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Poker Strategy | Advanced Poker

Rating your opponents in Poker

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>Poker is described several ways; a game of incomplete information, a game of money played with cards, or in No Limit, a game of people played with cards. Sun Tzu said, "Know thy enemy."
The question is, how can we evaluate our opponents quickly and accurately while sitting at the poker table?

When playing against the same opponents in a regular poker game, we should have some type of notes. And online, the note feature, available on most poker sites, allows us to quickly annotate their play, but often we are sitting with opponents we have never met. During a tournament we might change tables several times and encounter a completely new set of opponents each time.

How can we get inside their mind? The problem breaks into two parts - live play where we can see our opponents, and online where only an active chat window and betting patterns are subject to observation. Let's look at online play first since it has the fewest number of considerations and those apply to live play as well.

Online, Most players aren't very active in the chat window, and even those that are, seldom reveal much. If an opponent rants about the poor play of the "Donks," or comments on how badly they play, I automatically make a note: "Novice, will overplay big pairs and may lay down draws to a bet." These guys seldom have a good grasp of odds and pot odds, and tend to believe that pocket Aces should always win. Some also tend to TILT easily.

The other clue is casual friend chat between a couple of opponents who have played together often, "How well did you do in the MTT yesterday," or "Have you had a good week?" These guys play often and based on the questions and answers you should be able to make an accurate note on their experience.

Multi-tabling is a sure sign of some skill, and a relatively tight style. Any player on several tables just doesn't have the time to spend on marginal hands. Take the time to browse the lobby and identify those opponents that are playing on more than one table. If an opponent is in three or more games, you should adjust your play accordingly. The size of the stacks is often a good indicator of skill. For some reason it seems the better players tend to accumulate more chips than the others. After a few hands you should reevaluate this "tell," but it is usually safe to assume that a player with a big stack is at least competent.

I evaluate my opponents on several parameters.

Level of Thinking 0-5 is simply what are my opponents thinking. A level 0-1 player doesn't even consider what cards you may be holding. Bluffing is -EV. Level 2 players are susceptible to bluffs, and Level 3 players will bluff you. After that it is a game of "What do you think, I think?" You should note that odd levels are about your hand and even levels are about their hand.

Level 0 "I know nothing." DO NOT BLUFF
Level 1"I have a good hand."DO NOT BLUFF
Level 2"What do you have?"Can be Bluffed
Level 3
"What do you think I have?"Will Bluff
Level 4
"What do you think, I think, you have?"Caution
Level 5
"The few, The proud, The really dangerous...."Will sometimes out think themselves

Starting Hands 0-4 isn't quite a comparison to Sklansky's groups. What I want to know: Do they play A-x? Will they call a raise with K-Qs? Do they play tighter from early position, etc? You should always pay attention on how they play A-x, (like counting Aces in Black Jack.)

S/H 0
"Any two."Careful when putting these players on a hand.
S/H 1"They were Suited."If they look like they are on the flush draw, they probably are.
S/H 2Pairs, suited connectors, Qxs, and any two face cardsThey play selective hands and can usually be read easily
S/H 3Players that play S/H 2 but fold to raisesTarget for blind stealing
S/H 4
Premium starting hands with modification for position and other action. This combined with honesty can give you some accurate reads.

Aggressiveness 0-3 is simply how often a player bets/raises. You should never enter a pot against a very aggressive player unless you are ready to risk it all. The best way to play against a maniac is often a fold.

Agg 0
"I like to see the flop cheap."
Calling station
Agg 1
"I only raise with a good hand."Alarms, when this player bets pre-flop
Agg 2
"Aggressiveness is good."Trap ‘em
Agg 3
"If I'm playing, I'm raising."Will cost you to play, Isolate

Honesty 0-3 is the measure of the opponent's deceptive play. You might note that 0 indicates a player that doesn't recognize their own hand. They aren't deceptive when they bet a small flush. They really think they have something. This is a measure of their play, not what they say. Many very deceptive players blow it when asked what their hand is because at heart, "They cannot tell a lie."

Hon 0 "I know nothing."
Neither honest nor deceptive, just ignorant
Hon 1
"I cannot Tell a lie."Bets good hands. Checks, or calls bad hands and draws.
Hon 2
"I seldom bluff."Will steal/semi-bluff, and trap
Hon 3
"The truth is for suckers."Are often Agg 3. TRAP ‘em

Position 0-3 really indicates the sophistication of the player and how well they modify their play based on their position in the hand.

Pos 0
"This is my seat." No modification in play
Pos 1
"I'm in early position."Might abandon more marginal hands in early position.
Pos 2"I modify my play based on my position."Player - often raises with more marginal cards late.
Pos 3
"I'll play any two cards from the button."Tends to overplay position. TRAP

Voluntarily in Pot 9-1 (VIP) is simply how often they put money in the pot, and is based on the percentage of times they put money in the pot. 9=90%, 5=50%, 3=30% and 1=20%. Of course most players fall between 2 and 5. Always be prepared to modify this because over the short run even the loosest player will lay down several hands in a row and the tightest player will get several premium starting hands. I simply try to update my estimate occasionally as play progresses, the value is not precise.

Okay, that is the criteria. How do you do it? Online, I use a spreadsheet. There are also a couple of pretty good software HUDs (Heads Up Display) that automatically read your poker client and display on your monitor for easy reading. Aces Up, with Poker Tracker does a pretty good job, and Poker Spy comes to mind immediately. Both give you a lot of information about the hand and your opponents. I use the spreadsheet because I can't use the HUDs when playing live. I feel online play should help my live play and relying on a HUD would weaken my live poker skills. Here is an image of my spreadsheet.

If you would like to give it a try, Download .

I put in some examples. As you can see the Donk, the super aggressive, deceptive player and the player pose the biggest danger, but there are weak spots. The Novice and the Weak Tight player provide most of our +EV and even the Rock can be had, but they give up their chips very slowly and never without a fight.

As I stated above there are HUDs that provide most of this information for you and most online poker clients allow you to take notes. I just think that your online play should support your live play and these evaluations should be habit and done almost automatically. Think of this as a training aid. This chart helps you note the evaluations but also organizes it in a simple way to aid understanding and retention. The spread sheet doesn't store information so you should always transfer data to the poker client notes. Then you'll have a head start the next time you meet an opponent.

When playing live, you use the same criteria for evaluating the competition, but taking your notebook or even a PDA to the poker table, might be a little much, but few players get upset if you have a sheet of paper and take a few notes, as long as it is quick and unobtrusive. I suggest you print out the modified version of the spreadsheet and take quick notes between hands. It is designed for the use of a quick single letter notation. Here is the image of the modified sheet.

Of course this is printed out, and you'll use a pencil to make notations.

Finally those additional considerations when playing live:

Stack size is still important and the hesitation, still counts but you have several other areas that can be evaluated since you can actually watch your opponents. Dress can be a pretty good indicator. Sex? Are they dressed like a poker player? (Suspenders are a very reliable clue.) Poker players dress comfortably. Are they dressed like a tourist? Are they dressed like their favorite poker pro? How often have you walked into a card room and encountered four or five unabombers at the tables? Are they dressed like a derelict? Age, how old are they? Are they married and is their wife in the area? The answers to all of these questions along with their stack size should give you a good indication of their style and skill at the table.

Their demeanor at the table is a good indicator of experience. How do they handle their chips? Do they understand betting mechanics? Are they comfortable? In a short period of time you should know if they play regularly and if it is at this poker room. Are they Internet poker players are do they usually play live? Is most of their experience from a home game?

All of these answers help you develop a more accurate picture of your opponent, and inevitably winning his chips. The more sophisticated they appear, the more likely they are poker players. Physical Tells are generally nonexistent online, but in live poker they provide a wealth of information about your opponents. When playing online, poker players don't have to worry about tells in their normal game and telegraphing their actions. Deceptive players always act weak when strong and strong when weak. Don't quit playing simply because you have no cards. Play just as attentively without cards as you do with cards. Most of your time should be spent observing your opponents to get that little edge.

Many of you might not like my system, but if not, you do need to develop your own. I would be interested in any you might develop.

(One of my first Poker mentors once told me: "If we both have $1 and trade $1 bills, we still have only $1 a piece, but if we each have an idea and trade ideas, we both have 2 ideas.")

Good Luck


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