How to Read Cards in Texas Holdem?

Texas Holdem Poker Tips – Card reading

To the uninitiated, card reading is nothing short of a mystical derby skill. Using some unfathomable sixth sense, the best derby players in the world can decipher their opponents’ hidden hands and make unimaginable bluffs and calls.

While card reading may seem like a superpower beyond the grasp of mere mortals, the truth is the exact opposite. Card reading is a science derived from logical reasoning. A derby player observes data on how a player plays, compares this data to his past experience to speculate on how his opponent will play in the future, and then uses these speculations to parse his opponent’s behavior and hit the hands he may hold.

Of course, experience cannot be taught. But I can show you a few baselines for making reasonable speculations about your opponent. Then, I can derive a simplified method for judging, if not getting an accurate hand, at least an approximate inference of his hand strength, which is the information you usually need when making decisions.

Basic speculation

For my simple reading method to be effective, a few basic guesses about my opponent’s game play must be true. This is not absolute, but the more accurate they are in describing the opponent’s play, the more effective the method will be.

The first presumption is that the opponent will not make a thin value bet. In other words, he is fairly sure that he has the best hand and that you will call with a worse hand before he even tries to value bet. There is no clear standard for this “thin” value bet, but the more timid your opponent is, the more effective this read will be.

The second key assumption is that the opponent will not turn a completed hand into a bluff. If he thinks he has a chance to win the showdown, then he will try to showdown cheaply rather than try to get you to fold. When he bluffs, it is because he thinks he has no chance or very little chance of winning the showdown.

The third and final key presumption is that your opponent will not chase a listening hand when the odds are clearly poor. The immediate odds may be unattainable if one is hoping for potential odds or a chance to bluff you later, but he will not call a pot-sized bet on the turn with one-third of his effective chips with only a kayfabe call and no showdown value.

Only you can judge how these speculations apply to specific opponents, or to the game in general. My personal experience is that these speculations are true for most players in low to medium level no-limit hold’em online games and are sufficient for the following reads to work.

Hand Sorting Method

The basic idea behind this simplified reading technique is not to speculate that your opponent has a specific card or two-card combination, but to narrow him down to one or two based on three main types:

  • Overcards – This is the hand where the opponent wants to play a big bottom pot. This doesn’t mean he’ll bet or raise every time he has a chance (some players like to slow play), but it means he’s confident in his hand and is sure that many worse hands will pay him.
  • Cards with Showdown Value – In this case, the opponent believes he has the best hand, but he won’t try to build the floor. Usually the player will control the bottom pot with these hands, passing when he can and calling when necessary. Some may also make small bets or raises as a blocking bet, or to “see where they stand”.
  • Hearing/Bluffing – A hearing hand is a hand that needs to be raised or bluffed to get a reasonable expectation of winning the pot. This refers not only to an obvious hearing hand, such as a four-card flush, but also to any hand that currently has little or no showdown value. Depending on their playing style and the value of their hearing hands, players may play their hearing hands fast or slow.

Again, we are not being absolute here. There is no clear criteria for a “thin” value bet or how strong a hand should become a bluff. But the more your opponent keeps these distinctions, the more obvious they are to the smallest or largest degree, the more effectively you can classify his hands.

While these are broad categories, they can still give you a lot of deuces teaching and guidance on how to play your own hands. Excluding even one type of hand from your opponent’s range can change your river decision from calling to folding.

Example 1: He has a super strong hand

In a $1/$2 NLHE Texas game, the table folds to you, you raise to $6 on the button, and the big blind calls. Now, it looks like he should have no overcards, or he would have reraised. You presume he either has a hearing hand, such as a flush draw, or a showdown value, such as a small pocket pair or a weak flush ace.

The flop looks good for you: K-8-9, all in different suits. Your opponent checks, you bet $10 in a $13 pot, and he calls. At this point, your opponent’s chances of having an overpowering hand are still not high. You think he’ll fold K8 or K9 preflop, and reraise with AA and KK, so you’re only worried about 88, 99, and 98. There aren’t many possible hearings: the only thing you can see your opponent having at this point is JT (T for 10) or 76.

The river card is a T. Your opponent checks, and you check. This card may raise your opponent’s hand, but your biggest concern is that if you bet again, he may fold almost any pair that is worse than yours.

The river card is a useless 2. However, your opponent blows you away by making a pot-sized bet of $33. Some players will feel compelled to call at this point because they have top pair top callers and think they have lured their opponents into bluffing by passing on the turn. But what are the chances of the big blind getting a hand that needs to be bluffed at this point?

Let’s not forget that we presume he has showdown value and is unlikely to have a hearing or slow-playing overcall. But this river bet completely rules out the showdown value type of bet. Why would he bet an underdog with a hand that tries to showdown cheaply? It might make sense for him to make a value bet with a worse king, but if he really had this hand, you know he would make a smaller bet.

This means he has a listening or overpowering hand. Previously these cards were only a small part of his range, and now they become his most likely hands. But recall that the very few listening hands he may hold are only 76 and JT. The former now completes the straight, and the latter gets the second largest pair with showdown value. Therefore, it makes sense that only the overcards are available, possibly a slow-played dark three or a straight or two pair completed on the turn. Folding is the correct way to play in the deuces technique.

Example 2: He can’t have overcards

In a $1/$2 NLHE poker game, the button opens the pot with a raise to $6. He has about $400 in chips and you have more than him. You call with 98s (s stands for suited, meaning the same suit). The flop is K-7-6, all different suits. You check, he bets $8, and you semi-bluff raise to $25. He calls.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t provide much information about the type of hand he might have. He could have called with any middle 6 or better, so a showdown value hand is very possible. This is also likely to be a good time to slow play a superpowered hand, so a dark three is also a possibility. The opponent might even call with a weak hearing card like a kashun or an ace high (most of these cards actually lead you, though the opponent might not think so) in hopes of taking the bottom pot behind.

The turn is the 4, which also brings a possible flush draw. You check, ready to fold the hearing card against most bets. Your opponent then checks. Now it’s time to rule out some of the hand types in his range. If he calls on the flop with a hearing card, he is planning to bluff. You gave him the opportunity, but he didn’t bluff. So while it’s not impossible, he doesn’t look like he’s holding a listening hand.

Is it possible that he has an overpowered hand? It’s definitely not possible for him to slow play at this point. There aren’t many players who would refuse to bet with overcards when the pot is so small, the effective chips are so large, and there’s only one betting street left. He had the opportunity to build the floor, but he didn’t use it. Not to mention the fact that the board now has several other listening hands that he needs to think about.

Now it looks like he is holding a hand that is trying to showdown cheaply. The river card is another six and the board comes up in pairs. You check again, preparing to lose to a hand like 97 at showdown. To your surprise, your opponent makes a small bet of $25 with a bottom pool of $63.

We’ve already determined that it’s almost impossible for him to check the turn with two pair or better. He might have a pair and then get three on the river, but his bet is also too small, not to mention the low likelihood of a three.

It’s unlikely he feels like he still needs to bluff, most likely he now thinks he holds a better showdown value hand, like KT or something, and deserves to make a small value bet. In either case, he is unlikely to be able to afford a big overcall-raise. You raise to $125 and your opponent folds.

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