Especially when it comes to playing online, the most important information you will get in a hand of poker is the betting story. If you can only pay attention to one thing, make it this.
Regardless of a player's style or chosen line on the hand, all poker players will attempt to do one of two things in every hand they play:
- Maximize the size of the pots they win.
- Minimize the size of the pots they lose.
This means even if a player is slow-playing, at some point she will attempt to pump pots with monsters, and a player with a weak hand will try to control pots through blockers and checks.
Being able to follow and decipher the betting story of a hand will give you the greatest clues as to your opponent's holdings, allowing you to play back at them correctly.
How to Tell (or Read) a Betting Story
The concepts of betting story and putting your opponent on a range are closely linked, as putting your opponent on a range is done primarily by following the betting story. You make money in poker by forcing your opponents to make mistakes. Your opponent is going to be evaluating your range, and it's your job to keep them off track.
This sort of deception is the basis of higher-level poker. To properly read and evaluate a betting story, you have to know what kind of player your opponent is first. That information is the cipher.
Before we go any further, take a look at this basic example:
Your opponent is a mostly solid but predictable player. He plays every hand by the book in a very tight, averagely aggressive style. You raise pre-flop from the button; he calls from the big blind heading to the flop heads-up.
On the flop your opponent checks, you bet half the pot and they make an easy call.
Same as on the flop: your opponent checks, you bet half the pot and he makes an easy call.
At this point it's become clear that the most likely hand your opponent could have here would be a flush draw. The betting story, along with his style, makes anything other than a flush draw a distant possibility.
If we take this same scenario, but change the betting story only slightly, the most likely hand will change dramatically:
You raise pre-flop from the button, he calls from the big blind heading to the flop heads-up.
He bets out three-quarters of the pot; you think briefly before calling.
On the turn he checks to you, you bet the pot and he makes the call.
In this scenario your opponent's most probable hand changes from the flush draw in the last example to a top pair, top kicker scenario. His checking the turn doesn't make much sense if he has a truly strong hand, which means he's more than likely trying to control the pot size with his one pair.
Take a scenario where a player check-calls the flop, then bets out the turn (otherwise known as a stop and go). This simple move can mean very different things depending on the player making it.
For an amateur player it is often a sign of great strength. He's trying to disguise how strong his hand is by checking the flop.
For a professional this can be a bluff, great strength, a blocker or even a value bet. The player is always the cipher to the betting story riddle.
Every Poker Action is For a Reason
Every action made at the table is made for a reason; it's your job to decipher what the reason is in order to be able to counter the action appropriately.
The textbook "correct" way to play a hand is the way in which the hand will statistically make the most money. For example, if you have a very strong hand, you should bet it. If you have a drawing hand, you should check it. This is ABC poker, and the best way to play at a table full of beginners.
Once you start playing with players who are rarely making mistakes in their game, playing straight ABC poker will not make you any money. When you bet, they fold; when you check, they bet. You have to use deception to make money.
But it's not as simple as just doing the opposite of ABC play ... because if ABC is the correct way, playing all your hands the opposite way is incorrect, and you'll lose money. So what's the solution?
You need to play enough hands "incorrectly" to keep your opponents guessing, while still playing enough hands "correctly" to not upset your balance. If you always bet junk hands hard, you'll lose money. If you never bet junk hands hard, you'll never make money on the best hands.
You need to mix up your hands enough to keep your opponents guessing and making mistakes. Use what you learn from your opponents' betting stories to make quality value bets, and to dump hands headed for disaster.
The better you get at reading the situations, the thinner you can value bet, and the more money you'll make.
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