Poker Strategy: Reading Your Opponent's Play
Let's put you in the hot-seat…..
It's the early stages of a tournament, and you're happy to look down at two aces. You raise and just the button calls. The news gets better on a flop, as you hit a set. The flop comes; . The stacks are big and so you make a big bet. Your opponent calls and you see the queen of hearts next, a blank-looking card. Again you make a big-bet and it is called. Now the river comes the 9 of spades. The board reads; . You didn't like the last card, but you're still holding the top set. You bet half the pot, and your opponent moves all-in. What do you do?.
The first critical thing to do is to [B]stop and think. You may have realised straight away the possibility that we are now beaten. We need to take time to trace back the play to put together all the information we have on our opponent's hand. But can we really fold the top set? You can never be sure about anything in poker, but from the reasoning below, I would argue that you should fold the top set and be fairly confident that you are right to do so.
A good poker player goes through the information that is available to him or her and uses it to build a profile of their opponent's hand. This may seem tricky but do not give up as each step is quite simple. Let's see how the process this time may lead us to fold such a big hand…..
• Our opponent calls the raise before the flop on the button. It is still a very wide range of hands that our opponent is playing, but for a call on the button, it is more likely that our opponent is playing a suited or connected (e.g. 78, 109), hand.
• Our opponent calls a big bet on the flop. This is the crucial piece of information here that many people forget. The call means our opponent must have something. On this basis, we can rule out on the river that our opponent is outright-bluffing. He may of course be betting on the river with a missed draw. However, the 9 of spades on the river has hit most of the possible draws, so this is less of a possibility.
• Our opponent again calls a big bet on the turn. This second call confirms that our opponent has something serious; either a big hand or a big draw. Because our opponent has flat-called rather than raising we are now seeing it as far more likely that he has the drawing hand rather than the made hand.
• The river comes the 9s, and our opponent re-raises all in. We have almost eliminated the possibility of an out-right bluff and so we believe our opponent has some kind of hand. He has made a very strong play, by re-raising our third bet, and committing all his chips at this early stage. Many good hands like two pair would only merit a flat call on the end after all this action. It is fair to say that our opponent is very likely playing a set, a straight or a flush. We have credited some possibilities now as being far less likely but one possibility is standing out strongly. The reasoning that fits exactly with two big calls and then a move all-in on the end when the "scare" card comes is that our opponent was drawing and has now hit a straight or a flush.
Let's look again at one of the assumptions we made:
Why could our opponent not just have a lower set?
He could have and we can not absolutely rule this out. However, the drawing hand is an exact fit for the action and a lower set is not a great fit. If our opponent has a set he is likely to have flopped it. The most typical play you will see with this hand is for your opponent to flat call on the flop and then to re-raise on the turn.
If your opponent held a set, he too would not like the sight of the 9 of spades on the river. He would be right to decide that the action has been very strong.
Of course your opponent does not always do the "right" thing and there is an element of uncertainty to every poker hold. We may be folding the best here with the set of aces, but all we can ever do in poker is to make a measured decision.
Don't be tempted by that horrible nagging feeling that you may be throwing away the best-hand. Follow your reasoning safe in the knowledge that you will sometimes be making a mistake but you will more often than not be right.
Making a great call
Don't worry; trying to read your opponent's play doesn't mean you will be folding more hands. A good line of reasoning can often be used to make an unlikely call.
You are in the small blind, and limp in with. The big blind checks, and you see a two heart flop of . You both check and the turn is the 2 of hearts. Again, two checks and the river is the ace of spades. The board reads. Your opponent bets the size of the pot against your king-high. Can you really call?
You only have king-high but I suggest a quick call. Your opponent's is claiming to have a hand but there is crucially no hand beating you that fits well with the action.
Here is how I would eliminate the possibilities.
1) Your opponent has three sixes or better. Although many players would check on the flop with three of a kind, it seems unlikely that they would check the flop and turn in position. The turn is also the third heart, and it would be very dangerous for him to give us another free card.
2) Your opponent has an ace. Your opponent could potentially have an ace, and have made top pair on the end. However, a pot sized bet would then be unusual on this paired and three-heart board. If our opponent did hold ace high before the river he would very likely have bet before the flop, or on the flop or turn, to try to claim the pot.
3) Your opponent has a flush. This is perhaps the hardest possibility to eliminate completely but there are a couple of clues which mean it does not fit well. If your opponent made a flush on the turn he would probably have bet it in position. Many opponents would also bet their flush draw on the flop so the probability of a flush is diminished.
We cannot be absolutely sure of our decision because we can only make these possibilities less likely and not eliminate them completely. However, in these circumstances, it looks like our opponent is pulling a bad bluff, and a call will be correct more times than not.
Ed note: Stuart Rutter is a regular on the EPT circuit and the sponsored professional at 32Red Poker - join today for a $500 bonus when you deposit