Observing Opponents

Erica Schoenberg

Solid winning online poker players can and will make money in live cash games, but unless you learn to observe your opponents, you will never fully maximize your winnings.

Your hourly rate live versus online, on a table of the same limit, should see you making far more money live than online. This is of course on a table-per-table comparison. Online poker allows for multi-table play, which can more than make up the deficit.

Live poker typically has worse players throwing around far more action. The most obvious example of this is a standard pre-flop raise. In an online $1/$2 game, the average raise will be $6-$10. In a live $1/$2 game with the same number of players, the average pre-flop raise will be $10-$20.

All of the poker concepts used by a winning online player transfer over to the live forum; the only weapon missing from your arsenal if you've only played online is taking advantage of the physical tells your opponents are giving away.

This article isn't about trying to figure out what someone scratching their nose means; I'm not Mike Caro, and I don't pretend to be.

These observations are more raw data than hard-and-fast tells. Tells are the same as symptoms - view yourself as a doctor. If someone sneezes they might be sick, but if they're throwing up blood you know they're sick for sure. The idea here is to stop looking for scrapes and sneezes, and start looking for breaks and seizes.

When They Think You're Not Looking

 

Alex Jacob
Some reactions are impossible to hold back.

This also includes all the situations where your opponents have already made up their mind, and just don't care anymore. The most common time you'll see this behavior is when a player is committed to folding their hand. Look for the players who've lost interest in the action, especially the players holding their cards ready to muck.

Many players will think you're not watching them, or just don't consider that what they do will give away information. As a winning player, it's crucial to pay attention to, and correctly interpret, this information.

Anytime your opponents do anything out of the ordinary, there is a specific reason for the action. It's up to you to correctly understand what this action is. Here's a situation that came up in one of the latest sessions I played.

In late position, I make a raise holding A K, picking up one caller to the flop. The flop comes 7 7 9. My opponent looks at the flop, then looks down and checks his hand before checking. This one move gives me more than enough information to confidently play the hand.

If a player has a pocket pair, they will never forget what they hold. The fact that this player went back to check his hand tells me he has no pocket pair, or any other easy-to-remember hand. A-K, A-Q, A-J and A-T are all easy to remember. His checking his cards means he has none of these hands; he's looking to see if he has a seven.

Typically this player is playing an ace-rag and can't remember what his kicker is. Although it is possible he had a seven buried, it's not likely enough to instill any fear. This pot is now an easy bet for a quick takedown.

Although this read didn't help me much in any way, since I would have won the same pot for the same amount of money playing with blinders on, this same read in a different situation can become the one final piece of information you need to make a tough call in a tough situation.

When They Know You're Looking

Players who know they're being watched start to do odd things. Some make involuntary movements or actions under the pressure. Nervous laughs, odd twitches, heavy breathing, increased heart rate; all of these things tell you a story, it's just not always clear what story you're reading.

A player who has the nuts, or a new player who just thinks they have the nuts (I'm talking no more than top pair), will have the exact same involuntary reactions. You can get a read that a player has what they view as a good hand. But to know what that means, you first have to understand their poker aptitude.

Above all of these involuntary actions are the Hollywood acts intended to deceive. When a player thinks you're paying attention to them, they'll put on all kinds of shows. Figure out what they want you to do, and do the opposite.

Inducing Reactions

 

Brian Townsend
Brian Townsend observing his real-life opponent.

When you need information on where you stand in a hand, you want to try to induce a reaction in your opponent. There are many ways to do this; the pros use them all. Asking questions, making comments, showing cards and projecting actions are part of every live pro's game.

A game I was playing in last week offers an example of inducing a reaction. One of the players at the table was playing a very aggressive game with a very wide selection of hands, the only constant being that he seemed to play every ace he was dealt.

He was willing to call down with second pairs and act on weakness; he called a little too light and bet every pair for value; overall, this player is close to unbluffable.

I get into a raised pot with him where I've raised with some sort of garbage, having him call me out of position. The flop comes two low cards with an ace, completely missing my hand. The only way I can win this hand is by bluffing at it, but I have to decide if that's going to fly.

Because of who this player was and how he was playing, firing a thoughtless c-bet at this board would be a dark tunnel bluff. I wanted to know what his idea was of my image - would be believe I had an ace? - and what he was calling me with pre-flop.

If he senses weakness, he's capable of making a move here.

Before I make the bluff I hope to get some more information. To do so, I use one of the classic techniques of inducing a reaction. With him seated directly to my right, I'm able to watch him out of my peripherals without ever having to actually look at him.

He checks to me and I think for a second about everything I just listed, watching him the whole time. He's idly playing with some chips, giving away nothing. So I look down to my stack and start cutting out a close-to-pot-sized amount of chips.

As soon as I do this, I see him scoop up the chip protecting his hand, adding it to the ones he's playing with. At that moment I know he's going to fold, and can make the bet to take down the pot.

Once Told, Twice Good

Observing these traits not only helps you in the current pot, but can serve as a base to start from in later hands.

If the player unknowingly acted one way with rags, there is a very good chance that they will act the same way the next time they're holding them. Avoiding getting felted can often hinge on noticing your opponents act differently in such a context.

Learning to read tells is the best skill for a winning online poker player to work on. If you can make one great call or one great fold in a session, based purely on a tell you got off another player, you can significantly increase your long-term profits, and reduce short-term variance.

More beginner strategy articles:

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GaelWarrior 2010-08-17 02:02:58

I was glad that you did mention the Hollywood Acts when describing the opponent taking a second look at his cards. In many instances I do that purposefully with huge hands that have hit because of the fact that everyone thinks it is a sign of a weak hand, or a hand that was supposedly forgettable. Frankly, the first thing that I do before employing any other strategy is to commit my cards to memory, so the concept of any skillful player actually forgetting what they hold is hard to believe.
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