Putting a poker opponent on a hand

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Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2008) in Casino Player.


Among the most cherished abilities hyped by experienced poker players is called “putting your opponent on a hand.” This means you use deductive skills to rule out certain holdings based on your opponents actions.

What remains are hands that the opponent could logically play. Sometimes, there’s only a single hand that fits the scenario, and when that happens, you’re putting an opponent on a specific hand.

But putting opponents on hands with confidence is a sure path to poker insanity. Opponents don’t play poker like chess. Your poker foes are emotional creatures and should be treated as such, assuming your objective is to make profit.

The quiz

A poker expert I admire once gave me this impromptu jacks-or-better draw-poker quiz. “What should you do in this situation?” he began, then provided the details of the action.

You’re in the dealer position. A pair of jacks or better is required to open the pot. You hold a pair of aces and everyone folds to you. You open for the fixed $50 limit. All six players to act next fold, but the player to your right calls and draws one card. You draw three and make four aces.

You check, trying to trap the opponent. He’s obvious drew one card to a straight or flush, because being in the second-to-last position, he wouldn’t have risked checking and seeing the pot go unopened with two pair or three of a kind. Okay, that makes sense.

Bluffing?

He bets and you figure either he connected or he’s bluffing. Obviously, you raise with your four aces. Now your opponent reraises. What should you do?

I knew I was supposed to say “fold,” thus impressing the expert with my keen powers of logic. But I said, “I’d call almost every time.”

“That’s wrong!” the expert chirped. “Your opponent knows that you know he’s drawing for a straight or flush. So when you raised, he knows you drew three to a pair and now can beat a straight or flush. But he reraised! That can only mean one thing — he made a straight flush. You must fold.”

Logic examined

So, what was wrong with the expert’s logic. Nothing. Only his judgment was suspect.

You see poker opponents, even experienced ones, fall off the logic tracks quite regularly. When you try to put them on the hand they “should” have, you frequently cost yourself money.

In this case, I’d call. It’s because the chance that an opponent got caught up in the excitement of the action and raised once too often or that he simply didn’t think it through clearly or that he was trying a desperate reraise bluff combine to overwhelm the chances of him making a straight flush.

And even if he were more likely to hold a straight flush than any other type of hand, the pot is still many times as big as the size of the raise. So if I call in every such instance, I only need to win once in a while to earn a profit.

Next level

Plus, even if you agree with the logic and give your opponent credit for thinking it through correctly, he could very well take it to the next level and figure you might fold to his reraise, just because you’ll assume he has a straight flush. So, if you think your opponent is astute enough to figure it through to one level, why isn’t he capable of figuring it through to the next and bluffing?

All around you at poker, opponents are winning pots with hands they “can’t possibly have,” if you look at it logically. In hold ’em it’s a mistake to think an opponent couldn’t possibly hold 7-5 to make a straight, because he wouldn’t play it from that early position. He would.

Even experienced players barge into pots with unexpected hands. Just look at the showdowns and you’ll quickly see what I mean. With skillful players, weird hands are infrequent, but not impossible. With average and weak players, weird hands are common.

So a key mistake in poker is to put your opponents on specific hands. You must play as if some hands are more likely, but all hands are possible. — MC


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Mike Caro

Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/mikecaro FaceBook: http://www.facebook.com/caro.mike Known as the "Mad Genius of Poker," Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority of poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full biography at Poker1.com.

9 thoughts on “Putting a poker opponent on a hand”

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  1. What’s your stance on playing with new people?

    Would you rather sit on the sidelines and not play them until you figure them out or would you rather poke and prod them to find out their tendencies?

    1. Hi, Jonathan —

      Unfortunately, there’s no real answer for you here. You can cost yourself income by observing and not playing. But you can do the same by playing, if the game is unprofitable. So, it’s a judgment exercise regarding whether to watch or sit down immediately with players you don’t know. Personally, I usually sit down, but I don’t recommend that to everyone.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

      1. Well, I didn’t exactly mean sitting out of the game, but rather not taking their action until you get acquainted with them. But it’s pretty much all the same. I’ve seen it mentioned that you should treat the game as a spectator sport at first, but some people would rather agitate new opponents to find out more about them.

  2. I only play rags from early position when the voices tell me to. I used to ignore the voices and smartly fold the rags, only to have the flops completely connect with the hands. It doesn’t happen often, and I’m not crazy – I don’t actually hear voices, but sometimes I do feel “encouraged” to play stupid hands. I think you may call it a “whim” or “impulse” but it seems like much more than that to me. Maybe it’s just my subconsious mind realizing it’s a good time to make a play, or maybe it’s something darker. Do you ever “hear voices”?

  3. If he had made the most likely hands, Flush, Straight or fullhouse, he would have did the same thing with you drawing 3 cards. Who wouldn’t call his raise? The so called expert?

  4. This can be merely described: Once you play withinside since numerous moves since usually ahead of the flop, prior to deciding to bet, the ball player assesses great if their hands is able to do to win.

  5. Yet another insightful article. Thanks, Mike.

    I think another big mistake players make in regards to putting opponents on hands isn’t necessarily how specific they are in their deduction, but rather how much weight they let that deductive ability carry in making key decisions; such as ignoring pot odds, etc. But I agree with you completely. Whenever I hear a player say, “You can only have X,” and then fold, I make a mental note to float and bluff that player at the first opportunity.

    1. Hi, Darren —

      I especially like your thought about making “a mental note” and using the fact that the opponents are extra analytical against them later.

      Thanks for making your first comment and joining our Poker1 family.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

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