Hand Reading in Poker

Hand reading, also called hand ranging, is the process of assigning an opponent a logical range of hands from their actions. This guides your own behavior at the table in order to be +EV in this situation.

Hand reading in poker is likely the closest any of us will get to becoming a detective. We are modern-day Sherlocks sitting around the poker table deducing what our opponents have and, if we’re doing it well, making money from it!

Being able to figure out an opponent’s range and make good decisions accordingly is one of the main factors that sets apart winning and losing players, and today we will show you how to do it.

What Is Hand Reading in Poker?

Hand reading is the act of narrowing down the range of hands your opponent has based on the previous actions they have taken in the hand. We start with the range we think they would raise/call preflop, then whittle that range down based on how they play post-flop, to inform our decisions.

What Is a Hand Range?

A range in poker is the collection of hands you or your opponent would play in a certain way. For example, when you raise UTG, there are many hands that you could be dealt that you would raise the same way – those hands would be considered your ‘range’.

Range Notation

When people talk or write about ranges there’s a shorthand notation people use to denote multiple hands rather than having to say every single hand. Below is a table with examples and explanations of the most common notations.

Poker Range NotationMeaning
22+Pair of Twos, or better
T9o+T9 offsuit, or better
J8s+J8 suited, or better
KJKJ both suited and offsuit
A2-A5Hands between A2 and A5 but not above
Examples of poker hand range notations.

Here is an example of a poker hand range matrix that you will often see variations of. They show what hands call for what action in this particular strategy.

How poker hand charts work
How poker hand range charts work!

How To Read Poker Hands Using Hand Ranges

Poker is a game of limited information, being able to infer any piece of information we can from either our opponent’s actions or the board texture could be valuable in gaining an edge.

We need to take information from various sources to build an accurate range for our opponent and be able to make more precise hand reading decisions based on those factors.

Player Position

The position a player raises from gives us a great starting point for building a range. As long as our opponent is positionally aware, we can define their range based on the position they play from.

Early Position Hand Reading

The earlier position an opponent raises from, the more defined their range is likely to be. We know from our look into preflop play that we need to be tighter in early position. The percentage of hands we play goes down and therefore the number of hands to consider is lower and easier to manage when hand reading. 

For example, we know a positionally aware opponent isn’t going to be raising a hand like 75 UTG so we don’t need to consider it at all in the hand. We’re mainly going to see a lot of high card hands so it’s easier to tell at a glance which boards are going to be good or bad for our opponent.

Late Position Hand Reading

When we get round to later positions hand reading gets a lot more difficult, especially in single raised pots, because of how wide you’re able to profitably raise or call from these positions. In the previous example, the UTG range had a lot of high card hands so it was easy to tell which boards were good/bad for them, however, on the button a good opponent will be playing all parts of the deck. 

It will become a lot harder to see which boards are good for our opponent based on flop texture alone so we’ll have to rely on other pieces of information we can gather.

Betting Patterns

The next thing we look at to narrow our opponent’s range once we’ve considered preflop action is the betting patterns of our opponent post-flop. When hand reading we need to consider things such as the sizing, the frequency, the kind of boards they’re betting on – and try to notice any patterns. If we’ve seen our opponent play before then we will hopefully have already picked up on some of these patterns.

An easy way to analyze these patterns is to think in terms of hand categories.

For example, if you’re playing in a game and you see someone always checking a flush draw after raising preflop, think about how that changes the makeup of their betting range when they do bet. It’s reasonable to assume that if they’re not betting their flush draws then they’re not bluffing enough, so we can play tighter against that opponent’s bet than we usually would.

Another example would be where you see an opponent betting big when they have two pair or better and betting small when they have one pair or worse. We can play super exploitatively against an opponent like this as they’re telegraphing the strength of their hand with the size of their bet. This is something a lot of bad players do, perhaps not as transparently, but it’s something you should be on the lookout for as it makes hand reading much easier.

Tells

We can break down tells into two categories: physical and gameplay. Physical tells are going to only be applicable to live games whereas gameplay tells can be detected both live and online.

Reliable physical tells are very hard to find as it requires complete focus on how your opponent is acting throughout the hand, then you need to be able to map any physical actions to hand strength which is tough when not every hand goes to showdown. Things to look out for that are common tells amongst players are:

  • Shaking – a classic indicator of strength
  • Splashing chips – throwing chips aggressively into the pot is a classic reverse tell, they’re trying to portray strength but are actually weak
  • Protecting their cards – An extra willingness to protect their cards usually means they don’t want to let them go!
  • Freezing – Bluffing is a daunting prospect to some people, they’re scared of getting caught so they will stay as still as possible, frightened of doing anything that might cause you to call.

Gameplay tells are a little easier to spot as they don’t require as much focus to identify. 

The most likely gameplay tells you’ll see at lower stakes are sizing tells – usually “bet size = hand strength”. Simply put, it means the better a player’s hand is, the bigger sizings they use. You’ll see this to varying degrees, especially in live poker and micro stakes online games, so being able to identify it and exploit it is extremely profitable.

Another tell that’s a little harder to interpret is bet timing (i.e., how long it takes your opponent to make their action). This is very player dependent but there are some conclusions we can apply across the board when we think about it logically. For example, we bet a flop of 976 after raising from the button and our opponent in the big blind instantly calls.

Because they didn’t take any time to think about their decision it’s reasonable to assume that they don’t have a very strong hand as they would have at least considered raising. Similarly, it’s reasonable to suggest they don’t have a very weak/marginal hand as they would consider whether or not they want to continue in the hand with such a holding. Therefore it’s likely our opponent has a medium-strength value hand/draw based on their timing tell.

Playing Style

The style in which each player plays the game is going to inform the kinds of hands they play preflop and the actions they take with different hands post-flop. Knowing the style your opponent plays gives you a headstart in being able to hand read, as you’ll be able to make more accurate assumptions of their range.

Recent Hands

If you want to maximize your profits every time you sit at a poker table you need to pay attention to everything going on (even when you’ve folded)! As tempting as it might be to scroll mindlessly through Twitter, your opponents are out there giving you free information just by playing their hands. Watching how your opponents play hands can give you valuable insight into their overall strategy, which can be a great help if you’ve never played against them before.

Here are some questions you should be asking yourself when watching your opponents:

  • Do they usually limp or raise preflop?
  • How do they play their premium starting hands?
  • Are they tight or loose?
  • Are they aggressive or passive?
  • How do they play their strong hands?
  • How do they play their draws?
  • What size do they usually bet?

Once you can start to answer these questions about an opponent, it becomes a lot easier to counter their strategy. For example, if a player usually bets their strong hands and checks their draws then we know to be cautious against bets unless we also have a strong hand, and we can charge our opponents to draw if they check.

Player History

Player history goes beyond any one session that you play with a person and represents how a player has played over days, weeks, possibly even months of play. The more data you have on an opponent, the more you can accurately assess how they play the game and adjust accordingly.

Any player can have a bad day where they tilt off a couple of stacks while playing maniacally, and it’s tempting to let the more memorable days color your opinion of a player. However, it’s important to take stock of how they’ve played over your whole time playing with them and use that to influence your decisions rather than any one incident/session.

Poker Hand Reading Examples

Let’s have a look at an example of a hand I recently played to see how we would hand read in-game:

We are playing a £1/£2 live cash game, at a 7 handed table. We are in the big blind with J9 and a tight, aggressive player raises UTG to £7 and it folds to us in the BB. Let’s look at the range we can assign him.

Preflop

He’s raising UTG so we’re going to assign him a pretty tight opening range, he plays somewhat tight compared to the average player so we will tighten that range even further, and he plays an aggressive style so we can assume that he will not have a limping range. With all that information I assume his range will look something like this:

22+, ATo+, A5s+, 98s+, JTo+

So of our 3 options call seems the best one, his range is too tight for us to want to 3bet and our hand has enough equity to call for the price we’ve been given so folding would be incorrect.

Flop

We call and see a flop of J64, we check, and our opponent bets £5 into £15. So now we need to think about the range of hands he bets, we know this player has an aggressive style and we expect him to bet all of his good hands and a decent amount of bluffs. We can expect his bluffs to be flush draws, backdoor flush draws, and backdoor straight draws. Given that’s his betting range, we think his checking range is going to be low pairs and some ace-high hands so we can get rid of those from his range. His range in our mind now looks like this:

Value:

77+, 66, 44, JT+

Bluffs:

A5+/A5+, 98+/98+, 98-AK.

We lose to most of his value bets but he still has a large bluffing range, therefore we have plenty of equity to call, so we do.

Turn

The turn is the 2, now putting two flush draws on the board. We check again and our opponent bets again, this time £18 into £25. So, our opponent is continuing to show aggression and has increased the size of their bet, what parts of their range do we think bet like this?

It’s reasonable to assume that his top pair+ hands will continue to bet like this, but I think hands 77-TT are likely to check or bet a smaller size so we can take those out of his range. The 2 brings the second flush draw so all those backdoor flush-draw hands from the flop are likely to continue betting.

The tricky hands to figure out are the backdoor straight draw hands from the flop – those have little equity now so it’s very player dependent how much these would be bet. Based on my past experiences with him I believe that he would bet the non-ace-high combos around half the time. So, after the turn action, we believe his range looks like this:

Value:

JJ+, 66, 44, JT+

Bluffs:

A5+/A5+, 98+/98+, 98-KQ~50%

We now have a pure bluff catcher as we don’t beat any of our opponent’s value bets. However, given the number of bluffs we think he has our hand is still a reasonable call, so we do.

River

The river is the 2 and both flush-draws miss. We check yet again and our opponent fires a third barrel, this time £30 into £61. Our opponent continues to show aggression but how now decreased their sizing compared to the turn, what hands do we think do this?

Based on how this opponent has played previously I believe that with the very strongest hands in their range they will bet closer to the size of the pot to try and get max value when I have top pair. Because of this, I’m going to rule out JJ+, 66, and 44. This leaves our opponent’s top pair hands (JT+) in their value range.

Our opponent also has hands that they can bluff on the river after both flush-draws missed so we need to work out with how many of these hands does he bluff the river? Now, it’s impossible to know for certain so we have to make an assumption based on how they play, we said at the start that they’re an aggressive player who is capable of bluffing. At the time I thought that they would likely check down their ace-high flush draws and always bet their hands K high and lower. So let’s see how that range looks altogether:

Value:

JT, QJ, KJ, AJ

Bluffs:

98, QT, KT, KQ

Now that we’ve managed to narrow their range we can start to count combos. Given we have the J and the J is on the board there are 8 combos of each top pair hand for our opponent for a total of 32 value combos.

Given that we have the 9 there are 3 combos of 98s, then there are 16 combos of QT, KT, and KQ for a total of 51. We said on the turn that we think they’re only betting 50% of these combos so we can reduce that to 25.

We have 32 value combos to 25 bluff combos, and given the price we’re being laid we only need to win 1/4 of the time, making this an easy call.

After we call, our opponent turns over 75 and we win! But hold on, we didn’t have that hand in our range?! We’ve been presented with new information, we previously thought our opponent was a tight player but this hand shows that we may have been wrong in that assumption.

Now, one hand isn’t enough to completely reverse my opinion on a player – maybe he was tilting or otherwise distracted from playing his normal strategy and will revert back to ‘normal’ – but it is enough for me to want to keep an eye on them and see if there is any further evidence to suggest my initial assumption was wrong.

How To Practice Poker Hand Reading

Practice makes perfect with many things, including hand reading. The best way to improve is to play, get a feel for different spots, and how to adjust to your opponents. However, if you are unable to play here are some good substitutes that can help you prepare:

Use poker software/study range charts

Looking at tools such as PokerEquilab or Flopzilla is a great way to familiarise yourself with ranges. Being able to look at a visual representation of a range and how that range interacts with different board textures will give you a better understanding of when your opponent is likely to have a strong hand and when they are likely to be bluffing.

Use poker hand reading quizzes and tests

There are various online resources, either videos or web quizzes, that can help you practice your hand reading. However, take these tests with a grain of salt – ranging isn’t an exact science.

You should be looking to think along the same lines as the answer, even if you don’t have the exact right answer they’ve given you. It’s a much better use of your time to get used to the patterns on how to adjust to different players than it is to memorize exactly which hand combos someone thinks a hypothetical opponent is going to play.

Follow along with poker live streams/replays

One of the best ways to get real-life experience in hand reading (that doesn’t cost you money if you’re wrong!) is watching live broadcasts of poker games that don’t show the hole cards. These streams put you in the same conditions you would be in if you were playing in the game but without the pressure that comes with playing for large sums of money.

It’s important if you’re using these streams as learning tools to actually concentrate and focus on how each player is playing and how you would range each player accordingly – it’s easy to have it on in the background and tell yourself you’re learning even if you’re not engaging your brain!

The Youtube channel CrushLivePoker has some great videos on hand reading which I would recommend.

7 Poker Hand Range Reading Tips

Here are some useful pointers if you’re having trouble hand reading:

1. Avoid putting opponents at opposite ranges

When beginners start to think about ranges they tend to think their opponents either have the nuts or a complete airball. Remember, there’s a load of hands in between these extremes and the hands need to make sense at every decision point for it to be in their range.

2. Let go of initial range assumptions

In poker, as in life, first impressions can count for a lot – see a guy blast off his stack with 94o the first hand you play with him and he’ll forever be a maniac in your eyes.

However, you should always stay open-minded and allow yourself to change your mind if evidence suggests that he’s changed his ways and become a tighter player. Being dogmatic in your beliefs isn’t going to win you any money if you’re wrong.

3. Memorize each player’s playing style

Knowing the playing style of your opponent will have a big impact on the way you assign a range to them and could cost you if you don’t. If you think an opponent has a normal range but actually plays very tight you’re going to find that a lot of your calls will become -EV.

4. Think like your opponent

Each player has a different playing style and way of thinking about the game, it’s what makes this game so tricky and so fun to figure out! When we’re playing we need to remember this and not fall into the trap of thinking that everyone plays hands the same way. Getting into our opponent’s heads and thinking the way they’re thinking will improve our hand reading and allow us to effectively counter their strategy.

5. What if the opponent is tricking me

Beginners always think a player is outsmarting their reading skills by doing something knowing that they would try to read it so, in fact, it is not what it appears to be. It may happen, and it will. But overall, it won’t happen enough times to justify not reading hands consistently.

6. Keep your ranges consistent

One mistake I’ve seen people make when analyzing ranges is not keeping the range consistent from street to street. They will assign an opponent an assumed range preflop, then add hands in post-flop that they didn’t give them earlier in the hand.

This undermines the hand reading work that had been done post-flop and leads to errors later in the hand – if you’ve ruled out a hand from a range, keep it out!

7. Look for strong tells

Playing against an opponent with a solid tell is like waiting for your paycheque on a Friday afternoon, you know the money’s going to come – you just don’t know when!

Finding players who will telegraph their hand strength with either a physical tell or a pattern in their bet sizing are very valuable to observant players which is why you must pay close attention to how your opponents are betting and what they showdown.

Common Errors Made Whilst Reading Hands

Look out for these common hand reading errors.

Wanting To Guess The Exact Hand

“I put you on Ace-King” is something you’re very likely to hear if you play any low stakes live poker game – this is a trap we need to avoid. It’s almost impossible to narrow ranges to a specific hand, and even harder to be right about it. Remember when hand reading to think in terms of the multitudes of hands an opponent can have rather than thinking of one and fixating on it.

Not Re-Evaluating The Initial Assumptions

When you first sit down at the table you see an old man run a crazy bluff and think to yourself “Wow, that guy’s a maniac! I’m never going to fold to him”. The rest of the night you call down 3 streets against him and he always shows you the nuts. “Where did I go wrong?” you think as you walk dejectedly back to your car. Your mistake was not re-evaluating your initial perception of your opponent, despite him repeatedly showing you the nuts!

Stopping a Range Reading

Once you’ve gathered all the information you can and worked out what you think is a reasonable range is for your opponent – make sure you act accordingly! Sometimes it’s easier to work out the range than it is to let go of those pocket aces that you now realize are beat. Don’t let all that hand reading go to waste. Make the right decision based on your information, no matter how hard it may seem.

hand reading errors in poker
The three most common hand reading errors in poker.

Poker Hand Reading – FAQ

Hand reading can get quite complicated, so below are answers to the most common questions.

How does poker hand reading work?

Hand reading works by making an initial assumption on your opponent’s preflop range based on their playing style and preflop action, then using post-flop information such as betting patterns, tells, and board texture to further reduce that range to accurately play against our opponent.

How to read poker hand ranges correctly?

To read ranges correctly you need to make sure your assumptions that you’ve made about your opponents are as close to correct as possible. This means focusing on how they play each hand and adjusting your reads based on new information presented to you.

What does “putting a player on a hand” mean?

“Putting a player on a hand” is assuming that a player has exactly one hand combo – like AK. This is a trap many beginner players fall into. The best way to analyze a hand is to decide your best action based on all those hands your opponent plays the same way rather than one you are guessing they have.

What are the main steps in the hand reading process?

The first step in the hand reading process is to assign your opponent a preflop range based on their position, their play style, and the preflop action. Then we start to take in any information we get post-flop, such as what the flop is, whether our opponent bets, how much they bet, etc. to reduce that range to hands that still make sense, then act accordingly.

What is the best poker hand reading system?

There is no consensus on what the best hand ready system is in Texas Hold’em poker.

Indeed, there’s no substitute for experience; playing flops, turns, and rivers, getting a grip on what adjustments you need to make against certain types of players, repeatedly practicing these situations will make you better at hand reading than memorizing any ‘system’ would.

How can you be hard to read at an online poker table?

The best way to be hard to read when playing online is to be consistent in all your actions. Be wary of how long you take on each decision point as that can give away information on your hand and make sure that whatever action you take there is a balance of good hands and bluffs.

Getting a firm grasp on hand reading will take a lot of practice but using the methods outlined in this article you’ll have a head start in mastering one of the key skills of a winning poker player.