Advanced Hand-Reading

Hand-reading against passive players is extremely easy—if they raise, they have a strong hand. Hand-reading against bad aggressive players is also pretty easy—you pretty much just forgo the whole process and call with anything decent. Hand-reading against good aggressive players, on the other hand, is a much trickier problem.

The first thing to realize is that good aggressive players understand the reasons for betting. This means that any time a good aggressive player bets it’s either to 1) get value from a worse hand, or 2) make a better hand fold. In my opinion, understanding this clears up a lot of confusion.

The first response many players have looks like this: “Doesn’t he have a range which includes both value hands and bluffs?” The answer is obviously yes, but that range is in fact a composite range made up of two distinct ranges—a Value Range and a Bluff Range. Usually players skip straight to evaluating a player’s composite range without first evaluating the two distinct internal ranges, and cutting that corner often leads to egregious mistakes.

I have two good examples of hands where this concept comes into play. The first hand involves a normal, TAG-ish regular playing against Samoleus. For those who don’t know, Samo plays nearly 50% of his hands and remains a big winner in high stakes online poker games. He’s obviously considered to be a tricky, loose-aggressive player. The regular raises UTG with AQo. Samo calls out of the blinds. The flop comes down A♥Q♣9♠. Samo checks, the reg bets, and Samo calls. The turn is an 8♥. Samo checks, the reg bets again, and Samo check-raises to a relatively large size. Nearly everyone who first discussed this hand had the same blanket reaction—evaluating Samo’s wide ranges in general as opposed to Samo’s ranges in this particular spot. Everyone said: “You have top two-pair against a tricky, aggressive opponent, go all-in!” However, this demonstrates a gap in logical thought process (similar to saying, “I have AJ and that’s probably better than his hand, so I’m going all in” as opposed to saying “He’s going to call me with a worse hand, so I’m going all in.”)

Let’s examine Samo’s two distinct ranges. First, let’s consider his bluff range. In general, he’s extremely unlikely to check-call the flop with no pair and no draw OOP. So, his flop calling range includes made hands of varying strength like KQ, A2, AT, A9, and 99. It also includes draws of varying strength, like KT, KJ or JT. Because we are eliminating complete air from his range due to the flop action, his turn bluff range then must include both A) draws and B) weak made hands that he wants to turn into a bluff.

On the turn, it’s unlikely he’d turn a made hand like two pair (A9) into a bluff because he can’t possibly hope to fold out anything stronger (AQ+). So, his made-hand-into-bluff range is extremely small—it includes Ax and KQ/QJ/QT alone. His draw range is even smaller on the turn (as JT gets there), including only KJ and KT.

We’ve identified a relatively accurate range for Samo to bluff the turn with. However, we haven’t yet considered the fact that he is by no means going to bluff with that range 100% of the time. The strong coordination of the board most likely reduces Samo’s bluff frequency. Hero’s strong, aggressive line also most likely reduces Samo’s bluff frequency. The fact that a major draw hits on the turn probably reduces Samo’s bluff frequency (too likely that Hero is double-barreling with the nuts). So, while it will be impossible to know Samo’s bluff frequency with any extreme accuracy, we can be confident that it’s far less than 100%—possibly less than 10%.

So, we’re pretty sure it’s unlikely for Samo to be bluffing. So, that means he’s pretty likely to be value betting. This doesn’t automatically mean we muck anything but the nuts, as its very common for a player to be value-betting the worst hand (i.e. a player reraises KK preflop for value, but is actually value- owning himself against his opponent’s AA). So, we need to evaluate Samo’s Value Range as well. Certainly hands like AQ, 99, and JT are in his value betting range. It’s likely that Samo would think check-raising the turn with A9 would be too thin (what worse hands call?) Thus, it’s unlikely Samo is value-betting a worse hand.

What we’ve discovered is that, in this spot, both of Samo’s value-betting and bluffing ranges are extremely small. There just simply aren’t that many hands that he can have. However, we need to remember that he’s value-betting his value hands 100% of the time, and that he’s bluffing his bluff range significantly less often—possibly never. Therefore, we can say the following: Samo is unlikely to be bluffing, likely to be value betting, and never value-bets a worse hand, so we can fold. It’s this thought process that differentiates winning high stakes players from the mid-stakes winners who move up and lose money.

Let’s consider another example. Cole South, another extremely loose and aggressive player, raises UTG in a 6max game. Isaac “Ike” Haxton, another fantastic player calls him on the button with 66. They go to the flop HU sitting about 250bb deep. The flop is A76r. Cole bets, and Ike makes a raise in position for value. Cole calls. The turn is a T, putting a spade draw on the board. Cole checks, Ike makes a bet for value, and Cole shoves all-in, putting nearly 200bb on top.

Once again, the first people to discuss this hand couldn’t wait to call the all-in shove. “You have a set against one of the most aggressive players in the history of the game, what more do you want!” Once again, this thought process isn’t enough. I was among those clamoring for a snap-call until somebody came into the thread and said, “Everyone who thinks this is an easy call has absolutely no idea how Cole thinks.” This made me pause to reconsider. First, we know Cole’s not value-betting worse—shoving AT there is suicidal. Secondly, Ike’s line is nothing but strength and thus Cole’s bluffing frequencies would be reduced. Third, if Cole was bluffing, he’d be unlikely to put the entire 200bb in the pot when it would almost certainly be a more +EV bluff for less. Lastly, and very importantly, Ike’s line indicates that he has a strong hand, which would indicate a potential willingness to call an all-in. Once again, Cole’s value and bluff ranges are both small, but his value range is shoving 100%, whereas his bluff range is probably never shoving. Of course, Ike called and got stacked by Cole’s 89.

Advanced hand-reading doesn’t just mean making big folds though. I can recall one hand where I raised J♣9♣ in MP and got two callers, one on the button and one in the big blind. Both were aggressive regulars. The flop came down 9♠8♠7♦. BB checked, and I decided to check as it would be difficult to bet and get called by a worse hand. The Button also checked. The turn card came an 8. The BB led out into the pot. Since neither myself nor the button bet the flop, it is nearly impossible for either of us to have a good hand, and so I assumed the BB would be bluffing with his entire range close to 100%. He’d also be value betting 100%. Since his bluff range was certainly wider than his value betting range, I called. The button folded. The river was an offsuit 3. The BB decided to make a pot-sized bet on the river. I thought he’d still bluff a large portion of his range, but certainly at less than 100% frequency. I also thought he’d never value bet worse. However, his range of hands that can beat me is extremely small. 88 and 99 are both extremely unlikely, as is 98. He could have 87 or 77, certainly. He could have JT. Seeing as overpairs were unlikely due to the preflop action (he likely would have reraised to make it look like a squeeze), I felt that his value range was small enough that, despite him value betting 100% of the time with it, his bluff range still made up a large enough part of his range to call.

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