The whole point of observing other players at the poker table is to figure out their motivations for playing the way they do. Players often make incorrect poker plays, but they have reasons for doing so. If you can figure out the reasons, you can zero-in on their cards, and sometimes this allows you to win a pot or two that you couldn’t have won otherwise.
One example, I was not involved in a hand during a live $1-$2 game where I saw a player limp from early position. This guy was in too many pots to begin with, and was showing down the usual weak aces and sometimes-suited connectors that a more experienced player wouldn’t be playing. I folded in late position and 4 or 5 players saw a flop.
This flop came disconnected, rainbow, and Ace-high:
A♥ 8♣ 3♠
The early position player made a bet and everyone folded except one person. The turn didn’t change much with a nine, and both players checked. Once again on the river, the action went check/check, so I got to see a showdown. The early position player showed Ace-four, not suited, and took down the hand. Someone said “nice hand”, to which he replied “I hated my kicker, that’s why I didn’t bet anymore. I just made that flop bet to see where I was at”.
“Betting to see where I’m at” is a common action among inexperienced poker players. Knowledgeable players know that this isn’t one of the reasons to bet, but many players still employ this strategy. “Betting to see where I’m at” is another way for a player to say “I know my hand is weak and I would be happy to just take the pot now.”
The key observation on this hand is that the guy had top pair, but was at least experienced enough to know that anyone willing to continue on this dry, draw-less board had a good likelihood of having also having an ace, with a better kicker, so once his “betting to see where I’m at” bet was called, it was time to shut down.
I got to use this information a bit later, when the same player limped into another pot. This time, I was in the big blind, and I checked my option holding 9♥ 7 ♥. We saw a King-Ten-Six flop, with two hearts. I had a flush draw and an 8 made me a gutshot straight. I checked, and the limper made a bet, a very similar size to the “bet to see where he was at” bet that he made earlier. All other players folded back to me.
K♥ T♠ 6♥
I had two options at this point. Since I knew his hand was on the weak side, I could make a checkraise right here and probably take the hand down. Alternately, I could just call this flop bet, and check again on a blank turn. If this is truly another “bet to see where I’m at bet”, then there’s a good chance that he acts the way he did in the first hand, and checks behind. This means that for the price of one flop call, I’ll get to see the turn AND river without adding more money to the pot. I’ll have two shots to hit my hand. Finally, if he checks the turn and confirms my suspicion that he’s weak, then I’ve got a good bluffing opportunity on the river when my draw misses. So I just called the flop bet.
The turn wasn’t a card I needed but helped my hand a little bet – it was a black seven. I now had a pair, which gave me a few more cards that could catch a higher pair. I checked, and like I suspected, my opponent checked back.
K♥ T♠ 6♥ – 7♣
The river didn’t help me, and I had a hand with a little showdown value, but more importantly I felt like my opponent didn’t like his hand much. I felt like could make a decent bluff here. What hand was I representing? Well, as the big blind in a limped pot, I could have any two cards. My story didn’t have to be all that believable. The pot was around $25, and I confidently and quickly slid 5 red chips out to the middle, making a pot-sized bet. My opponent spent very little time folding his hand.
The “betting to see where I’m at, then shut down” guy is one to look for – he’s telling you “please bluff me”. Another type of player to look out for is the “look at what a good poker player I am” guy. This is the guy that feels the need to show you he’s capable of folding decent pairs.
…he’s telling you “please bluff me”…
In another $1-$2 session, I watched a player make a raise and then continuation bet on an ace-high flop. His opponent announced “raise” and then tripled the bet. After a few seconds though, the original raiser explained “I think I better fold this one”, and flipped one of his cards over as he mucked, showing an ace.
These players think they’re showing off their discipline and poker skill, but to me, they’re announcing “please bluff me out of pots on the flop”.
Later in the session, the same player made a preflop raise, and I called from the button with 44. I missed my set on an Ace-seven-eight board, but this player made the same size continuation bet that he made earlier, and I thought a bluff had a decent chance of working. Like the prior opponent, I tripled the bet and got a fold. He didn’t show his ace this time, maybe he had a pair under the aces and didn’t feel the need to show off. No matter, I was happy to take down the pot with fourth pair.
Keep your eyes and ears open for players who are all too happy to tell you how they play poker. The information often gives you the edge you need to take pots away from them.