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Inside a Pro’s Mind – How Do Poker Pros Figure Out What Cards Someone Has?

| June 30, 2017 12:00 am PDT
Poker Pro and Poker Hand

For most amateur players, poker is one dimensional. The thought process is “This is what I have. I should do X or Y according to what I have.” If you’re brand new to the game or haven’t spent a lot of time advancing your thought process, this is the boat you’re in. When you start to become comfortable with “what you have” and playing accordingly, your game will start to develop into a two-dimensional process. Instead of just thinking about what you have, you’re going to start thinking about what your opponent might be holding and how to act accordingly.

There’s a third step (and possibly more if you really think about it) past this where the game gets three dimensional, and you start worrying about what you have, what your opponent has, and then what your opponent thinks you have. For today, though, I just want to look at this second dimension. For those of you that already worry about what your opponent has, don’t run away. Instead of giving some basic ideas of how to get started with this, I’m going to walk you through the general idea of what goes through my head with this second dimension.

I want you to see how my brain operates and what processes I use to start to deduce what my opponent might be holding. Why should you listen to me? Well, because I’m writing this on the internet so it must be true! Kidding. I’ve been playing poker professionally for about 12 years now, and hopefully, I can offer you some insight into how my brain works. While I’m not going to go into every nuance of the process and will be dramatically oversimplifying things, it should be a great jumping off point for someone (you) to start retooling your game and your processes.

Sometimes improving your game is about making specific changes like “raise this hand, fold that hand” and sometimes it’s about changing the processes in which your brain operates and computes. The second is, of course, more challenging to do but can have the biggest effects on your game. The first is very situational, and while some may be extremely important, they are only pertinent to the specific situation in which they address. Changes in processes can be applied game-wide.

Ranges vs Exact Cards

You would think that someone giving you exact cards they think someone has every time would be a much more skilled player than someone giving you a group of cards, right? Hopefully, you aren’t thinking this because it’s actually incorrect. The movies have made it seem like this is how poker pros handle the game, and it’s actually a big misconception.

What poker pros actually do are construct what are called ranges instead of exact predictions of what someone might have. A range is a group of cards or potential combinations of cards that your opponent (or you in other contexts) might have. For example, instead of saying “I think my opponent has pocket Jacks,” I would be more likely to say “I think my opponent has Jacks + (Jacks, Queens, Kings, and Aces) or AQ+ (AQ or AK).” The first example is an exact prediction and the second is an example of a range of cards that I think my opponent might have.

Too often, I see amateurs misunderstand this and think they have to peg their opponent on an exact hand. The reality is that putting your opponent on one exact hand is usually impossible and is only going to get you in trouble at the tables. Ranges account for a lot more possibilities and are almost always more accurate.

Building a Range Versus Exact Predictions | An Analogy

Here’s an analogy. Imagine you are a detective trying to figure out who committed a crime. There is graffiti on the wall saying that “Team A sucks! Team B is better!!!” You’re told if the graffiti happens again you are going to get fired. Now, you know that Team B’s Captain is quite the hooligan. If you are making an exact prediction and ignoring ranges, you would accuse Team B’s Captain of the crime and ban him from the facility where the crime took place.

Let’s say you do that. You go home for the day and come back, and there’s more graffiti all over the place now. You lose your job and are forced to live in a van down by the river and eat canned tuna for the rest of your life. Where did you go wrong and how do we prevent this from happening? The problem is that using an exact prediction did not account for all the plausible possibilities of who the culprit was. Yes, he was probably the most likely candidate, but there were plenty others that could have done it.

What you should have done is started with a wide pool of possibilities and then narrow down the possibilities based on facts and educated assumptions you can make. Let’s walk through that process.

  • First, we start with a wide pool that we know encompasses all of the possible culprits. We assume that it can be any Team B fan or Team B player or Team B staff.
  • We realize that the field was closed to fans on the day of the incident and the staff was all at a meeting. We can now narrow our pool to just the Team B players.
  • We find out that the defense and the offense left early and only the special teams were practicing in the area of the field where the graffiti happened.

Based on this information, we can say that most likely it was a member of the special teams that committed the crime. We ban them from the stadium and go home for the day. We come back the next day, and there is no graffiti!

What did we do here? Surprise! We built a range. This is the exact same process that I go through when trying to decide what my opponent might be holding in their hands. I start with every possibility in the deck they could have and then slowly narrow that down until I have as narrow of range as possible. Would I want to go down to one specific hand if possible? Of course, I would. The problem is that if you’re getting down to one hand a lot, you’re probably making too bold of assumptions. Let’s look at that for a second.

Making Too Bold of Assumptions

Here’s a standard conversation I have with players a lot that will explain why ranges are so important and too bold of assumptions will get you in trouble. This is the story I hear about a hand.

“So I opened in middle position, and this really tight old guy three bets me from late position. I have pocket 8s, so I figure I should call and take a flop. The flop is 10-2-2. I check, and he bets big. I figure he has to have jacks, so I fold.”

My first follow-up question is, “Can he have queens?” And they respond, “We’ll I guess yea he could have queens.” And then I ask the same think about kings and aces and AK etc. To all of these questions, the player usually answers that yes those are possibilities. The problem is that this player has made some crazy assumptions in their head to peg their opponent down to pocket jacks. The problem is that they have literally zero way of telling if their opponent has pocket jacks or pocket queens or any of the other possible hands that make sense.

Realistically, if their opponent is super tight and only three bets super premium hands, they would be much more correct saying their opponent has pocket jacks+ and AQ+, maybe just AK. What does the plus mean? The plus means that hand and any hand better than that in that sequence. So, for example, A10+ would be A10, AJ, AQ, and AK. Pocket jacks+ would be pocket jacks, pocket queens, pocket kings, and pocket aces.

Sometimes you’ll get a depiction of suited hands versus non-suited. For example, someone may say they might have AQ+ and A10 suited+. The first part (AQ+) would be AQ and AK suited as well as AQ and AK off suit. The second part would include A10 suited, and AJ suited, but not A10 and AJ offsuit. So the total range depicted would be A10s (the little ‘s’ means suited), AJs, AQs, AKs, AQ, and AK.

An Actual Poker Hand Example

So all of this is great, but let’s see what it looks like in practice. Let’s say we’re playing in a $500 multi-table Texas Hold Em tournament. It’s late in day one, and we’ve been at the same table for a while, so we’ve got some pretty good reads on our opponents. We’re getting really close to the bubble, and we have a nice chip stack.

We open the pot with J10s and get three bet by a player that we deem to be very tight. The player looks to have been born around the time of the dinosaurs and is constantly looking at the tournament clock counting down the players until the minimum cash. The player has a pretty big stack, and the raise isn’t very big, so we decide to make the call. At this point, we should start building our potential range for our opponent.

At the start of the hand, our opponent could have any two cards. Since we deem them as very tight especially on the bubble they really care about, we can already narrow down their range dramatically to premium hands only. The fact they’re three betting (something we rarely observe them do) we can narrow the list a bit more. This would normally be AK, AQs, and jacks+. We have also noticed that our opponent incorrectly treats middle pairs as premiums, so we include 99 and 1010 into the mix.  So our current range for our opponent is AK, AQs, 99+.

The flop comes out J-4-2 rainbow (all different suits). We check, and our opponent bets the full pot. Now, we remember from earlier that our opponent likes to slow play big hands and also likes to bet smaller to reel people in with their bigger hands regardless of board texture. Based on this information, it’s now less likely that our opponent has JJ, QQ, KK, or AA. It’s more likely that they have 99, 1010, AQ, or AK.

This is a spot where a lot of players would just pick an exact hand and not really look at the full picture. If you just assumed your opponent had Aces, you would fold, though, based on information it looks like we should call. We call, and the turn is another 2. We check and our opponent checks back. The river is an 8. We decide we have the best hand and want to bet for value; but how much should we bet?

Well, let’s look at our range calculations. We think our opponent has either Ace high or an underpair to the jack. So, we probably can’t bet a lot here since they most likely have very little. We elect to bet about 1/3 pot and our opponent calls us and flips up 1010. We win a nice pot.

A Much More Advanced Example of Hand Reading

This example is going to be a lesson for people on both ends. You may identify more with the bettor in this hand, or you may identify more with “our” cards. Either way, this is a great hand to show you the importance of hand reading and building ranges.

We’re playing in that same multi-table tournament from earlier, but it’s early in the day. We do have some pretty solid reads on our opponents, though, so we are not playing in the dark. One of our opponents opens from early position, and we elect to call from the button with AQ. We know that our opponent is fairly straightforward so they’re going to be raising good hands from early position. To start the hand, we put their range on any pair 55+, AJ+, A9s+, KQ+, KJs+.

The flop comes out A-2-3 rainbow. Our opponent is known to continuation bet (bet after the flop if they raised pre-flop regardless of what comes out) and they follow suit. We, of course, call based on the fact that we flopped top pair. At this point, our opponent could still have any part of their range. The turn comes out a 4 (the fourth suit, so no flush draws) and our opponent bets again.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. With four cards to a straight, our opponent should be checking most of their range that they want to get to the river with. If they have an ace, they’re most likely going to be checking here as the 4 is a bad card for them and they don’t want to be bloating the pot where they could be drawing dead. It is MUCH more likely that we have a 5 in our hand than they do. If our opponent has AJ+ or A9s+, they would “probably” check here. I say probably because people are known to be squirrely sometimes as this process is never perfect.

Based on the fact we assume they would check those hands, but they’re betting, we can remove those hands from their range. So now our opponent has 55+, KQ+, or KJs+. Basically, only one of these hands makes the straight, and all of the rest are bluffs. Because of this, we decide to call. Also as a side note, if they have pocket aces, they may continue to bet here or may check. For that reason, we will leave AA in their range.

The river is a 9 and our opponent fires out huge again. Let’s analyze the range they have and which hands we beat. If they have 55, 99, or AA, we lose. If they have 66, 77, 88, 1010, JJ, QQ, KK, KQ, or KJ, we win. 3 out of the 12 combinations beat us but 75% of the combinations in their range we beat. We elect to make the call, and our opponent flips up QQ for a pair they decided to turn into a bluff. Our opponent berates us about how on Earth we could call with one pair and four cards to the straight.

Our opponent’s berating is important here because it just demonstrates how much people don’t understand ranges. Our opponent assumes that because there are “scary” cards out there that we have to give them credit for having the card that completes the scariness. The problem that they are missing is that they really only have 55 or they have no straight. They could have AA or 99 and be bluffing with the best hand, but we beat most everything they’re holding, and a lot of people would play the AA or 99 as a check and call because it’s more likely we could have a 5 in our hand.

The mini takeaway from this example is that just because scary cards come out does not mean you have to fold your hand. Construct your opponent’s range and see if the story they are telling makes any sense. The above is an example of a bad bluff. If the original raise had opened from late position or it was a battle of the blinds, it would be a MUCH better bluff because the story makes sense. Their range is much more likely to contain fives because they’ll be raising Axs+ (Any suited ace, X means any card), Kxs+, and suited connectors that may contain a 5.

A Few Key Points About Ranges

The most popular follow up question I get to this is how am I figuring out that my opponent only raises certain hands or only does certain things in certain situations? The answer is “Welcome to playing poker.” The only way that you are going to get this information is by paying attention to every hand and drawing conclusions.

You have to take in as much information about the situation as possible and catalog it in your brain. For example, let’s say you see your opponent open for a raise from early position with 22. Should you always include 22 in their range from early position? The answer is maybe. The part missing from the story is your opponent had 200 times the big blind when they opened with the 22. When they have 20 big blinds, they might be folding the 22. The only way you’re going to get this information is by observing.

You can make generalizations based on stereotypes or players as a whole. For example, most players are never going to be opening 8-2 offsuit from any position. This is how we can rule this one out right off the bat. There are a handful of holdings you can generally rule out and help you to get started.

The bottom line is that figuring out these ranges is what poker is all about. Master this, and you will be the best in the world.

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