A lot of players make hand-reading out to be far more difficult than it really is. They trouble themselves over extensive weighted range analysis, Bayes Theorem, and complex expected value calculations. At its most basic level, hand-reading is much simpler than that. I tell my students to focus on one simple question: Is he aggressive or passive? If he’s passive, hand-reading is a piece of cake. If he raises, he has an extremely strong hand. That’s what being passive means. If he’s aggressive, hand- reading does become more difficult. We’ll talk about that in the advanced section. But first, how do we determine whether or not someone is aggressive or passive?
To the average online player, this question seems simple to answer. The world of online poker has become dominated by statistical analysis programs, hand history recorders and replayers, and HUDs (heads-up displays). For any given sample size of hands, you can find out everything from broad, easily used stats like preflop looseness, preflop raise percentage, and total aggression factor, to extremely specific statistics—fold to river check-raise percentage, etc. Worthless is a little bit too strong of a word, but in my opinion most statistics are extremely unimportant.*
My students often wonder how I can play online, sometimes eight tables at a time, without using any kind of statistical readout program. How do I get reads? How do I know how people play? Am I not at a huge disadvantage? Not at all. Instead, I look for the things that are really important. I call this player identification. Essentially, it means that there are things you can look for which will tell you
and easily whether or not someone at your table is aggressive or passive. These things include:
- Stack size. If someone is sitting with less than a full buy-in at a table, and they’re not a pro- shortstacker, they’re usually passive.
- Limping. If someone calls the big blind preflop and doesn’t open with a raise, they’re passive. This trend generally applies to their entire game, both preflop and postflop.
- Minraising. While an aggressive act, this is generally an indicator of a passive player who finally has something worth playing—especially when he minraises postflop. Additionally, a lot of passive players will minraise a wide range preflop and then play passively postflop.
- Number of tables. If somebody is sitting on 6 tables and sitting with a full stack on every single one, they’re probably aggressive. If somebody is sitting on only one or two tables, and they have limped, minraised, or not kept a full stack, they’re usually passive.
- 3-betting. If somebody sitting on your left has 3-bet you often and consistently, they’re usually aggressive. If somebody has only 3-bet you once or twice, and especially if they’ve made the 3- bet unusually small or unusually large, they’re usually passive. A lot of players make decisions with the rationale that their opponent is “bad”. While he may be “bad”, “bad” isn’t a sufficiently accurate descriptor to be useful to us in many cases. I’m constantly seeing players bet QQ on a 8763 board and stacking off when a passive player raises them all in. They say, “Oh, he’s so bad, I couldn’t fold” when they get stacked by a set of eights. They should have said “Oh, he’s so passive, I had to fold.” There are only three types of players:
- 1) Bad-Passive. This type of player calls all the time and only raises with an extremely strong hand. They’re easy to beat—you just value-bet them all the time and fold when they raise. Simple. This player is easily the most common type of bad player.
- 2) Bad-Aggressive. This type of player still calls all the time, but they sometimes make raises or bets at times that are inconsistent with any kind of strong holding. A great example is the flop
donk-bet. I raise preflop, and a bad-aggressive player calls in the BB. The flop comes down 863, and he leads into me for a pot sized bet. This seems unlikely to be a strong hand, as he’d most likely go for a check-raise. So, I raise with any holding and he folds most of the time. I stacked a player like this twice in a row recently. The first time, I had AK, raised, and he called. The flop was AQT and he led into me for pot. I called. Once again, I assumed that he would usually go for a check-raise with a hand like KJ or AQ. The turn card was an A. He led again for pot. I called. The river was a 2. He led into me again for pot. I shoved all-in for value, and he called and showed Q7 (this hand was more-or-less standard on my end). The very next hand, I raised with A5s, and he calls. He led into me on an 882 board. I called. The turn card was a 2. He led into me again for pot. I called. He shoved a 4 on the river, and I called again, and stacked his K3. His lines just didn’t make sense, so I had no problem calling light against this type of player.
3) Good-Aggressive. This player plays aggressively, bluffing in spots where they could show up with big hands and value betting in spots where they could show up with bluffs. They balance their ranges well and pose a lot of problems both preflop and postflop. We’ll talk about how to beat these players throughout this book.
It’s important to note that both bad-passive and bad-aggressive are likely to make big calls, and thus bluffing them is, in general, a bad strategy (thus it’s not unreasonable to say “I’m value-betting him thinly because he’s bad” or “I’m never bluffing him because he’s bad”. These are simply shortcuts because the rules are the same whether the opponent is bad-passive or bad-aggressive). You may be tempted to bluff a bad-aggressive player when he minraises you for the third straight time on a TT4 board, but you’ll wish you hadn’t when he calls you down with 43. The plan for each type of bad player is simple—against a bad-passive player, we value bet them and we don’t make big calls. Against a bad- aggressive player, we value bet them and we do make big calls. Easy game.
If you simply pay attention to the little indicators that will help you identify whether someone is passive or aggressive, you’ll find that hand-reading is far easier than you ever thought it could be. You don’t need stats. When you raise UTG 200bb deep, a fish calls 80bb deep, and a reg 3-bets in the SB 200bb deep (you two have a lot of history), do NOT check his “3-bet percentage” stat. If you had a stat for “3-bet percentage when a regular with which he has history raises UTG 200bb deep and a fish calls”, you could probably use that. In the meantime, however, focus on the things that are easily available, obvious, and trustworthy. Your reads will be easier to attain and more reliable to use.
*I have come around to using VPIP, PFR, and 3-bet percentage to help me detect whether or not regulars are very nitty (vpip 17 or lower) or very loose (vpip over 30). This is basically all I use statistics for. I’d also like to note that bad-aggressive players are far rarer than bad-passive players simply because they go broke so fast. If you see a bad-aggressive player at your table, get ready to gamble, because he’ll probably be broke soon.