How to Get a Read On Your Opponents in Poker

As you're well aware by now, playing killer poker is all about gathering the information you need to make strong educated choices at the table.

The first chance you get to gather information about someone comes before they even sit down. You need to start gathering information as your new tablemate is walking to his seat.

Everything the new player does provides information as to who he is and how he's going to play.

How Does (S)he Buy Chips?

The first thing any new player does is buy some chips. Up to now, I'm betting that you've never paid any specific attention to this. Here are a series of questions you should be trying to find the answer to when a new player sits at the table.

  • Does the player have a roll, or just a few bills? A professional poker player has a roll, and brings enough money for a few buy-ins.
  • Are the bills 20s or 100s? All serious poker players carry $100 bills exclusively. You simply don't have enough room in your pocket to carry that much money in $20 bills. One common reason someone might have a few hundred in $20 bills is that they just got them out of a bank machine.

    You won't find any serious poker players who keep their roll in the bank. Are the bills in their wallet, or in their pocket? If the bills come out of a wallet, then it stands to reason that the player went to the bank before he got to the poker room.

    Bills stuffed into a pocket were most likely taken from an ATM in the casino.
  • How does the player handle his money? Does he get his money out hidden under the table, or does he pull it in plain view of the other players? If someone is conservative in how he handles his cash, then he'll likely be conservative in how he plays poker.

    If on the other hand he pulls out a few thousand dollars for a $200 max buy-in game, making sure everyone sees it, chances are he's about to play a wide-open game.
  • How does she trade her money? Does she toss the bills away like they're meaningless, or does she look reluctant to let go of them?
  • Does he buy in for the maximum amount? In a lower-limit game, almost anyone buying in short to a No-Limit game is playing outside of his bankroll, or is hoping to double up quickly. (This is no longer a firm rule when you get into the world of high-limit No-Limit poker.)
chip stack

How Does (S)he Stack Chips?

  • How does he take the chips out of the rack? If you have plenty of experience taking chips out of a rack, you can do it with one or two hands, leaving the chips standing in neat stacks. If you're new you'll dump the chips, or lay the rack flat and pull them out.
  • How does she stack her chips? This is my favorite tell. Everyone who stacks their chips 10 high is new to the casino. They aren't comfortable with stacks 20+ - they're worried they're going to fall over.
  • Professionals who have had plenty of time on a table with lots of chips are well used to building mighty towers of chips well over 20 high.
  • How are the chips arranged? Mike Caro talks about the arrangement of chip stacking, so I'm rehashing his advice here. If a person stacks her chips in neat stacks, color pips aligned, chances are she will play a very conservative game.

    If the player has random chip stacks and heights, or just plays out of a pile, expect a loose to wild game.

How Comfortable Are They at the Poker Table?

  • How comfortable is the player at the table? Think back to the first time you ever walked into a serious cardroom. You were scared, just like the rest of us. Anyone new to poker, new to the live game, will be scared, and will feel uncomfortable.
  • How many other players does the player know?
  • Is he alone? Did he come with a few friends?
  • Does he know everyone working and playing in the room? If your new tablemate knows all the staff and they know him by name, that should set off a few alarms for you.

    But remember, not everyone who plays poker every day in the same room is any good. Some of my favorite fish are regulars in the cardroom I play at.
Allen Cunningham
Profiling's easy if you can recognize the person from TV.

How Much Does He or She Know About Poker?

  • How much about poker does the player make it obvious that they know? Someone who truly knows a lot about poker has no need to try and convince a table full of people that he knows a lot about poker.
  • How much does the player actually know? Does the player have his money out to post, or does the dealer have to explain to him what a post is? Does the player try to buy the button?

So make it your mission to pick up on subtle (and not-so-subtle) cues like this next time you're playing live. If you have a decent idea how a player is going to play the game before he even sits down, you're going to be much more confident contesting a pot against him.

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