Hand Reading is the Most Important Poker Skill

By Sky Matsuhashi
July 12, 2020

Hand reading is the process of visualizing a player’s pre-flop range of hands then logically narrowing that range through the streets based on their actions. This helps you make profitable calling, bluffing, and value betting decisions because you have a stronger read on the possible hands your opponent can hold.

Hand reading is the most important skill because to do it effectively, you must consider every bit of information available:

  • The type of player you’re facing and their tendencies
  • The specific actions of the hand (calling pre-flop, check-raising the flop, etc.)
  • The board and future cards
  • Stack and pot sizes along with bet sizes
  • Position
  • Table or tournament conditions

By utilizing all this information, skilled hand readers make better decisions. This results in more players exploited, more bad situations avoided, and ultimately more profits at the table.

hand reading

Hand Reading Example

Here’s an example of hand reading and exploiting your read.

You’re in a 7-handed game and it’s folded to you in the middle position (MP). You decide to open-raise to 3.2bb with AcKs. The hijack (HJ) folds and the (cutoff) CO player calls (let’s just call him Villain). Everyone else folds.

Villain is a loose-aggressive player who you have lots of experience against. Before the flop hits, let’s visualize his pre-flop calling range.

Open-raising with AKo and getting one caller

Open-raising with AKo and getting one caller

Poker’s Ultimate Question

To build his range, we must ask ourselves Poker’s Ultimate Question:

“What are they doing this with?”

I call this the Ultimate Question because you can ask it any time your opponent makes a play and the answer will help you understand their range and guide your decision.

So, because he’s loose-aggressive and chose to NOT 3-bet, you can presume he isn’t holding JJ+ or AQ+. You make this presumption because of your history with Villain. However, you believe he can call with all the other suited Broadway hands and the strongest off-suit Broadway hands. He’s also calling with all pocket pairs 22-TT along with suited-connectors and gappers 65s+ and 75s+. He can also call with every AX hand along with K9s and Q9s. Here’s the pre-flop calling range you visualize for Villain:

Villain's preflop calling range

Villain’s pre-flop calling range

Your AK is well ahead of his range, so this is a pretty good money-making opportunity. That said, you are out of position and Villain could use that against you, so be prepared.

The Flop

There’s 7.8bb in the pot on the flop, and the 7h 9c As hits the board, giving you top pair top kicker. You hit a strong hand so you make a 5bb continuation bet for value, and Villain calls.

The flop of A97r hits and you cbet

The flop of A97 rainbow hits and you c-bet

“What are they doing this with?”

First, Villain is a loose-aggressive player and wants to win your entire stack. But he just called, so you can presume he does not hold any strong raising hands like two pairs or sets. So, A9, A7, 97, 99, and 77 can be removed.

Next, you believe Villain will call with any top pair hand, so you keep all other AX hands in his range. He’s capable of using position against you, so he’s calling with all other hands that hold some equity in hopes of improving on the turn, or possibly bluffing if you check to him. So, he’s also calling with medium pairs like TT, 9X, 88, and 7x. He’s also calling with all gutshot and open-ended straight draws with hands like JT and T8. But, because it’s a rainbow board, there are no flush draws available just yet.

Here’s the narrowed calling range you put him on:

Narrowing Villain's range on the flop

Narrowing Villain’s range on the flop

The image above shows you exactly the hands he’s calling with. But this is really tough to visualize as you play, so I often revert to thinking about his continuance range in terms of hand strengths:

  • Flop calling range: All top pair hands, underpairs, and straight draws
  • Against this weak calling range, your top pair top kicker is way ahead.

The Turn

The turn brings the 7d, making the board a rainbow 79A7. You decide to check and Villain checks behind.

Villain checks behind on the turn

Villain checks behind on the turn

“What are they doing this with?”

Using Villain’s tendencies and the board, his check shows weakness and he would’ve bet to earn value on this turn card, so you can remove all 7x hands from his range. He would’ve also value bet with the strongest AX hands, so you can remove AT-AJ. All other hands from his flop calling range would check in hopes of improving on a free river card.

Turn checking range: top pair hands, weak pairs, and straight draws.

Narrowing Villain's range on the turn

Narrowing Villain’s range on the turn

The River

The river brings the 3s, making the final board a rainbow 79A73. None of Villain’s draws improved on this river card, so based on your read, you hold the winning hand.

Value betting the river

Value betting the river

You decide to make a small 1/3 pot river value bet of 6bb’s into the 17.8bb pot. Villain can call this bet with any weaker AX hand and maybe even a pair of TT or 9X. Your turn check along with the small river bet shows weakness, so he might think he’s good with these pairs. He might even decide to raise as a bluff, against which you’ll happily re-raise for even greater value.

Villain calls and shows A6s, awarding you a 29.8bb pot.

Villain calls and turns over A6o

Villain calls and turns over A6o

You can see the power in hand reading as it allowed you to earn some additional river value. If you had checked, it’s likely Villain would’ve checked behind to see showdown cheaply with his top pair weak kicker.

The Hero in this hand isn’t seeing “monsters under the bed” and isn’t scared that Villain might have AA or 33 or 97 or A7 because all of those strong hands were removed by logically making reads on Villain’s actions through the hand.

Take Action

Hand reading is a skill that’s developed through purposeful practice.

So, the next time you play, put your opponent on a pre-flop range of hands based on all the information available. Then through the streets, remove hands that don’t logically fit their actions and practice making exploitative plays based on your read.

It’s tough and you’ll face some setbacks, but be disciplined and keep at it. Eventually, hand reading at the poker table will become second nature to you.

For more great coaching, strategies and tips from Sky Matsuhashi, check out his poker training site, The Poker Forge. Here’s our review.



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Sky Matsuhashi poker author
Written By.

Sky Matsuhashi

Sky Matsuhashi is the creator of the Smart Poker Study Podcast. He has authored 4 poker books including ‘How to Study Poker Volumes 1 & 2’, ‘Preflop Online Poker’ and ‘Post-flop Online Poker’. As a poker coach, Sky is dedicated to helping his students play more effectively, earn more money and be 1% better every […]

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