Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The PDQ ABCs of Hand R'ing

I've been thinking a little bit about R is for Reading. Specifically, I've been pondering the logical steps one should take when learning this most important skill. What should a new player learn first? And how? And then as they progress in their abilities and skills, what should they add to their Reading skill set, and in what order?

Like most things poker-related, the answer is not entirely clear. There really aren't any good books, videos, or guides that I know of that systematically walk a player through the art of hand reading. Yes, there are scraps to be found here and there, but nothing cohesive and systematic. So I've decided to try and tackle the subject myself.

Like RED-I, this whole process is a work in progress; what I present here is likely to to change as I ponder the problem further and discover what does and doesn't actually work in practice.

In any case, here are the seven Reading skills I've come up with thus far. They are listed in the order that I think one should learn them:
  1. Board Texture. Perhaps the most important skill a new player can master is the ability to read the board. Level-1 players (i.e., those that operate on the  "I know what my own hand strength is" level) need to learn how to quickly and instinctively read a board to: (a) determine what the nuts, second nuts, third nuts, etc. are; (b) determine how strongly the board hits their hand; and (c) make a determination of whether the board is "wet" or "dry." As the student progresses out of L1 play and into L2 (i.e., "I think my opponent holds XYZ range of cards in his/her hand") we can start applying other board texture concepts such as "hard" and "soft" flops and whether the flop likely hit the villains' range or not, and in which way.
  2. Default Player Types. As a player begins to transition from L1 to L2 play, they also should focus on "classifying" other players into default categories. There are a lot of different ways to do this, from the absurdly subjective (e.g., Phil Helmuth's bizarre animal scheme of Mouse, Jackal, Elephant, Lion, Eagle, etc.) to the coldly objective (VPIP/PFR/AFR #'s used as classifications). I personally like the scheme that poker coach James "splitsuit" Sweeney uses. This classification sorts players into one of six different categories: Nit, TAG, LAG, Passive-Fish, Aggro-Fish, and Unknown. Using this scheme, it's pretty easy to start assigning default hand ranges and adjusting your play accordingly. I'll cover this topic more in-depth in a future post.
  3. Notes and Stats. Once a player is solidly into L2 thinking and classifying opponents default categories, the next obvious thing to use to fine-tune their reads are Notes and Stats. Notes are by far the more important of the two, as they tell you specific things that they player does or does not do (e.g., "very aggro with nut flush draws" or "plays any suited face cards from LP" or "ABC RRR" or "bluffy on A-high boards on river"). Stats are also important, but they need to be taken with a grain of salt. Seeing that your opponent 3-bets at a 20% frequency (i.e., a relatively high number) is meaningless if the sample size is just a couple hundred hands. That said, positional VPIP and PFR stats start to become very useful once you've gathered that same 100-200 hands. As a student masters L2 thinking, the Notes and Stats are used to fine-tune the Default Player Type reads; one Nit's range does not necessarily equal another Nit's range.
  4. Combinatorics. Also solidly in the middle of learning how to think on Level-2 is this next powerful piece of the hand reading puzzle. Using some basic distribution of hand probabilities (e.g., it's nearly three times more likely a player holds AK than AA), dead cards, and blockers, it's possible to start "weighting" an opponent's range toward certain hands within that range. For instance, if you put a player on JJ-AA, AQ+, and KQs, it's possible to bias this range toward one or the other end of the spectrum based on possible combinations of hands (and of course board texture and how he or she is betting/checking/calling in response to that texture).
  5. Tells. As a player begins the transition from L2 to L3 thinking, they should start to add tells to their hand reading repertoire. Online, there are some basic things in this category that can make a big difference in reads, such as timing (e.g., fast calls by fish on wet boards are often draws) and bet sizing. Live players have even more tell tools at their disposal, such as hand, face, and body-language mannerisms. The problem with live tells, however, is that good players become adept at masking their body language and, more importantly, mastering the art of giving off reverse tells. For this reason, I've moved Tells to number five on this list, even though you could argue that bet-sizing tells should be one of the first things an L2 player learns to read and apply.
  6. Your Own Image. Once you enter into the realm of Level-3 poker (i.e., "I think my opponent thinks that I have XYZ in my range, and is therefore more likely to have ABC in their own range") your own image becomes more and more important. Players at this level need to learn how their actions appear to the other (thinking) players at the table. For example, a player who just sat down and was dealt AA, KK, AK, and JJ in the first four hands at table full of strangers, bet each of those hands very hard, and won each without a showdown, might suddenly have an undeserved loose and aggro image. On the next hand, when they are dealt something like so-so face cards in LP, they need to be wary of people playing back at their steal attempts, as those players will be adjusting their starting hand requirements accordingly. Remember, the other players at the table are applying their own versions of RED-I against you, so you have be fully cognizant that they're tweaking their starting hands based on their reads of you.
  7. Meta-Game/Table Dynamics. As a player masters L3 poker, the final piece of the Reading puzzle involves something called Meta-Game. This reading skill centers around understanding how the table dynamics have evolved over the course of the session, "history" that has formed between different players, and how the mental states of each of your opponents has shifted. Is Fred tilting? Is Flora feeling like she's on a rush? Is Frank playing back at me because he thinks I steam-rolled him four hands ago? Is Fiona getting ready to quit for the night? Is Fuzzy loosening up his game because he's on his fourth gin and tonic and just got in a fight with is wife on the cell phone? Etcetera. Meta-Game factors range from simple to complex, and while I think it's something that is incredibly important to learn, I also don't think it's really appropriate for a beginner, or even intermediate player, to get bogged down in learning.
So those are my initial seven steps to hand reading. Unfortunately, I'm out of time for today. But don't worry; like RED-I, this is not the last you'll hear of this new crazy Bug theorem in work...

All-in for now...

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