You already know that studying poker is important if you truly wish to grow as a player and compete at a higher level. One of the most valuable resources when it comes to studying is not a new video course or a classic book – it’s actually your own poker hands.
Reviewing the hands that you’ve played and dissecting your own lines is one of the most invaluable activities you can do between sessions to self-improve.
And this isn’t about passive-study where you review a hand you got sucked out on and grumble about how bad you run. This is about active poker study sessions where you review your exact hand AND tangential lines to get a well-rounded exploration of spots that impact your overall winrate.
To help you get more out of your own hands, I’ll walk you through my process that you are free to use and modify to your heart’s content (and if you modify this process in a cool way, please let me know!)
Writing Down Poker Hands
To actually study hands away from the table you are going to need to write them down. If you already do this, great job! If not, here are some easy ways to do it:
1. Use tracking software like PT4 if the site you plays on allows it AND saves hands to you computer
2. If tracking software is not an option, use of the suggestions for live players…
1. Use an app like ShareMyPair
2. Or use my Live Poker Player’s Journal to jot down hands. It’s available directly from Amazon.
3. Or write them down in an organized way digitally in a Google doc, memo, etc.
However you decide to write your hands down, just make sure it works for you and that you are able to do so quickly and efficiently. I will say this – as a coach I’ve seen a LOT of players write down hands but totally botch what to write down. They write sloppy notes that miss important details that are imperative for studying the hand deeply.
So here is a quick list of things to 100% make sure that you write down when saving a hand to review later:
♠ The date, poker room, and time of day
♠ Your position
♠ Your stack size
♠ Your hole cards (include suits!)
♠ Preflop action (include all involved players, their positions, their stack sizes, raise sizes, and any reads when applicable)
♠ The flop cards + suits (no need to write down the pot size since you can calculate that later when reviewing the hand assuming you keep proper PF notes)
♠ The flop action (if there are bets or raises please include the sizes!)
♠ Turn & river cards + suits + actions.
♠ Showdown (if applicable)
♠ Any immediate questions that you had after the hand concluded.
This may seem like a lot, but it’s quite simple. For instance, here is an actual note from one of my live hands:
HJ ($280) opens to $15 – he’s awful and already pitched 2 buyins. He’s almost certainly leaving soon.
BUT ($225) 3bets to $50 – just lost a $600 pot and is not thrilled. Very active preflop but has not 3bet at all so far.
I am in the SB (cover) and call with As Kh (I have been very TAG since the table opened an hour ago)
HJ calls too.
Flop 8d 6c 5s
HJ jams $230, BUT snap-calls (like, seriously almost beat HJ into the pot)
I hate life and fold.
HJ shows T8
BUT shows QQ
Qs: Run math on 3bet and likely losing HJ. Run math on flop fold and see if I had proper odds to call. The snap-call by BUT made me think Ace-high was almost nill and that his range was pair heavy.
It has all of the info I need to go back and review the hand later including table image & reads, actual hole cards, stack sizes, etc. Once you have solid hands written down, it makes studying them a million times easier…
Reviewing Your Poker Hand (First Pass)
I suggest studying a hand a couple of times, but the first pass should just be a face-value review. Use this time to write down exact pot sizes for each street, calculate SPR, and analyze the hand as it was played. By doing this first pass it’s not uncommon to see right off the bat that your bet sizing was too small, that you missed a key piece of information when choosing your line, or that some part of your play just seems “off”.
On the first pass make sure to look at the math. If you need to use a fold equity calculator, a poker EV calculator, Equilab, or even Flopzilla – spend the time to run the math. That is what off-table time is for…to use these tools enough that you can internalize them and develop a more usable real-time intuition for the next time you find yourself in such a spot.
After you run the math, spend a moment and really analyze your line. In the hand I shared above, I had two major inflection points:
1. Should I just 4bet and get it all in preflop?
2. As-played preflop, should I call the flop shove?
Those are the questions I would first look to answer when studying this hand and math is required for both. But hand reading is also required since I couldn’t gauge the EV of calling the flop shove without first building some proper ranges for both of them. So use this time to practice assigning some ranges and jot those ranges down so you can reassess them later (or share them if you choose to post the hand in a forum).
Anytime you cannot provide a clear and logical explanation for a line or size, you know it’s a spot where you need work. Ask yourself why you made each play, each action, and chose each size. If you constantly answer with weak one-sentence answers or cannot even come up with a rationale – you know you have an area in your game where you need work (continue reading for help on that!).
If your hand doesn’t have such clear inflection points (or if you aren’t able to spot them yet), pause each time you act in your hand history. Then ask yourself the following:
♣ Do I still think the action I took in this hand is best? If so, why? If not, what line might be better?
♣ If I made a bet or raise in this spot, would a different size be better? Would a larger size generate more value, or add extra pressure as a bluff?
♣ If I made a passive action in this spot, would an aggressive action be more profitable? (This is especially useful if you aren’t used to looking for check-raises, preflop 3bets, turning pairs into bluffs postflop, etc.)
♣ Who had range advantage on each street? Is this the kind of spot where my opponent would care about that?
♣ If I lost this hand, is there really anything I could have done to avoid it? Or is it just a cooler?
♣ If I won this hand, did I really play it perfectly or would either complete line changes or improvements in details like bet sizing have made it more profitable?
These questions will get you down the right track. Make sure to write down your answers so that you can review them later (maybe in a few months) and objectively measure your improvements over time.
Finding Your Own Answers
But but but…what if you don’t know the answer? What if you aren’t able to identify your leak (if any) in this hand? What if you find a leak and have zero idea how to go about fixing it?
I’m so glad you asked!
There are 3 major things you should do once you identify an issue in your strategy. At the end of the day, reviewing hands is more about finding strategic leaks and exploring other tactics than it is about solving a single poker hand. So use whichever of these if you get stuck when reviewing a hand:
1. USE A FORUM (free)
There are lots of great poker forums, but I’m super biased and whole-heartedly suggest the Red Chip Poker forum. Once in the forum, start a thread and post your hand. While posting it, make sure it’s legible, that all of the details are easy to read, and that your questions are clearly highlighted. If you TRULY do not know where you made a mistake, just post the hand and say “hey all, I played this hand and shared my thoughts on each street. I have zero idea where I went wrong. Any suggestions?”
Not all forums are as kind as the Red Chip Poker forum, so make sure to have some thick skin and don’t take anything personally. Just get active, ask questions, and share your hands when tough spots come up.
2. FIND ARTICLES, VIDEOS, ETC. (free & paid)
If you were able to spot a leak or two in your game through reviewing your hand, it’s time to find some information about the leak and start patching it. To this end I suggest two things:
a. Do a Google (and/or YouTube) search for “SplitSuit XYZ” where XYZ is your leak or question. I’ve made so much content it’s rare that at least something doesn’t come up…
If you don’t find something on the first look, change the search slightly. Maybe try ‘AK’ instead of ‘Ace King’ or ‘double barrel’ instead of ‘turn CB’. Google is great, but it’s still building out its poker terminology knowledge.
b. Do a general search on Google, YouTube, or in the Red Chip Poker forum.
It’s rare that at least something hasn’t been written or created about whatever leak or question you have. If you try to find an answer and come up blank, post it in the forum and chances are you’ll get pointed in the right direction.
3. ASK A COACH (paid)
If you try to find the answer yourself and just cannot patch the leak – it might be time to find a poker coach and hire them to pick their brain. This is the most costly option, but the bigger the leak the more valuable this option becomes.
The one piece of advice I can get is to either have a lot of hand examples about the same leak ready for the coach – or wait until you have 3-5 leaks identified before you set up your first coaching session.
Advanced Hand History Breakdown (Second Pass)
Most players stop at this point. They’ve already reviewed the hand as-played, they’ve identified their own poker leaks in the hand, and they’ve gone out and found answers to help them avoid repeating that mistake again in the future. But the real students are just getting started…
I treat each hand review as the entrance into a magical world of exploration and challenge. My goal is to use the skeleton of the hand but change the variables to allow myself to study not only the spot as it happened – but also the spot as it could have happened.
This forces me to take a well-rounded approach to my study time and actually begin understanding spots from a wholistic point of view. It’s challenging but is where you should strive to put your off-table time.
You may be wondering WTF I am going on about at this time. Well, in short, I take the original hand and then begin changing a single variable each time and reviewing the hand through that lens until I am satisfied. Some of the common variables I look to change are:
♠ Effective stack sizes: How would my line change if the starting stacks were doubled? What about halved? What about tripled?
♠ Player type: What if villain were a TAG instead of a fish? What if villain were a competent LAG instead of an ultra-nit? How does that change their range and thus my line?
♠ Hole cards: What if my hand were something else entirely? When I do this I typically pick up to 5 other hole card combos that would reasonably fit in my PF range and then explore the hand out.
♠ Multi-way: What if this HU pot actually was 3 way? What if this 5 way pot was actually HU?
♠ Board cards: What if the board texture was different? Which cards/textures massively impact the line vs which would change things very little?
♠ Single postflop actions: What if villain check-raised the turn instead of just calling? What if villain bet into you on the river instead of checking behind?
♠ Single postflop sizing: What if you OR villain used a different size on a postflop street? At what point does the bet size start to really impact each of your ranges?
This essentially allows you to take a single hand and turn it into hundreds; each exploration/rep allowing you to get one step closer towards finding real strategic leaks in your game that you can fix.
Of course, this also forces you to do a tremendous amount of hand reading work and consider other lines which benefits you massively at the end of the day. And if done correctly, it’s easy to not only find your own leaks – but to find the leaks and exploits in large chunks of your player pool.
From Poker Hands To Study Routine
Truth be told, it has taken me multiple days to study single hands. Tough hands can take me hours to complete the first pass in a way that satisfies me (although truthfully I’m a nit when it comes to this lol). But once I start peeling back the onion, changing variables, and purposefully challenging myself with the toughest of variable changes – it’s easy to see this process take days of thought.
The good news is that this kind of exploration forces you out of your comfort zone and gets you putting in the right kind of work. Even if you cannot come up with the optimal answers right away, working towards them is an invaluable skillset that will benefit you in and out of poker.
If you don’t get enough chances to play poker, or if you forgot to write down enough poker hands from your previous sessions, there are tons of resources you can use to find hands to start studying.
♥ Use the forum. There are hands from live play and online games as well. Just find one you like, and remember to share your analysis with the forum and ask for feedback on it if you aren’t 100% sure.
♥ Use any of my Ask SplitSuit videos. In these poker videos I break down player’s hands so this gives you a chance to compare your answers to mine in the first pass. After the first pass, start changing some variables and get to work.
♥ Use poker news sites. This tip is especially useful if you play tournaments. Look at poker news sites that offer live reporting. Live reports tend to offer hand replays that you can use as a first pass. Sites like PokerNews should do the trick, along with the hand matchups presented on CardPlayer.com.
♥ Use poker workbooks. My workbooks offer loads of exercises that you can use to do first pass hardcore technical exploration. These are especially useful if you feel too much bias when exploring your own hands or if you simply need a layout to help move you through hands in a professional way.
Remember, a single hand history is just a basis of exploration. Even a hand that is boring or seemingly useless at first-glance can be made interesting with a few variable tweaks.
Now it’s time for you to get to work. This may seem like a ton of work, and to be honest, it is. But remember that you don’t become a world-class player overnight. It takes tons of study, exploration, challenging your own assumptions, and using every hand as an opportunity to improve.
I was blessed early in my career to have serious poker players and thinkers around me 24/7 to bounce ideas off of and to dissect hands with. And it’s those same hand breakdowns that helped me create a strategy and complete with exploitative tactics.
I have no doubt that if you study your hands the right way, and keep challenging yourself, that you can develop a +EV strategy for your own game. Just keep working, and of course…good luck & happy grinding!