Improve Your Poker
by Bob Ciaffone
One of the more respected writers of this generation, Ciaffone's material, now compiled under one cover, has previously appeared in a variety of publications. Here, he helps sharpen the skills of beginners and experienced players in ten different areas, including general concepts like beating a loose game, and tight/loose play. He moves to gambling skills like the mental side, and money management; then to Reading Opponents, including tells and using your eyes. A vital section on Deception and Bluffing is followed by incisive advice on Hold'em including raising and missing.Read a review of Improve Your Poker
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One of my no-limit hold'em students recently asked me the following question: What betting patterns do you look for when trying to read opponents? So, I thought it would be a good subject for a column.
TheBob Ciaffone is one of America’s best-known poker players, writers, and teachers. He has numerous poker tournament wins and placings, the most prominent being third place in the 1987 World Championship. He has been a poker teacher since 1995, with his students having earned well over a million dollars in tournament play. Bob's website is www.pokercoach.us
simple answer to the question is: The first thing you should notice about an opponent is anything he does that's out of the ordinary. Does he make an unusually large or small raise, play a hand that should have been folded, or reveal an unexpected hand at the showdown? If you know what is normal, you automatically notice things that are not normal.
Within the range of normality, an unusual action could be a good player varying his game - but it seldom is. More likely, it is either a tip-off that the player is a novice or an indication that the player has a style that's divergent from the norm. Here are the things I want to find out about a player's no-limit hold'em
1. How often does he raise preflop?
You do not have to see a person's hand to know what he is likely to hold. Good starting hands are hard to come by. Even if you were to have a series of situations in which the player raised and you never saw his hand, you could judge by the frequency of his raises whether he was likely to be playing soundly, and if not, how far he was departing from a safe harbor. You also want to gauge how often he is raising from various positions. If he is quite tight from early position but open-raises fairly often from late position, there is a decent chance that you have run into a tough customer. If he does a lot of raising from the blinds when people limp in, he is likely to be one of those characters who thinks that every time you check, he is supposed to bet and take the pot. If you catch a good hand against such a player, you may wish to let him run with the ball for a while before lowering the boom.
2. If he raises preflop, how often does he make a continuation bet?
Once again, you do not have to see his hand to understand what he is doing. Some people automatically bet the flop if they have raised preflop. This is called a continuation bet. (We thank Dan Harrington for popularizing the term.) Such people always want to put the burden of hitting the flop on the opposition. Other people do not bet the flop unless they have connected with it in some way. These are the extreme poles. A good player will be nearer the center, deciding when to use the continuation bet after failing to hit. Factors include the texture of the flop, the number of opponents, and how tenacious they are in fighting for the pot. Obviously, it makes a big difference whether a player bets the flop only when he hits, or whether he hits or not. You will need a very good hand to combat a preflop raiser who has helped on the flop. However, if a player does not start with a pocket pair of jacks or higher, he will miss making top pair or better on the flop about two-thirds of the time. A player who always makes a continuation bet may be vulnerable to a show of strength, so how you handle a flop bet by the opponent who raised preflop is highly dependent on whether he normally makes a continuation bet. It does not take long to get a line on how an opponent likes to treat this situation. If he raises preflop, gets one caller, and check-folds an innocuous flop of 9-4-2, beware when he fires out a flop bet.
3. How does he like to play his big hands?
A good poker player is supposed to vary how he plays his big hands. Sometimes he checks when he hits, and other times he simply bets his hand. The form of poker can affect one's usual play in this area. For example, an Omaha
player who makes it a policy to check whenever he hits will soon be switching back to hold'em
, as giving opponents who hold four cards a free card to beat you is seldom advisable. Here, we are talking about no-limit hold'em, in which checking a strong hand and giving a free card is commonly done, especially heads-up. But having a policy of checking whenever you hit - a common disease - is something an opponent can use against you very strongly once he has observed your pattern. The corollary to this policy of checking one's good hands is that a bet shows the lack of a top-quality hand. I assure you that a player like me will make your life miserable by often raising you when you bet if he has detected this pattern.
4. How often does he bluff on the end when he has missed a draw?
Once again, this is another area of poker in which you must vary your play to keep an opponent off balance. Any character who runs a bluff every time - "It was the only way I could win" - is going to get crucified with it once his policy is detected. Poker is not a game in which you can decide "the right way to play a hand" and stick to it every time a situation arises. Even on the Internet, you have to be flexible, even though varying your play is even more important in a brick-and-mortar cardroom.
5. How aggressive is he?
Some people play only their own hand. If they are checked to and their holding is mediocre or they are drawing, they will gratefully take a free card. Other people play only the opponent's hand. If checked to, they will bet regardless of what they hold. Of course, a strong poker player plays both his own hand and the opponent's. Aggressiveness is a very important trait to measure before the flop when playing no-limit hold'em, particularly in tournament play. Does a limp in mean the player lacks a strong hand? A limp in from under-the-gun is always under suspicion of having been done with a big pair, but other situations also are important for subtle play. I am prone to making a limp-and-reraise play when in the cutoff, on the button, and in the small blind. By the time the antes come into play, the person on my left understands that my limping in is not a license to steal. This is very important, because an opponent who is forced to respect your limp in gives you a lot of cheap chances at the pot. Naturally, I want very much to know if the player on my right uses the limp-and-reraise play or not. In fact, I do not pound him too hard early on, because I do not want to turn him into a frequent raiser. A cheap shot at the goods is also important when you have position. Notice how my attitude contrasts with the frequently seen no-limping-allowed policy of the heavy bettor. Obviously, a no-limit hold'em player wants to discover early on what the "rules of engagement" are going to be with his next-door neighbors. Editor's Note - Read more about Bob Ciaffone's strategy on Aggressive Poker.
If you examine the five questions we have discussed, which are the main things that I look for when trying to read opponents, you'll see they are all related to each other. I am looking for the player who does not vary his game sufficiently in these areas. I am looking to see if the player is a flexible thinker or has fallen into a detectable pattern of play. Besides giving you important things to look for in an opponent's play, this discussion also should have impressed upon you the importance of not falling into a pattern yourself. A top player lives by the motto, "Vary your play; give nothing away."