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Pre-Flop Hand Reading

By Andrew Brokos

Every action that a player takes during a POKER hand reveals information about his holding and enables a savvy hand reader to narrow his range of possible hole cards. Thus, in Hold ‘Em it’s generally much easier to figure out what someone has on the river than on the flop, and the flop does so much to define a Hold ‘Em hand that many players don’t bother to think about what an opponent might have until they’ve seen it.

This can be a costly mistake. Pre-flop ranges are often tighter than people assume, and many players have very predictable tendencies in certain pre-flop spots. Being aware of these tendencies gives you a jump-start on the hand reading process and, as these two examples will illustrate, can drastically change the way you play your own hand or provide the key to sniffing out a bluff.

Playing Against a Set Miner

This first hand occurred at a 9-handed $2/$4 table on PokerStars. I was dealt a pair of Jacks UTG+1 and opened with a raise to $16. The action folded to the Button, who called. Both blinds folded, so we were heads up to the flop.

It’s best, if possible, to think about your opponent’s pre-flop range before you see the flop. Afterwards, your perception is immediately colored by the flop texture and you’re liable to start thinking in terms of how the flop may or may not have helped your opponent rather than in terms of his overall range.

This player was on quite a few tables, and my HUD told me that he was 17/16 with an 8% 3-bet. The high ratio of hands played to hands raised told me that he very rarely called pre-flop raises, generally preferring to re-raise or fold. He was an extreme example, but the mid-stakes NLHE games on Poker Stars are full of players like this. They play primarily for the Frequent Player Point rewards and settle on a solid, predictable style that enables them to play a roughly break-even game on a large number of tables at once without facing too many difficult decisions.

These statistics and play style indicate an extremely narrow range for cold calling raises. If he is cold calling only 1% of hands, then these are almost certainly small and medium pairs. These hands are easy to play post-flop, as they generally either flop a set and become very strong or miss and can be easily folded.

I’d expect this player to always re-raise pairs big enough to get all-in pre-flop and to re-raise or fold with suited connectors and broadway cards. Unlike pocket pairs, these cards often flop marginal hands such as middle pair or Ace-high that can be tricky to play. The mass multi-tabler sacrifices a small amount of equity by never cold calling with these hands but is able to play more tables at once as a result of wrestling with fewer post-flop decisions.

Armed with the knowledge that my opponent almost certainly held a pair smaller than mine, I saw the flop: 8c Qs Jc. My first instinct was to bet simply because this doesn’t look like a good flop to slowplay. Quite a few draws could come in on the turn, and it doesn’t seem like many turn cards would give my opponent a second-best hand.

Neither of those things is true in this case, though, given my opponent’s very narrow pre-flop range. In all likelihood, he has an underpair to the flop and will simply fold to a bet. If he happened to flop a set of 8’s, we’ll probably play a large pot no matter what, so checking isn’t too likely to hurt me there. Pocket 9’s or T’s are the only possible concern, but those hands have just four outs and may well fold to a flop bet. Given how little equity they have, inducing even a single bet from those hands would be better than causing them to fold on the flop.

Otherwise, draws are not in my opponent’s range. He doesn’t cold call T9s and so can’t have flopped the nuts, nor does he cold-call KT which would have an open-ended straight draw. Pocket pairs are never suited, so his only chance to make a flush would be with running clubs. Again, it’s a small concern, but remote enough that inducing one bluff more than makes up for it.

Despite the apparent draws on the flop, my opponent’s equity was in all likelihood near zero. Since I expected him to fold to a flop bet, I wanted to give him the chance to bluff or, ideally, make a smaller set. I checked, he bet $25.25 into the $38 pot, and I called.

The turn was the 6c, which would be scary if I didn’t have such a solid read on my opponent. Then again, without that read we never would have gotten to this point. In this case, it was actually a good card for me, since it would be tempting for him to try to represent a flush. I checked again, he bet $59.85 into $88.50, and I called.

The river was the Ad, completing another draw that I knew my opponent didn’t have. I checked, and after a long pause he checked behind, declining to bluff with 44, no club. My awareness of his very predictable pre-flop tendencies enabled me to win $85 that I never would have gotten with a more “standard” line.

Sniffing Out a Bluff

This second hand occurred at a 6-handed $2/$4 table. A loose-passive player open limped in the CO, I raised to $16 with Ad Td on the Button, a tight-aggressive regular called my raise from the SB, and the limper folded. According to my HUD, the CO was 45/15 with a 5% 3-bet and the SB was 20/16 with an 8% 3-bet.

Needless to say, the loose-passive open limper was a very weak player, and I’d been raising him aggressively. The SB was surely aware of that dynamic, and his 8% 3-bet told me that he was capable of re-raising without a premium hand. Though not as dramatic as those of my opponent from the previous hand, his stats indicate a strong preference for playing as the pre-flop aggressor. Such players are particularly likely to re-raise out of the blinds, since they’d prefer to end the hand immediately rather than play from out of position post-flop.

This all boiled down to the SB having a pretty tight range for cold calling. With a weak player likely to come along to the flop (although he folded this time, the CO called raises after limping more often than not), the SB would be justified in cold calling hands like suited connectors or suited broadway cards. Given his general preference for raising and re-raising, though, I thought it more likely that he would 3-bet those hands because he knew my range was very wide. Thus, I expected his cold calling range to be heavily weighted towards small and medium pairs, much as in the first hand.

The two of us saw as 8s 2c 6c flop. He checked, and I checked behind, not expecting him to fold his pocket pairs.

The turn was the Ac. He checked again, and now I felt compelled to bet. I was far from certain that he would call with a small pair, but I didn’t want to give him a free river in case he held a club. I bet $24.50 into the $50 pot, and he raised to $82.

There were several good reasons to suspect a bluff here. For one thing, he may not expect me to check a flush draw on the flop. In that case, the club would look like a good card to bluff. Also my turn bet was small, barely half the pot, suggesting further that I wasn’t very strong. In truth the size of my bet had more to do with what I thought he had than with what I had, but I didn’t expect him to know that.

All of that said, my hand is not a particularly good bluff-catcher, since I have no equity against the hand my opponent is representing. A set, two pair, or an A with a good club for a kicker would all be better candidates for picking him off, since those hands would have a chance of improving on the river.

The problem was that I wasn’t too likely to hold any of those hands given the action up to this point. I would likely have bet a pair or a set on the flop, so I’d rarely have two-pair or a set on the turn. I do try to check flush draws on the flop from time to time just so that I can have them in my range in spots like this, but when I do that it’s usually the nut flush draw. The fact that the turn was exactly the Ac took those hands out of my range as well, so suddenly AT without a club started looking like a better bluff-catcher.

Most important, though, was the fact that I didn’t expect my opponent to have many combos of suited cards in his pre-flop range. His small pairs wouldn’t be happy about that turn card, and while he might be able to justify calling anyway, representing the flush would have to seem like an appealing option to him. That suggested that he was heavily weighted towards bluffs and consequently that I should bluff-catch very often.

I called, and we got the 8d on the river. He bet $151 into the $204, and I stuck to my read and called again. He showed pocket 5’s without a club, and I won a big pot.

It’s never too early in the hand to start thinking about what your opponents might have. This kind of hand reading is most important when you face a big river decision, but ideally your idea of your opponents’ ranges will influence every action you take.

The information is out there. Learning to identify and act on it rather than defaulting to “standard” lines ought to be every POKER  player’s aspiration.

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