How To Read Your Opponent in Online Poker
The information that a HUD displays for each of the players sitting at the table with you is invaluable when you’re deciding how to approach a particular hand. Knowing exactly how loose, tight, passive, or aggressive your opponent is can be an enormous benefit for a serious online player.
However, maximizing your profitability at the tables isn’t just about getting the most out of one particular tactic or mechanism. Being a successful player is about building the biggest “edge” possible in any given scenario. Doing this effectively involves combining whatever informational advantages you have at your disposal, interpreting them holistically, and then making a decision.
In traditional poker, there are dozens of physical signals, referred to as “tells,” that players can inadvertently reveal to their opponents. From monitoring the way chips are handled to listening for changes in the tone of voice, live poker players are always on the lookout for subtle signs that betray their opponents’ confidence in their cards.
However, since these signals aren’t visible in online poker, many players completely disregard the concept of monitoring an opponent’s behavior, opting to limit their reads to HUD statistics.
In the interest of maximizing every edge at our disposal, this post takes a look at four “tells” that online players are occasionally guilty of, and discusses how they can be interpreted to our advantage.
Tell 1: The Small Bet
This is probably the easiest tell to understand and one that almost every new player is guilty of making at some point.
When you’re worried about losing money, you want to limit the amount you’re risking. And if you’re certain you’re going to win, you want to maximize your winnings.
That’s solid logic. Except that most savvy players will pick up on this tendency pretty quickly and exploit it.
This is an online tell that you need to back up with evidence before acting on it, though. Don’t assume that a player’s $1.25 bet into a $6.50 pot means they are holding a mid pair until you see the hand play out that way. As soon as you see a bet that’s less than the standard 3/4 or 2/3 of the pot, pay attention to the hand to find proof of a valid tell.
If you can confirm that a particular opponent bets low when they have little confidence in their hand, make a note of this immediately. This is one of the most powerful pieces of information you can have on someone’s playing style. Make it count.
What else do you know about a player who bets this way? It’s a safe assumption that they are new to the game and will in all likelihood have several other weaknesses in their gameplay. Play a standard tight, aggressive (TAG) game against them. Bet for value, don’t get fancy with bluffs and relax if they inflict a bad beat on you. You will eventually win all their money.
Tell 2: The Wait Shove
We’ve all seen this situation. There’s been some pre-flop action and it’s clear that all three players in the hand have decent hole cards. The flop comes KcJcTc. Under the gun bets. Mid position raises. Dealer waits. And waits some more. He’s taking his time to decide.
His timer runs out and his time-bank is activated. Clearly he’s agonizing over this decision. Does he want to risk a call with all the aggression already shown? Is he going to fold his top pair? Time is running out. And then, just before he’s forced into folding, he goes all-in.
Surely if he were holding the nut flush, he wouldn’t have had to agonize over the decision for a full minute? This must be a bluff.
At least, that’s what he wants you to think.
An extremely long wait before a shove is very often a sign that your opponent is holding an absolute monster. Call at your peril. The long wait is meant to give the impression that this is an extremely difficult decision and the villain is using every second at his disposal to weigh up every possible factor.
Yeah, they’re lying. They have you beat, and it’s time to fold your set.
Tell 3: The Check and Instant Raise
Picture this scenario. You’re relatively new to online poker and a new strategy has just occurred to you. Instead of betting when you have a strong hand, do what your opponent isn’t expecting and check. This will make them think you have nothing. Then, when they inevitably take advantage of your perceived weakness, you pounce on them with a raise! They’ll be so confused!
After pondering this approach for hundreds of hands, you’re finally in a spot to use your new strategy. The turn brings your straight and you’re relatively confident your opponent has a weaker hand. You’re first to act, and you check, hoping that your move will pay off. Your opponent waits a few seconds and, sure enough, makes a nice juicy 3/4 pot bet. It worked!
You can hardly contain your excitement and instantly click on the raise button, doubling their bet. How are they going to respond to this advanced strategy you just schooled them on?
Well, if they’re smart, they’ll have interpreted your hasty raise as a sign of strength and folded.
Many novice players are so thrilled when their check has induced a bet that they cannot wait to click on that raise button. This is a tell that you should interpret as a sign of strength. Consider folding your made hand, or call the minimum raise if you’re drawing.
The latter option is especially feasible because a minimum raise will often give you good pot odds to make the call. Read our post on playing a drawing hand if that is the spot you find yourself in.
Tell 4: The Instant Call
When a player is faced with a decision to call, raise, or fold, they have often had sufficient time to consider the scenario they are in. It’s seldom that a player will only start thinking about what they are going to do once the action is on them.
When your opponent calls a bet instantly, it’s often an indication that they have already considered what they would do if you were to bet, and decided that a call was their best option.
What does it mean if a player knows that the best play is a call? It means that: a) Their hand is too strong to fold, and b) Their hand is too weak to raise with.
When seeing an opponent instantly call a bet, it is a relatively safe assumption that they are holding a medium strength hand, or they are on a draw with many outs. Read our previous blog post on playing a drawing hand for more information on defining your number of outs and how that should factor into your decision to call.
One of the most important things to bear in mind here is the texture of the board. An instant call when the flop comes JsQsTs will very often mean that your opponent is on either a straight, flush, or combo draw. If this possibility is in line with the hand range you have put them on, it’s extremely important that your bet size does not give them the correct odds to make the call.
When a player is drawing, you always want to make them pay a premium to see the next card. Never make the decision to call an easy one.
Bonus: Other Minor Tells
In a cash game, regulars will rebuy chips so that they always have the maximum stack size possible. If a player never falls below the number of chips they can have at the table, it’s safe to assume they are a good player who you should treat with respect. Conversely, a weak player will often only rebuy when they run out of chips.
Odd Bet Sizes
Novice players will sometimes bet an amount like $3.41 rather than a rounded number like $3.50 to make their bet amount seem larger than it is. This can often be interpreted as a sign of weakness, if not an outright bluff.
Many poker sites will “brand” players with a visible indicator of the level they have reached on whatever loyalty program the site offers. If an opponent has achieved a relatively high status on this loyalty ladder, it’s safe to assume that they are a regular who takes the game seriously.
Very few fish play more than one table at a time. If you see the same player on several of your active tables, you can safely assume that they are a decent player.
While the obvious application of this knowledge is to exploit the weaknesses of your opponents and to avoid getting into a tight spot with a good player, it is also worth remembering that you can use it to confuse your opponents.
Many players will be aware of these tells and if you are playing at a poker site like Pokerstars, where there is a very high number of excellent players (even at the micro-stakes) it’s always an option to “advertise” one of these tells falsely to induce a specific play.
Another thing to remember is that in both online and offline play, it’s seldom a great idea to risk your stack on a tell. Think of them as simply another tool in your belt when analyzing the spot you’re in. Combine tells with any other reads you may have, your assessment of table dynamics and, most importantly, the hand ranges you’ve put your opponents on.
See you at the tables!