The 3 phases of player reading

We need to understand our opponents to win at poker.  Although physical and non verbal tells are important,  understanding our opponents tendencies is far more valuable and more often applicable then tells.

This post discusses the three phases of player observation and provides comments on how they are often misused.

Phase 1 -  Even before the first hand is dealt

We can tell much about a poker player simply by watching him sit down at his table, by greeting him and by engaging him in a pregame chat.   It is ok to label poker players based on their appearance.  Gender, age, social status and general demeanor are all important factors to consider.  They help “paint a picture” of our opponent and give valuable insights about his poker tendencies.  Although this pregame profiling is not totally reliable, it does trump the alternative of working in the dark and to view everyone at your table through the same “average poker player” lens.  Too many poker players skip this step.  They view their unknown opponents as total wild cards.  They miss out on a great opportunity to create a “poker tendency baseline” for these unknown opponents.

Phase 2 –  Labeling

Once play begins, it is now time to start observing player tendencies.   How often do they limp?  How often do they raise preflop?  Do they like to isolate?  Do they ever limp from the button?  Blind Defenders?  Do they Cbet a lot?  Do they play fit or fold on flop?  Do they float?  Do they check raise bluff?  You get the picture.

This is the meaty part of player reading.  Here we gradually adjust our initial speculative perception of our opponent towards a concrete summary of how he plays poker.  Once we get a grasp on how our opponent plays, we compare his play to the numerous opponents we have faced in the past and we label him accordingly.  For instance, if he plays very few hands but plays them hard, we call him a TAG, if he plays very loose/passively we label him a calling station or a showdown muppet.

Once we assign a label to our opponent, we can make decent assumptions on how he will play in certain situations.  Some poker problems are very similar, this allows us to categorize them as we can assume that if he plays situation “A” a certain way he will probably play very similar situation “B: the same way.  There are 2 common errors made in respect to the “labeling phase”.

Over focusing on Preflop play

While it is true that preflop tendencies tell us a lot about our opponents, they do not tell the whole story.  Players tend to observe preflop trends (loose or aggressive) and extend them to all facets of their opponent’s play.  Although it is true that the degree of preflop aggression can be a key indicator of how one will play the other streets, preflop play does not translate into a perfectly clear picture of how a poker player approaches the rest of the hand.

Why stop here?

We tend to stop at this phase.  We slap a label on our opponents and figure we can stop observing their play and focus on the other aspects of winning poker.  Laziness hurts us here.  For instance, while it is true that a TAG tends to bet light on the later streets, not all TAG’s will play the late betting rounds the same way.  Does this TAG check/raise bluff often?  Does he double barrel?  Will he semi bluff big draws on the turn or take a free card?  These are all specific aspects of our opponent’s play that can only be determined via direct observation.  The label we slap on our opponent will help determine these tendencies but we must REFINE our impression of our opponent beyond the labeling phase.

Phase 3 -  Refining

Once that we get enough hands in with our opponent, we need to start narrowing down on his specific tendencies.  Gradually we work our way from the label we assigned him towards a finely tuned view of his play.  We build data on how he plays certain poker situations that come up often during play.  We take note of every variable that made this situation unique and try and discern which variables affected his play the most.  The ultimate goal here is to UNDERSTAND our opponent, to know not only how he will act but WHY he tends to act a certain way at the table.

The one striking error I have seen at the refining stage is that players do not focus enough on the reason why their opponent acted in a specific way.  Once we start gaining an understanding of what a poker player is trying to accomplish at the table, we are one step closer to “getting into their head” and playing them optimally.

What do YOU think about player reading?  Do I put too much emphasis on reads and not enough on tells?  Do you agree that the 3 stages of player reading are important?  LEAVE A COMMENT… let’s discuss it.

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