Competitor Analysis at the Poker Table (A How-to Guide for Winning More Money)

| December 9, 2017 12:00 am PST
Poker Player with Money Falling and Magnifying Glass

How much attention do you pay to your competition at the poker table?

Depending on where you play, you might be facing weak or strong players, tight or loose players, professionals or amateurs. How your opponents play has a direct bearing on your profits.

Someone’s going to lose money.

Eventually, you’ll face competition that makes you lose money. The players will just be better than you. (Or sometimes, they’ll just be luckier than you.)

If you want to be a consistently profitable poker player, though, you’ll need to learn how to analyze your competitors effectively.

If you don’t, you’re leaving potential profits on the table. You’re also increasing the likelihood that you’re the fish at the table.

I’m not the world’s greatest poker player, but I’ve spent some time at the tables sizing up my competition.

It’s not easy to keep up with everything at the poker table, especially when you’re new to calculating pot odds and probabilities.

I can remember when I was still having trouble following the action of the game and knowing when it was my turn, much less what my position was.

If you think your competitive analysis could use a shot in the arm, I’ll be happy to share my experience.

My techniques aren’t perfect, but I know they work for me.

They’ll probably work for you, too.

Master the Basics First

Analyzing your competitors sounds sexy, and if you watch a lot of television and movies, you might think that picking up on your opponents’ tells is what the game is all about.

If that’s you, realize that there’s more to poker than just figuring out what your opponent is thinking.

No amount of being able to read your opponents’ tendencies can compensate for being unable to recognize good hands or bad hands.

If you don’t know that 27 off-suit is the worst possible starting hand in Texas hold ‘em, and if you don’t know that AA is the best possible hand in Texas hold ‘em, you can’t win no matter how well you read your opponents.

I’ve played with opponents who have lost hands because they didn’t understand the standard ranking of hands in poker.

There’s a lesson there.

An important one.

The basics of poker come before advanced strategies like analyzing your opponents.

Start by learning the standard ranking of poker hands:

  • Straight flush
  • 4 of a kind
  • Full house
  • Flush
  • Straight
  • 3 of a kind
  • 2 pairs
  • 1 pair
  • High card

Those are listed in order from best to worst.

Then, learn the specific rules of any game you’re going to play. Subtleties in the rule matter a lot.

Here’s an example:

You play a lot of Texas hold ‘em, and a buddy at a home game decides you’re going to play Omaha for a few hands.

At first glance, Omaha seems like it’s identical to Texas hold ‘em, only you get 4 hole cards instead of just 2 hole cards.

But there’s a big difference in the rules:

In Texas hold ‘em, you can use any combination of the cards in your hand and the cards on the board to make up your final hand.
In Omaha, you must use 2 (and exactly 2) cards from your hand along with 3 (and exactly 3) cards from the board to make your final hand.

If you’re not aware of that rule, you’ll lose money.

Maybe a lot of money.

Among the important rules to understand is how the betting action works.

Position is critical in poker games, especially in Texas hold ‘em. If you don’t understand the order of action, you won’t know how position should affect your play.

Strategies regarding starting hand requirements vary from game to game, too. A starting hand that’s great in Texas hold ‘em might be a hand you’d throw away in 7 card stud.

Understanding why the strategies differ from game to game is important, too.

For example, in Texas hold ‘em, you don’t need much of a memory. The cards are on the board for you to see.

But in 7 card stud, everyone gets a face up card during the deal. It’s important to your strategy to remember what those cards were, even after those hands are folded.

In fact, if you can’t remember what cards you’ve seen, you can’t win in the long run at 7 card stud. You’ll be competing with too many players who CAN remember what they’ve seen.

For most poker games, Two Plus Two publishes a guide to strategy. Those books are essential to your success, and most of them have little (if any) information about reading your opponents.

You should start with David Sklansky’s, The Theory of Poker. The concepts in that book apply to all poker games. The chapters on bluffing and semi-bluffing are important to master.

Most people should then move on to Small Stakes Hold ’em: Winning Big with Expert Play, by Ed Miller, David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth, or Hold ’em Poker for Advanced Players: 21st Century Edition by David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth.

You’ll find more Texas hold ‘em games than any other kind of poker, especially in the United States.

It’s important to master the game.

Starting with limit Texas hold ‘em helps you avoid going broke fast.

Depending on your personality, you might stick with limit Texas hold ‘em for the rest of your life, or you might move on to additional games and/or variations.

A lot of people love the high stakes action available at the no limit Texas hold ‘em tables. If that’s your net stop on your poker journey, read No Limit Hold ’em: Theory and Practice by David Sklansky and Ed Miller. You should also read the no limit sections of Super/System by Doyle Brunson.

If you want to move on to Omaha games, especially Omaha hi-lo, you probably won’t find a book anywhere that provides a better explanation of winning the game than Steve Badger’s website. He’s won multiple WSOP bracelets playing Omaha 8.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to master the basics of the game before worrying yourself with competitor analysis.

I used to listen to a lot of Tony Robbins material. One observation he made stuck with me:

To get your black belt in karate, you only need to master 7 basic moves.

The athletes who don’t get their black belt are the ones who want to learn something new constantly. They’re not willing to focus on the fundamentals.

Don’t be the karate student who can’t get his black belt.

Master the fundamentals of the game first.

Learn to Recognize the Difference Between Tight Players and Loose Players

One of the first and most important tendencies of your competition is how many hands they play and how far they play them.

Tight players play relatively few hands. Loose players play a lot of hands.

Generally, you should play tighter at a table with loose players. You should loosen up at a table full of tight players.

But not always.

Here’s how you can tell whether an opponent is tight or loose:

Start by picking one opponent who looks like they’re going to be at the table for a while. Start tracking how many times they puts money in the pot before the flop.

It doesn’t matter at this point whether they’re betting, raising or calling. Just get an idea of what percentage of hands she’s playing pre flop.

After 10 or 20 hands, you’ll have a pretty good idea if your opponent plays loose or tight.

I was at the Winstar in Oklahoma a couple of months ago. One of my opponents seemed to be playing a lot of hands pre flop.

I started counting.

After 30 hands, I’d counted at least 24 hands where he’d put money in pre flop. That means he was playing a whopping 80% of his hands pre flop.

What did this mean?
It meant that I couldn’t put him on a hand pre flop.

He was liable to have any 2 cards in the hole.

On the other hand, I’m relatively tight pre flop. For the most part, you won’t see me putting money in the pot with more than 20% to 25% of my hands.

This gives me the advantage of starting out ahead compared to most of my opponents.

It might seem like there’s a disadvantage—my opponents will know that if I put money in the pot, I have strong cards.

But it’s not a disadvantage at all.

When my opponents notice I’m not playing many hands pre flop, they respect my bets and raises. I’ll pick up a lot of pots when my opponents fold.

I was playing at an underground cardroom in Plano, Texas once about 10 years ago. One of my opponents was a big guy who owned several nail salons. He called my pre-flop raise once. Here’s what he said:

“You just folded 37 hands in a row pre flop. I just HAVE to see what kind of cards you think are worth raising with.”

I liked playing with that guy. He was pretty loose, too—but a good player.

Remember that, too:

Not all loose players are automatically bad at poker.
Some loose players are excellent, especially in no limit games.

Also, loose/tight just refers to how many hands you play versus how many hands you fold. It has nothing to do with how often you or your opponents bet and raise versus check and call.

That’s a question of aggression.

Learn to Recognize the Difference Between Passive Players and Aggressive Players

Passive players check and call a lot.
Aggressive players bet and raise a lot.

All else being equal, aggressive players tend to win more money. By betting and raising a lot, they’re constantly putting their opponents in the position of having to make hard decisions.

Aggressive players win more money when they have strong hands because they get money in the pot. They also win more money when they have weak hands because their opponents often fold.

Remember how I suggested that you track how often someone comes into the hand pre flop? You can also track how often that person comes in with a bet or a raise as opposed to just limping in.

If your opponent is playing few hands, but when they’re playing, they’re driving the action, respect them and stay out of their way. Tight aggressive players are the most dangerous players you face.

That’s just a generalization, though. Obviously, if you have pocket kings or aces, you’ll bet and/or raise pre flop. Your opponents’ tendencies don’t matter.

But if a tight aggressive player raises against your bet pre flop and you’re holding a 9 and a 10 of the same suit, she probably has you dominated. Folding’s not a bad idea, but it also depends on how many other players are in the pot.

After all, if the pot’s big enough, it’s worth it to gamble.

But unless you recognize your opponents’ tendencies, you’ll have a hard time deciding what to do with a lot of questionable hands.

On the other hand, if you’re facing a tight, passive opponent, you can run over him all night. He only plays when he has a strong hand, but he’s not putting much money in the pot voluntarily.

He’ll often have a strong hand pre flop, but if he misses the flop, you can often buy the pot with a bet.

You’ll notice that analyzing your opponents’ tendencies regarding how often they play and how often they bet and raise has nothing to do with “tells”.

Those come next, and they’re less important than you might think.

Learn Some of the Fundamentals of Tells

Even though I think the importance of tells is overstated, especially in fiction, you should still pay some attention to them.

A tell is a mannerism that gives your opponent a clue as to what’s in your hand.

A tell can also be more general. You might be able to make assumptions about your opponents’ general tendencies based on certain spoken or unspoken clues.

Here’s an example:

You’re facing 2 opponents. One opponent has his chips stacked neatly in front of him. The other has his chips piled up haphazardly.

The opponent with his chips stacked neatly is more likely to play ABC poker. If he raises, he probably has a strong hand.

The opponent with the haphazard pile of chips is more likely to be loose and aggressive. He’ll probably raise a lot just for the heck of it. All you need to do is be patient, wait for a strong hand and let him get in over his head.

Finally, without going into too much detail about specific tells, here’s a general rule for you to follow:

Players who act strong usually have weak hands and vice versa.

For example, if a player raises and tries to stare you down, he probably has a weak hand. He’s trying to be deceptive.

If a player makes a show of thinking about whether he should call your bet, he probably has a strong hand and doesn’t want to scare you off.

These are general tendencies, but they’re true for most players about 70% of the time.

You can learn more about specific tells and player tendencies in Mike Caro’s excellent book, Caro’s Book of Poker Tells. I can’t recommend this book strongly enough. It even features photographs of what to look for from your opponents.

Distinguish Between the Strong Players and the Weak Players

Let’s start with the why of this one:

You want to avoid confrontations with strong players as much as possible.

You want to seek confrontations with the weaker players as much as possible.

Strong players are more likely to have a good read on you and a good idea of whether they’ve got you beat. They’re also better at knowing how and when to bluff. (If you have the tendency to play tight, you might be in trouble against a certain type of loose-aggressive player.)

On the other hand, weak players are more likely to overplay their hands. They’re also more likely to fold in the face of your aggression, even when you don’t get the cards you’re hoping for.

But how can you tell the strong players from the weak players?

It’s not as easy as looking at who has the biggest stack of chips at the table. Your opponent might have just bought in for a lot of money. She might have gotten lucky and won a big hand.

The best way to determine which opponents are strong players and which are weak players is to monitor their tendencies toward tight/loose and passive/aggressive.

In fact, if you can categorize a player into one of the following 4 categories, you’ll be a lot better off than if you just judge them strong or weak:

  • Passive and tight
  • Passive and loose
  • Aggressive and loose
  • Aggressive and tight

Tight passive players are easy enough to defeat. Just keep putting pressure on them until they fold. If they bet or raise, you can be confident they have a monster hand, too.

Passive loose players are the best opponents you could hope for. They’ll just keep putting money in the pot even when you obviously have strong cards. Sure, they’ll sometimes get lucky and beat you. That’s part of the game. You’re in it for the long haul, though, so keep after these guys.

Aggressive loose players are dangerous. Some of them are good enough at reading other players that they can amass huge amounts of chips just by bullying all the other players at the table.

This style of poker is better suited at pot limit and no limit games. Loose aggressive players tend to do less well at limit games, but that depends on the quality of the competition, too.

The tight aggressive players are the ones to worry about. They don’t play many hands, but when they do, they’re betting and raising. You need to be able to play good solid mathematical poker to stand a chance with one of these guys at your table. If you face 2 or 3 tight aggressive players at the table, you might even consider finding a different game.

It’s more important to categorize an opponent as much as possible than it is

to put them in a single box out of a couple of choices (strong or weak).

Conclusion

Good poker includes the ability to increase your profits by analyzing your opponents’ playing styles.

But it’s useless to be able to do that if you don’t master the fundamentals of the game first. You need to know the rules thoroughly, including the rankings of hands. You need to understand basic concepts like pot odds, position and aggression.

Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can increase your win rates by learning how to categorize your opponents. As you get more practice, you’ll be able to put your opponents on a range of hands every time you play. This will improve your profit potential.

You want to become a tight aggressive player, and you want to find as many loose passive players to compete with as possible.

Following that, you need to understand

the appropriate strategy to use at a variety of tables.

If you’re playing at a table full of loose, passive players, it sometimes makes sense to get into a pot before the flop just because there’s so much money getting in there. You won’t often hit the flop, but when you do, you’ll get paid off for the times you missed.

That’s just one example.

The complexity of poker, and the ability to size up your opponents, is what makes it such a great game.

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