The Ability To Read A Player: An Essential Poker Skill

published on 03/01/10 at 7:52 am

The Ability To Read A Player: An Essential Poker Skill

I have done very well for myself at this game of ours. Yes, I have math skills. Yes, I have discipline. Yes, I have a love and respect for the game. But most importantly, I have the God given ability to read a player. The truth is we all have tells. Yes, I will repeat it. We ALL have tells. Even I, even Phil, even Chris, everyone. I had made a lot of money over the years by applying these skills at the poker table. More importantly though, I have saved a substantial fortune by knowing to lay down what was the nuts on the flop and is now a suicide hand on the turn.

Logic would tell us that this is a very powerful gift for one to possess in a tournament setting. That’’s what I thought too. Perhaps prior to the Internet and the poker explosion this would have been an accurate statement. Unfortunately your ability to read a player will not guarantee that you make it to the first bathroom break at a tournament these days.

In a WPT event this year I decided to enter a satellite. Good practice I figured. It sure was. I started taking control of the table early on as I like to do. People are real tight the first hour, or so, of any tournament, and it is easy to take advantage of the situation. This is where one’’s ability to read is a blessing as it insures that you are not going to get caught with your shorts around your ankles.

In one particular hand I find myself in third position with Pocket Queens. First position called (a novice player), probably a small pair or suited connectors. I raise 4x the BB, fifth and six fold. Seventh position called the raise (a very loose elderly player wanting to teach this bad boy a lesson. Had him tilting a half hour ago when I took him off of mid-set with nothing). It gets to the Button and I get re-raised 3 times my bet (12x the BB). This guy I had a good read on. He was crunched over in a ““Chris Moneymaker”” type position. He was dress like a walking billboard for some poker site I have never heard of and was wearing $3 sunglasses that he had purchased earlier in the day from the last rest area on the Garden State Parkway before the Atlantic City exit. An after-thought. I put this guy on absolutely nothing. He was making a play at a very bad time and was about to get slapped. I decide to come over top with 60% of my chips. Much to my surprise the gentleman in seventh position calls (thinking we will be heads-up) and…you guessed it. The Button comes over the top of me, all in.

Prior to calling him (there was never any doubt in my mind that I would call) I made this statement to him. “I am calling you so that you could learn an inexpensive lesson. When we all see your cards not only will we see that you have absolutely nothing, but if you even have one card in the paint (a face card) I will never play again.” A pretty bold statement, but that’’s how certain I was of my read. The gentleman in seventh position, realizing at that point that I was not just making a play at the pot, he laid his pocket Jacks down (as he later revealed) and the Button opened up his hand to proudly reveal a 10, 6 off suit.

What a read. I was busy getting congratulations from the three tables around us that were rolling on the floor laughing at him and he was busy gathering his things when the dealer flopped a 10, 10, 2. The turn and river revealed two more rags and I was out.

Luckily it was still early enough in the evening so that I could get a dinner reservation at the steakhouse in the Borgatta and made the best of the remainder of my evening. Now, as I sat there going through every hand………every gesture………in my mind I was still confused as to what I did wrong. I played him like a fiddle. It was the read from hell and I nailed it. I went in with the best cards. I was a strong favorite. Yet I am the one that is out.

The truth of the matter is that as much as we do not care for Phil Helmuth’’s antics and attitude he is actually right sometimes. In one of his recent failures he was quoted as saying ““I played it perfectly. I guess if perfect play always won I would never loose a tournament.” Phil’s right. The best players in a tournament are obviously not always rewarded. However, I still did make a mistake. My mistake was revealed to me at breakfast the next day when I was walking into the restaurant and who should I run into at the door on his way out? You guessed it. Mr. 10 6 off suit himself. He turned three shades of grey when he saw me. I extended my hand to him stating laughingly, “”Don’’t worry, I’m not going to hit you.”” He the turned and spend the next five minutes trying to explain to me his actions.

Up until I called the all in he actually thought I would fold. My question was why would he pick that lousy a hand to make a play with? He had an answer I did not expect but a truthful one. He said. ““Listen John, I know I suck. There is not a chance I was going to make it an hour on that table unless I tried to make something happen and even then, I would still probably need to suck out somewhere along the line. I know I could not play with you guys and could not sit around and wait for the nuts all night. I saw you in early position with a another caller that was still upset from the last beat you gave him and I figured if I pressed the action hard enough I can get you to lay the hand down. I never thought you would call.”” This statement not only exposed his inability to play but also exposed the fact that he had no math skills whatsoever not having realized the fact that I had already priced in to the hand. One bad decision and assumption after another.

This is when I realized where I went wrong. It wasn’’t the hand. It wasn’’t the read. It was the way I chose to process all of the information I had compiled on this player. It was early in a tournament. There was a very weak field of players and the good ones stuck out like sore thumbs. I put myself and my tournament at risk against a reckless individual making a bad play and bad assumptions at my expense. After all, I was the Pro and I was going to bitch slap him in front of the whole table and teach him a lesson. I guess I did. I taught him that if he can suck out enough times against stubborn players he too can be a champion. At least that’s what he got out of it.

While at the WSOP main event something very similar occurred to another player. It was day three of the tournament. About an hour into it. Jennifer Harman had just about busted out on the feature table catching a horrendous beat from a straight flush on the river after turning a full. The whole room was still buzzing over that one when I witnessed a hand that made my head spin. The player was a friend of mine that I had played with often. A very success and established internet player having turned Pro a couple of years ago. He found himself in early position with Pocket Aces. He lays down a reasonable sized bet only to get raised by the button. The flop comes A, 4, 5, rainbow. (No, it’s not what you think……wait). With top set my friend is getting ready to push all in with his remaining chips when what should happen? The ESPN cameras come running over to the table. This is customary at the WSOP as they try to get as much “”All-In” footage” as possible on everyone until they see who makes it through so that they had full tournament coverage of those at the final table. My friend does what we all expect him to do and he was surprised to hear the words ““I call”” coming from the other side of the table. The Button turns over his cards to reveal K, 8 off suite. No it’s not a typo…I said K, 8 off suite. The board turns a 6 and the river a 7 and the button is the proud new owner of my friend’s chips. My friend was still in total disbelief two days later when I saw him after I busted out on abad beat on the bubble.

So where did He go wrong. Well we know he played the hand perfectly. He also processed the information correctly; unlike I did in my earlier example. So what beat him? Well in this case, it was the situation. I spoke to the brother of the genius that made the call who revealed to me that 16 of his relatives had come up from North Carolina to witness Jeff in his moment of “fame”. Yes, “”Jeff is going to be on TV you know.”” Said his brother. As soon as those cameras came running over Jeff was in Heaven. Here was his big chance. He was going to be on TV… on ESPN, worldwide coverage, All-in against a Pro at the biggest tournament in the world. He was not going to pass up on that opportunity, even with a double gut shot. Jeff got what he wanted and fulfilled his destiny. He busted out after the break to another guy that played a double gut shot just like him.

So what’s the moral of the story? Obviously, reading is a good thing and it could get you in to trouble with the type of “”talent”” that frequents the tournament circuit these days. If at all possible, try not to put your tournament at risk with someone that has nothing to loose but time.

John “The Greek” Leontakianakos is a professional poker player with 27 years of experience.

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