How to Tell When Your Opponent Has a Strong Hand

Learning To Spot When Opponents Have Big Hands Can Save
You A Lot Of Chips!

One of the biggest (ongoing) challenges you'll face in poker is determining when your opponent has a strong hand. This is true for any poker game. However, since there is less margin for error in poker tournaments, I feel that this is a skill beginners should develop sooner rather than later.

5 Ways to Gauge the Strength of Your Opponent's Hand

Fortunately, there are a number of tells, methods and tools that can help you figure this out. When you combine these with the ability to accurately assess your opponent's range, I think you'll find that gauging the strength of your opponent's hand is much easier than you first thought. Remember, in poker it is impossible to be right all of the time - the best players are those who assess the likelihood of their opponents having certain hands and get this right more often than their opponents do.

My thoughts on what the best tells, methods and tools are are below.

1. Your Opponent's Betting Style And History At The Table

With tournament poker attracting players with a wide range of skill and experience levels, the types of hands people will bet with can vary dramatically. Some of your opponents will raise a lot of hands - regardless of their position at the table or chip stack size. Others will play very tight, so you know that when they do raise they have at least a 'good' hand. Simply identifying the tightest few players at your table and playing cautiously when they raise is a great start in avoiding running into strong hands.

Re-raises can give you even more information. Many players will simply flat-call a bet with mid-strength hands - saving re-raises (3-bets) for premium holdings. Others will re-raise a smaller amount with aces or kings and a larger amount with more vulnerable hands - they are scared of 'losing their action' with their very best hands and so give away this valuable information. If you spot a player who raises or re-raises different amounts with different hands then you must take a note right away - this information can save you a lot of money in future. Good players are often capable of re-raising 'light' in certain situations, however even a great player is unlikely to do this when there are still several people left to act in the hand - early position re-raises are often top hands.

For newer players the biggest sign to look for is often an 'out of character' bet. For example, someone who always raises suddenly limping, someone who always re-raises 3 times the initial bet with a playable hand flat-calling or raising small. This works after the flop too, once you know the size of bet an opponent usually makes (as a proportion of the current pot) then you can see deviations from this - and, importantly, which ones mean a strong hand like a set and which bets are reserved for bluffs or draws to straights or flushes.

Watching hands you are not involved in is a great way to get this kind of information. However, if you play several games at once then it can be worth investing in software tools which watch opponents for you. There are several types available, ranging from calculators which categorize opponents and advise on the best play (for example Tournament Indicator) to advanced 'Heads-Up-Display' software which tracks every hand and every opponent you play - displaying statistics on everyone you have history with directly onto the table.

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2. The Situation

You can (or should) also consider specific situations. In other words, players tend to play more face up in high-pressure situations like the money bubble or jumps in payout spots. As a default I would assume that most novice or recreational players will have a decent hand when they raise or play back at you in these spots. They're (usually) too cautious to bust out just before the money.

For example, if an opponent decides to come in for a raise on the bubble, you re-raise to exploit their tendency to fold often and they 4-bet (shove all-in) on you; how many people are capable of doing that? Is your opponent? If not, or you're just not sure, it's probably an indicator that he has a strong hand. A great player might be able to do this as a bluff, but even then they would have to be sure that you were capable of folding after you rerasied them!

The same idea will apply postflop too. Say you're one person away from a $50 increase in payouts, and your opponent bets the flop, turn and river on a 2-4-8-J-Q two-tone board; what types of hands are they going to do this with? Recreational players are often passive by nature, and even more so in awkward situations like this. Do you really think they're going to risk an extra $50 on a bluff?

Sure, it happens. But part of what we're supposed to do is figure out how likely that is. When faced with extra money, or busting and missing out on the money entirely, I would lean more towards unlikely.

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3. Find Out If Your Opponent Is A Winning Player

There are several online services which track the win / loss history of all poker players (including you!). By looking up a player's screen name on a website like Sharkscope or the excellent Poker Pro Labs , you can instantly see how much experience they have and whether they are a big winner, big loser - or somewhere inbetween.

While these services won't tell you what hand your opponent has - they will give you some useful clues about how they approach different situations.

Knowing how good your opponent will help decipher their thinking, especially if you combine it with high-pressure situations, their table position and/or how many possible draws to straights or flushes there are on the flop. You can quickly figure out if your opponent is willing (and capable) to bluff-shove on the bubble, or if they're stupid enough to check/call on an almost obvious flush draw, then bluff the river when they miss!

So while the tracking services won't tell you how strong or weak your opponent is, it will tell you how good or bad they are. You can use that to determine their range and strength of their hand.

I recommend the rankings at Poker Pro Labs, which shows you what games your opponent plays, how many they've played and how well they do overall. They also use hand rankings (ace being highest, 2 being lowest) to rank these players overall in scheduled tournaments, sit and go's and heads-up games. Again, you're not going to be given your opponent's hole cards, but you'll have an idea as to how good they are, and from that deduce their range and hand strength. Remember, good players are capable of making 'moves' in high pressure situations and re-raising light to steal pots - bad players are less likely to make these kind of moves without a strong hand but are less likely to be able to fold their one-pair type hands, which they often over-value.

4. Table Position

Table position is a good indicator of hand strength, too.

The earlier their position, the more likely it is they have a strong hand. For example, take a player who has been very tight and quiet. From early position their range is along the lines of TTs+ and AQ+. If this kind of player could well be aware that betting first with a full table to act risks seeing a re-raise, and are unlikely to be bluffing in this kind of situation.

You can take this information postflop, too. If they raise from early position, continuation bet the flop and another big bet on the turn, on a board like Q-T-5-2 with 2 suits, I think you can be pretty confident they hit this flop. They have a hand like aces, kings, AQ or a set of queens or tens. All of those hands hit their range - a range you assigned based on their table position.

5. Player / Betting Action

How your opponent acts is one of the biggest tells of all.

For example, if your opponent check-calls the flop and turn on a two-tone board, but then bets or check-raises the river when the flush gets there, you could deduce that they have a strong hand. Right?

If your opponent check raises an A-8-5 flop, do you really think they're doing that with an ace? How likely are they to have an ace if you do?

What about when your opponent bets small on the flop when first to act after calling your raise before the flop - repeating on the turn and river, only betting about 20% of the pot? That sounds like a small pair to me - not a strong hand if you have better. While this is is rarely a strong hand (you can often take the pot with a re-raise in these spots) you should be aware that some players will do this with monsters simply to try and get you to re-raise them!

You can often see patterns in the time players take to bet which relate to when they have a strong hand. For example, many players will check and call your bets then go into their time-bank before betting into you on the river. Some will do this as a desparate bluff, while others will do it with the nut hand. Take a note, whatever they do will often be their 'special move' and they will repeat it again and again - once you know what it means you can either take advantage by calling or safely fold.

The point here is that many players make their intentions pretty well known with their betting. Just based on your reads, the texture of the board and their betting, you should often be able to quickly figure out if their hand is stronger than yours.

How to Avoid Running into Aces (or Other Big Hands)

I'm sure a lot of people reading this want to know how to avoid running into big hands.

But, to be honest with you, you can't avoid running into big hands. Not always.

For example, say you have 50 big blinds in a MTT. You raise AK, get a caller and the flop comes A-T-4 two-tone. You bet and get shoved on.

Can you really find a fold here with top pair top kicker, and a runner-runner straight draw (with Q-J) and < 50 big blinds? Eh, I'm not so sure. Yeah, they may have a set, but a lot of times your opponent will shove with a flush or gut-shot draw too. Especially if you have a read that they're not very good.

The thing is, you just don't have a lot of room in MTTs. Not for error, and not to make big fold, after big fold. In other words, you can't always think they have it. Otherwise you'll never get far in MTTs, much less any poker game.

Ultimately, the best thing you can do to avoid running into big hands is to develop your hand range assessing and reading abilities. Once you develop those skills you'll avoid more than your fair share of strong hands.

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