the big benefits of playing your opponent is that, depending on the situation, your cards may not even matter. In fact they very often don't, provided that our opponents are tight enough in given situations. For instance, we're in a pot with a player and he checks the flop to us. It turns out that when he does this he will fold to a bet most of the time. So our hand doesn't matter here, we can bet and take the pot down, and regardless of what he does, that alone can make the bet profitable. If we're playing our cards, we may have a crap hand as well, and end up checking back and miss out on this opportunity.

Cards on the Flop

So what sort of things do we need to be looking at when we're looking to case out an opponent? The foundation of this needs to be to look to determine what I call action frequencies, which means how often a player does a certain thing in a certain situation. This is something we'll need a tracking program for in order to best make use of this information, as of course no one's memory is really good enough to keep track of thousands of hands and every action a player takes.

We'll leave the discussion of stat tracking for the next session though, and for now let's just say we're observing a player for 10 hands and this is the first time he's raised pre-flop. Another player has raised here 3 times in the 10 hands. So that's not a very big sample, but it does give us some information about what sort of hand strength these 2 players are raising with. Obviously, the guy raising 3 in 10 is probably going to be doing it with less than the guy doing it less.

We Need To Pay Close Attention To The Sample Sizes

This brings us to an important element in all of this though, and that's weighted statistical significance. All this means is that the more information we have, the more reliable it is, although even a bit of info is going to mean something. If we were scientists doing a study, in the above example we wouldn't be able to use this data since it's not what's called statistically significant, meaning that only 10 instances aren't enough. For instance perhaps the player who raised 3 times just got better cards.

This of course may be true, and that's why we need to put less weight on smaller samples, but this doesn't mean no weight. What we want to do instead is to think of this information as degrees of tendency, starting with there may be one, leading up to there definitely is one, once we have enough data to say that. By the way, many players tend to ignore smaller samples, and this still is info we can use, so we don't want to make that mistake as well.

Raising the Chips into the Middle

So getting back to our example, rather than just saying that we don't have a damn clue about what these two people are raising with, we can say that we have an idea that the guy who only raised once is a bit more likely to be raising with strong hands, and the second one is a bit more likely to do it more lightly. As we play more against these people, we'll have a better and better idea of what's going on, and then we can break things down by position to refine our reads even further. For instance, we have 500 hands on a guy and he raises under the gun a certain percentage of times, in the cutoff a certain percentage, and so on. So as you can see, the more information we have, the better idea we'll have about a player, provided we're using the resources we have available to us.

Now this is going to apply to every possible situation that we may face against a player. For instance, we're on the turn and we bet, he raises, and we want to see what happens if we re-raise him. So we look to how often he folds here, how often he calls, and how often he 4 bets us here. We also want to know what he does on the river, so we can look at his tendencies there as well. The less common an event is though, the more hands we're going to need to get a good sample, and for instance something like this example wouldn't come up all that often, as opposed to something like his percentage of checking versus betting out flops.

There's More To Focus On Than Just Statistics Though

So this will form our default base for determining a player's tendencies, replacing just looking at how we would stand against random hands. In other words, what a player likes to do generally. However, we also want to look at specifics, as in what a player is doing under the circumstances involved in this particular hand we're playing against him in. Perhaps he's tilting and can be expected to play more aggressive and even wildly while upset.

His previous actions in the hand will also be something we want to pay attention to as well, thinking back to how the hand has progressed and what he's done. So for instance say we know he bets the flop a certain amount of the time, and know he's got a good hand or better most of the time based upon that. We're on the turn now and we need to take that into account, and put that together with his general tendencies here on the turn. We can also look ahead to future streets, to see what he normally does on the river for instance. So this involves both looking back, for reads, and looking ahead, to figure out how things might go, in order to come up with the best understanding we can and then look to decide how to proceed.

Look Closely At How The Hand Has Played Out So Far

The cards on the board will also define things to a large extent, particularly as we look to put him on a range of hands based upon what we know he may be playing, and then look to fit that with what he may have based upon the board cards, while at the same time looking at his actions to look to shed more light on the situation. For instance, the opponent raises pre-flop, and based on how often he does this we know that he usually has two high cards. Then the flop comes, and it's A-K-X, and he's check raising us. We look at his stats and he seldom does this, and is also a fairly passive player and thus rarely bluffs.

A Nice Poker Hand

So this is probably a pair of aces or better, if he had kings that ace over card would tend to scare him off, especially given that we bet into him. We have kings though and a strong hand against one opponent generally, but given this player's tendencies and the way the hand has played out so far, it looks like we're in trouble, we can only beat a bluff really, and he doesn't bluff enough here. It then would be best to throw this hand away and look for another spot rather than lose even more chips when we don't have the hand or the odds to make it profitable to stick around any longer.

This is just a simple example of course but it does show the benefits of looking to put our opponents on a range of hand strength in order to get the proper idea of where we are at against him. Once again though, it's not even a matter of what he has in some cases, it's what he tends to do here. If, for instance, we changed the example to his check folding half the time, we can bet any two cards in this case profitably, as the fold equity alone will get us ahead, regardless of what we have. So it's looking to capture these opportunities that really will ramp our game up once we look to put everything in perspective and look at our opponents likely holdings and likely tendencies in addition to our own holdings.

In the next section we'll start to look at how we best want to track the tendencies of opponents to provide us with the information we need to get a handle on how they play with a view of using this information to exploit them and take their money.

Ken's Guide To Winning Poker - Index

Ken's Guide To Winning Poker

Starting With A Solid Foundation

Aggression Series

Position Series

Various Poker Strategies

Mistakes Series