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What's He Not Holding?
Standard poker strategy counsels you to work on reading your opponents to learn how to put them on a hand (or, better, a range of hands).
This is sound advice and an essential element in the repertoire of any good player.
But there's more to this 'reading hands' thing, some of it straightforward, some not so. Let's start with the more-or-less obvious stuff.
'Reading' has three levels to it:
1) The most basic level is ascertaining the value of your hand. David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth were the first delve into this issue.
They made a significant contribution to the game when they developed their 'groupings' of hands based on their playing value. The original S & M (man, I love that abbreviation) system isn't used much anymore but the importance of this level of play is paramount.
2) The next level is reading your opponent, assessing the value of his holding and it is this level that is generally called 'hand reading.'
As most of us who play the game with any regularity know, this is a skill not developed particularly easily and below I'll try to explain why.
3) The third and most sophisticated level involves digging inside your opponent's head.
Once you've figured out how to play your hand, developed some ability to read their hands, you need to be able to figure out what they think you have.
After all, if your opponents are any good, they'll be going through those first two levels also.
This third level, however, is beyond today's discussion which will focus on level two. Here a couple of basic heuristics are well known.
First, take stock of the situation by factoring in elements like position, stack sizes, previous action and playing style of your opponent.
Second, get a feel for how the table is playing and the impact it's having on the others (and on you!).
Third, incorporate any psychological elements like who's been winning or losing, who's on tilt or getting close to falling off the end of the pier, who's playing with confidence, who here looks like they actually understand this game (even a little).
Now, integrate this information to put your opponent on a range of hands and, let the subsequent action help you narrow it. The more you can zero in on possible holdings the more effective your actions will become.
Note, I didn't say "put your opponent on a hand." Doing this is like putting blinkers on a horse. Your attention gets narrowed; you focus on this single hypothesis. If you're wrong, you're in trouble.
Your opponents will play a significant range of hands in similar ways. Start with a reasonably broad set of possibilities and let subsequent action strip away the ones that don't fit.
All this is good advice and a foundation for reading hands. But there's a question not asked here:
"What's he not holding?"
Top pros ask this, not true for many low- to mid-stakes players. It's also rarely discussed in the poker literature largely because of an intriguing psychological effect called the confirmation bias.
This bias in human thought, which has been explored in depth by Jonathan Evans of the University of Plymouth in England, is manifested by a compelling tendency to look for evidence that confirms whatever hypotheses we're entertaining and to avoid situations where we might have to disconfirm them.
This bias isn't unreasonable because, logically, it's not possible to prove a negative.
Suppose I assert that there are no such things as unicorns. You doubt me and insist that I prove it. Guess what? I can't.
Every time I look where unicorns could be I fail to see one. You say, "Well, hell man, they were just here but took off when they heard you."
This can go on endlessly.... and the only thing I can do is to try to collect so much data on their absence that eventually you give up trying to persuade me.
But there still could be unicorns.... and if you don't like talking about unicorns here, substitute "God" and you can see how this argument has played out over millennia.
So, to avoid this logical mess we developed a confirmation bias. If we suspect we are right, it's easier (and more satisfying) to uncover data that support us.
In poker, this means that once we've "put you on a (range of) hand(s)," we will look for evidence to confirm our suspicions.
Player A puts B on a big pair. The board comes up uncoordinated babies. B makes a c-bet. If A wants data to support his suspicions, he may min-raise. If B pops him back, A will assume this confirms his read and muck his hand.
When this kind of thing happens you might hear A make a comment like, "I knew he had at least queens, just knew it."
But A may be wrong although the approach he's taking to the hand won't let him discover it. By embracing his read and looking for confirmation he's not entertaining alternatives.
Flip the logic. Let's have A think about disconfirming the big-pair assumption. He might try simply calling B's c-bet. If B has some other holding (A,K, suited connectors), he's unlikely to fire another bullet (unless, of course, he's trying to negate a 'float play' --- but that's another story).
You'll know this kind of thing happened if you hear A say something like, "I didn't think he had a big pocket pair; he just wouldn't have played 'em that way."
You'll virtually never hear such a remark at a low or mid-stakes game. If you do, pay very close attention to whoever made it.
If you're a bit confused, that's okay. Playing a solid level 2 is tricky. It's not just the complexity of the strategy; it's a natural entailment of our psychological make-up.
We're not comfortable forming negative hypotheses that cannot be proven. We prefer to confirm our guesses and we find trying to disconfirm them awkward.
But if you can incorporate this trick it'll be well worth it. You'll get better reads on your opponents and slide another layer into your game.
Arthur Reber has been a poker player and serious handicapper of thoroughbred horses for four decades. He is the author of The New Gambler's Bible and coauthor of Gambling for Dummies. Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker Digest, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Titan Poker. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.
Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semiretired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
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