Texas Hold'em is a game of partial information.
The more you can acquire, the better you'll play.
Everything that happens at a poker table - whether you're in the pot or not - is one more piece of information you can add to your collection.
You Need Information
The vast majority of poker hands you'll be dealt actually require little to no thought at all. If you're following the advice from the first article in this series (play fewer hands), you should only be playing somewhere in the neighborhood of 15% of all hands.
This means 85% of the time you're dealt in, you're folding. Of the 15% of hands you're playing many of them are going to be simple, one-action hands.
Either you raise your KK and everyone folds or you're ready to play your 99 when a player moves all-in ahead of you.
Only a few hands you play will really require some thought. And only a fraction of those will force you to make a very difficult decision.
When you do need to make those difficult decisions, you'll need as much information as you can - and you can gain that while you're auto-playing.
What to Look For at the Poker Table
In short: everything.
Everything a player does at the table is a clue to how they play and what kind of decisions they're going to make.
Watch how they talk, how they sit. Watch every hand that plays out even if you're not in it.
Take notes (mental notes in live poker obv.) anytime someone does something out of the ordinary. Note how much money they brought, how they bought in.
The more you take in, and the more you consciously catalog, evaluate and remember it all the better chance you'll have at making the right decisions when the time comes.
How to Classify Your Poker Opponents
Pay attention to how much each player is raising before the flop and from what position.
When they get called, how often do they continuation-bet after the flop?
Right away you want to start classifying your opponents as aggressive or passive, loose or tight.
There's an old saying that if you can't spot the mark at the table in the first 10 minutes, you are the mark.
You need to figure out who the weak players are and paying close attention is the easiest way to do it.
Making the Hard Choices
When you're in a hand that requires you to make a difficult decision, you need to quickly and accurately compile all of the information you have about the hand and the players involved.
Every scrap of information you have is one more piece of the puzzle. The more pieces of the puzzle you hold, the easier it will be to see the big picture.
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.
When a player thinks you're paying attention to them, they'll also put on all kinds of shows. Figure out what they want you to do, and do the opposite.
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 a great skill for a winning 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.
The Hands You Fold
If you want to be a consistent winner in poker it's imperative you give it 100% of your attention, 100% of the time. And that's not just in the hands you're in.
Sometimes the hands you've folded can be even more important. An example to help clarify that point.
Troubles with Kings
You're playing $1/$2 No-Limit and pick up pocket kings in the cutoff. A couple players limp before you throw in a $15 raise (standard for the table you're playing at).
You get just one caller from mid position, a forty-something guy wearing a very dirty and faded Denver Broncos hat.
Flop: 9 9 J J 4 4
Broncos checks to you, you throw in $25. He calls.
Turn: 6 6
Broncos checks again and you put out another bet, this time $65. He calls.
River: A A
Broncos instantly goes all in for $250, $40 more than the pot. You think about it and are worried about the nut flush draw having caught an ace, a set or a random two-pair but can't figure out why he would have check called the latter on a dangerous board.
If he did hit his ace he still wouldn't be sure he has the best hand, making his stop-and-go massive bet feel like a bluff. What do we do? If we had been paying attention during the previous hands at the table our answer would be rather straight forward.
5 Hands Ago
While buddy Broncos was on the button he got into a hand that would have given you all the information you need to make the correct play in your hand. Under the gun raises to $12, you fold some sort of trash hand and buddy Broncos makes the call, heads up to the flop.
Flop: 8 8 9 9 3 3
Under the gun bets out $20, Broncos raises to $50, UTG calls.
Turn: A A
UTG checks, Broncos bets $75, UTG calls.
River: K K
UTG checks, Broncos bets $100, UTG raises all in for $225. Broncos thinks for a while then folds 88 face up, a surprised UTG takes down the pot.
If you had paid attention to this hand you would have noticed that Broncos is a scared player who is only comfortable with the nuts and not willing to risk his stack. The only thing that beat him would have been a better set or a couple of clubs for the back-door flush.
Although Broncos had no way of being 100% sure he was ahead, there are too many hands which play the pot this way he has beat (lower set, two pair, top pair, bluff). Not to mention he was getting just under 6:1 on his money, it should have been an easy call.
Any player tight and weak enough to lay that down is never bluffing on the hand we're playing against him. Having paid attention to this hand will save us $250.
The Bottom Line
The more details you pay attention to at the table, the more hands you watch, reflect on and analyze at the table, the more likely you will be to make the correct decision when your own money is on the line.
The most profitable players are constantly studying the game as well as their opponents' approach to the game.
In the end Phil Ivey probably doesn't know any more stats or random statistics than most geeks with a shelf full of books.
But he does pay more attention and pick up more information at the table than any other player in the game. Pay attention, even if you're not sure what you should be paying attention to.
Just watch the hands, make a note (mentally) about who's betting, who's calling and what hands they ended up having after making those actions.
Your subconscious brain will pick up far more information than you would believe, giving you the intuition you'll need to make the correct plays down the road.
Just watch, observe, reflect then play. Poker is a thinking man's game; it was never meant to be played idly.
Making the correct decision in these few key moments is what separates the losing player from the winners.
Check out the video below for more:
More on How Not to Suck at Poker:
- How Not to Suck at Poker: Play Fewer Hands
- How Not to Suck at Poker: Play in Position
- How Not to Suck at Poker: Count Your Outs
- How Not to Suck at Poker: Learn Basic Odds
- How Not to Suck at Poker: Pay Attention
- How Not to Suck at Poker: Have a Proper Bankroll
- How Not to Suck at Poker: Stop Bluffing
- How Not to Suck at Poker: Stop Talking So Much
- How Not to Suck at Poker: Track Your Results
- How Not to Suck at Poker: Talk to Better Players