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Playing Against Poker Villains

The word ‘villain’ is used here as jargon to mean an opponent in a poker hand against you. To complete the terminology, you are the hero and everyone else at the table is a villain. This short article will be about how to absorb information about the people you play against. I hope to present a brief introduction and indicate a useful way to think about your opponents in somewhat general terms.

You may have heard people say that the people they play against are bad players, or that they are weird and unpredictable. Or, even more commonly, that most people they play against play the ‘same’. This is the most dangerous misconception you can have, since it precludes the notion that villains are predictable.

First and foremost villains are people. And people are, even the seemingly crazy ones, inherently predictable. In fact, if I play against you, then I will see you as a villain, and I will hope to be able to predict your moves to some degree. Even if the people you play against do not think about their own games in any structured manner, that does not change their predictability from your point of view, and from a practical standpoint. Essentially, all players have some heuristics or invented plan that they use (for a whole variety of reasons) and regardless of if they are aware of that or not, you can use it to your advantage. 

This short article will be about how to absorb information about the people you play against. And this is indeed the first thing to note; how they are as people. You do not have to be sociable, but be observant. Examine how they dress, how they carry themselves. Do they look comfortable? Are they in a suit? How do they hold their cards? Are they friendly? These pieces of information are very important. Someone’s profession typically has a profound impact on how they play, for example. Someone who earns, or acts as though they earn, a lot of money will typically be looser in a lower limit game (or even in higher limit games). However you must be careful to use some sense in these observations. For example, someone who acts as though they have a lot of money may not be comfortable in the game or they may be naturally cautious.

A teacher, doctor or accountant may display a tighter game than a lawyer or stock trader for instance. Also, the way someone dresses is not something that person typically thinks about. If they work for a large business with a dress code it might be impractical for them to change out of their work gear, and a video game tester may come to the table in a suit. They key point is to take as much of this information in as possible and build up some image of how this translates into a view of them as a person: their tendencies, their likes and dislikes, and so on. This will help you to imagine if they are naturally cautious or timid, or perhaps they are risk takers and love to gamble. Or more commonly they will be somewhere in-between. One of the most important results of all this consideration into them, the person, is that it will help your recall. Try to give them nicknames based on your observations. This will also help your memory, especially if the nickname brings to mind all the previous observations you have had relating to that person. Try not to think too much about poker while you are taking this step.

It is perhaps worthwhile at this point to mention that at first this will seem a huge task and a drain on your mental energies. I suggest that if you feel this way, then concentrate on one or two players only. With practice you will be doing this analysis instinctually and then you can move on to taking in information from most if not all of the table. Try not to worry too much if you can’t do everyone at once, or if you are having trouble remembering all the details and concentrating on your own game. Do the best you can and always try to do better with each session; as long as you maintain this philosophy and do not become nonchalant, the speed and multitasking capability will come with time.

The whole area of analyzing a players game is too vast to be covered in much detail here. Regardless, this is not the immediate goal of your observations. The immediate aims are twofold:

Learn enough so that the player sticks in your mind.

Perform some basic classification.

For the second point, simply think of the classical classifications of players: do they play loose, or are they a little tighter than the average player? Are they aggressive, or do they prefer to play it safe and display passive tendencies? Do not allow yourself to put people on the fence of these basic classifications, but do not demand that everyone be either completely loose or completely tight. Instead, one tactic is to use a number from 1 to 5 for each, where 1 is (for example) extremely loose and 5 is extremely tight. Then, do not allow yourself to use 3 for anybody. Similarly, you can use numbers for the passive and aggressive spectrum. Try not to use words to describe these attributes, since they will be harder to implement in practice (when we talk about how to use all your information in a probability calculation), less precise and harder to remember over time. (Was that guy ‘really fucking tight’ or just ‘ultra tight’ ?)

Keeping with the numbers example, you may want to take written notes for each player you have a close eye on. Every time they do something loose, you might want to slightly increase the looseness number and each time they do something tight you might want to decrease it. Set up a system for this and practice before you go to a cardroom and put it in practice. Internet poker is good practice for this habit; keep your eye on a player and then try to measure how loose, tight, aggressive and passive he or she is as you play. If they display some abnormal (as determined by your observations) behavior then it is better to note this specific behavior and remain faithful to your previous observations (which should outnumber this occurrence) than drastically alter your number for this player. More likely, they are suffering from tilt or some other circumstance that you can look out for and become ware of; one of these is of course tilt.

An advantage of paying so much attention to your opponents is that you will become much more aware of then an opponent is starting to tilt. You will be surprised how often a villain will broadcast his or her intentions to start playing out of character long before they do anything extremely unprofitable. Of course, this helps your game, but as always take everything into account and exercise caution if the situation is not clear, in the sense that you feel you have a greater chance of being in error than the odds that you are getting from the situation.

If all of this sounds like a lot of work, it is. Poker is not an easy game to play. However, when you are not in a hand, you do have a lot of time to think. And this is how you should spend it; when you are playing a hand, you should be using the information you have gathered, and thinking about what the best move is given all the information you have up to that point. When you don’t have a decision to make, you should be spending all your time gathering this information. 

Another word of caution. Many people place a lot of stock in physical tells. I’d suggest that you mostly ignore physical tells. If someone is flushing (as in going red in the face) it could be due to a multitude of reasons, and these could (critically) be contradictory. For instance, they could be embarrassed about being in a casino at all, they might be nervous about making money or losing money. They could be on a draw or they could be hoping that you don’t make your draw. They could have a monster and be fearing the worst or they could be bluffing with nothing. Similarly with sweating.

The only physical tells you should pay any attention to are those which have been repeated and with the same patterns in terms of the game situation. For example, many people tend to look away or act disinterested if they wish to appear non threatening. If they continually do this with big hands then perhaps you can use this information. Unfortunately many people also look away (usually up and to one side, left or right) when recalling something from memory. A villain may do this if they are trying to remember what they should do in this situation or even if they are trying to remember how much they bet on the football game on the plasma tv behind you. Physical tells can be extremely profitable but should be used with the utmost of caution. In the final analysis, put the least weight on physical tells.

Finally, the most weight should be placed upon betting patterns. If they raise, and they are in early position (recall the article on position) and they are not extremely loose or suffering from some other condition, then it is likely they think they have a decent hand. Take this into consideration.

If the flop brings a flush draw and they bet half the pot, and you have seen them make similar sized bets with a flush draw in the past then it is likely they have a flush draw. If they check and are more passive by nature then this is more of an indication that they have a flush draw; conversely if the passive player bets at such a flop then perhaps they have a made hand already, such as a pair. If they raised preflop in middle or early position and the flop is low then they could have an overpair. Take everything into account and give betting patterns the highest priority when making your decision.

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