Four Hand Reading Mistakes to Avoid

Pete Clarke | Poker Theory and Concepts

Some poker concepts can be taught quickly and applied without too much practice, but others take a lifetime to master. Hand reading is one of those skills that we never quite perfect but get better and better at each day we practice. By coaching several one-to-one sessions every day, I see the same hand reading errors all the time. Although this list is far from exhaustive, these are the top four things to avoid when putting your opponent on a range of hands.

Being too Specific

It is usually the sickest reads and the biggest bluffs from televised poker that lure the eager viewer into taking up the game. It is all too tempting to try to mimic this glory by putting your opponent on one exact type of hand and playing accordingly. The problem is that when you go this specific in most online and even life scenarios, you commit the sin of peeling away most of the potato to remove the skin.

Imagine Villain’s range as a potato. As he takes various actions, the skin falls off as hands are shed from his range that no longer make sense. When a solid player opens UTG, he does not have 8♣4♥. When he then calls a 3-Bet from out of position, he no longer holds the worst hands in his range like A♦J♥. This process continues until we have peeled away the hands that Villain would not play this way and left ourselves with a good educated guess at his range – the flesh of the potato. When we jump to a conclusion such as: ‘I put him on the flush draw’ or ‘he probably has a medium ace here’ we are accidentally peeling away perfectly consistent hands that could also be in his range. We have got rid of the skin, but also most of the potato!

Try to range Villain by considering all the hands that are still consistent with his actions in the relevant situation. Picking just one hand might make you feel good if you’re right, but it’s a random guess and will lead to very inaccurate play on your part.

Being too Vague

This is no better than the leak above. When a student is too vague with hand reading, he usually says something to the effect of: ‘He will have draws here.’ The problem is that on some boards, there are far more strong draws than on others. Take a flop like 6♣4♦2♠, for example, in a spot where we have opened UTG and been called by the BU. Sets and medium strength overpairs are a far bigger part of Villain’s range here than any draw. A draw like 87s is possible but is weak, and a tiny part of our opponent’s range. Contrast this to a flop like 10♥9♥5♠, which offers many stronger draws and less good pairs for our opponent’s range. These two flops play so differently that vague ranging will get you into a lot of trouble. Try to consider how abundant draws are, how strong they, and what other hands are in Villain’s range before you make a play based on a lazy, vague impression.

Including Previously Ruled out Hands

Good hand reading is chronological. If a hand is inconsistent with Villain’s flop action, then it shouldn’t suddenly pop into his range on the river. When students are guilty of this sin, it is usually because they have run out of brain RAM. The task of ranging Villain is so arduous on the river that it pushes out the previously drawn conclusions from the flop. Sometimes, those conclusions simply weren’t formed in the first place. This demonstrates the importance of doing some hand reading on every street, even if your decision with your specific hand seems obvious.

Imagine that we open UTG with A♠Q♣ and BB calls. We c-bet J♦7♣4♦ and Villain calls. The A♦ turn goes check/check and Villain leads for just under the size of the pot on the 8♠ river. The overly specific hand reader puts Villain on some random hand and makes a random choice as a result. The vague hand reader might claim that Villain has ‘bluffs’ without thinking about what these are. The hand reader who fails to build a logical street by street picture might say that Villain could be bluffing with a missed gutshot like KT or QT, but why would he call this on the flop? Those gutshots only existed after the flop bet went in.

The correct analysis here is that the average opponent will not get here with enough air for us to bluff catch this bet. The problem is that by calling our flop c-bet, Villain’s range filtered to exclude potential river bluffs like K♠5♠. Unless he is correctly turning a pair into a bluff here, it will be hard for him to reach a balanced bluffing frequency. The turn and river card improve too many of the unmade hands that called our c-bet.

Projecting your Own Thought onto Villain

Good hand reading requires the ability to step back and see Villain as who he is. This requires an awareness of player types. The pitfall of projection occurs when a student decides that because he himself would never play X hand in Y manner, that his opponent cannot either. ‘But there is no reason to bet second pair on the river’ says the student ‘so I don’t put that in his range.’ This student is ignoring the fact that Villain is a 56/45 player who has been erratically shovelling money into pots with no clear purpose. Of course, it is perfectly consistent for him to make a random bet with a mediocre hand on the river, even though he is only getting called by hands that beat him. We must be very careful not to assume that recreational players or even weaker regulars are thinking along the same lines that we are. In fact, even a stronger player might have a thought process very different to your in a complex and difficult spot.

Try to hand read empirically. Ask yourself: ‘How does the average player of this variety play his range in this spot’ and avoid thoughts like: ‘well he knows this turn card is good for my range so….’ Unless you know the player very well.


There are many more tweaks you can make to your hand reading protocol, but these should keep you going for now. Stay tuned for a more advanced hand reading article in the future.

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