by Barbara Connors
Most of us know that the ability to read your opponents is one of the most important skills any poker player can have. After all, the most clever strategizing in the world isn’t going to do you much good if it’s based on the notion that your opponent is going to respond with aggression, when in reality, he is quite conservative. Or vice versa. And so we must observe our opponents at the poker table, and then slap labels on them — this one is loose-aggressive, that one is a nit, and so on.
These labels are important, but they are only a starting point. There are some pitfalls to watch out for when using them. For one thing, once you’ve decided to put your opponent into a particular category, it’s far too easy to get locked into that initial impression to the point of excluding, ignoring, or dismissing any new information that contradicts your early read. First impressions are often very powerful, but they’re not always correct.
Suppose you watch one opponent for a few hands and decide he’s a calling station. You put him in that box and move on, turning your attention elsewhere. After all, poker players have a lot to ponder during a game: our cards, our opponents’ cards, position, relative position, the size of the pot, the size of the stacks, outs, odds, pot equity, fold equity, table image, and oh yeah — getting a good read on the playing style of every single opponent sitting at the table. Then there are things like conversation, eating, drinking, multitasking, daydreaming, or just plain losing focus during the game. With all that, it’s easy not to notice that your “calling station” has started folding a lot of hands.
Opponents can and frequently do change their playing styles. A calling station can go on tilt, temporarily turning into a maniac who raises with garbage. Or he can tilt in the opposite direction and start acting like a rock. A nit can go on a rush and start feeling invincible, playing his hands much more aggressively than normal. And some good players are just downright tricky, purposely changing styles in the middle of a session to throw you off.
The key is to never be complacent in your read. Stay vigilant. Having put your opponent into a particular category, keep in mind that’s not the end of the story. Keep watching and adjusting your read as new information comes in. Maybe what you observed during the early part of your session was an aberration. Or maybe this player really does consistently play the same style, all the time. The only way to know for certain is to keep observing.
If you have been watching a particular opponent for awhile and feel like you’ve got him pegged, and then he does something completely inconsistent with your read, that’s a red flag. When a rock suddenly wakes up and overbets the pot, or a maniac meekly limps in, you know something curious is going on. Your job is to ask why. Did he get exceptionally good (or bad) cards in that particular hand? Is he on tilt? Or was your initial read on him not entirely accurate?
If your opponent returns to his usual pattern of behavior after one hand, then it was probably all about unusual cards. But if it happens again, maybe your “maniac” isn’t such a maniac after all and he occasionally likes to trap with premium hands. Point is, don’t get locked into one inflexible read. Don’t put your opponents into neat little boxes and expect them to just stay in those boxes forever. Human beings are complicated little buggers. Fear and greed — the two emotions that drive every poker game — are powerful forces that can make even the most stable personality act out-of-character sometimes.
Barbara Connors is a sucker for classic old movies, science fiction, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Her life’s ambition is to figure out the unusual behavior patterns of that unique breed of humans who call themselves poker players. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.