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Reading Hands on the Basis
of Your Opponents' Play and Exposed Cards

There are two universally applicable techniques for reading hands in all poker games and one more for open-handed games like seven-card stud, razz, and hold 'em. Most commonly you analyze the meaning of an opponent's check, bet, or raise, and in open-handed games you look at his exposed cards and try to judge from them what his entire hand might be. You then combine the plays he has made throughout the hand with his exposed cards and come to a determination about his most likely hand.

Here is a simple problem in reading hands that should make this point clear. The games is seven-card stud, and your opponents are decent players :

Player A with the pair of aces showing bets; Player B with the pair of kings showing calls; and Player C with the pair of queens showing calls. There are no raises. You are last to act. How should you play your three 7s?

If you combine what you see on board with what your opponents have done, there should be no doubt in your mind that you must fold; your three 7s have no chance whatsoever. The crucial factor is that the pair of queens overcalled. Player A may be betting with aces alone. But when Player B calls him, Player B must have at least kings up. Being a decent player, Player C knows this. Therefore, C could not call without having kings up beat. What are C's possible hands? Well, C cannot have aces and queens or kings and queens because there's a third ace and a third king out, making it impossible for C to have two of either. So, he must have three queens or better, and while your three 7s might beat the first two hands, they cannot beat C's three queens or better. Therefore, you fold.

Here is a good example of this kind of hand reading, which to my chagrin cost me half a pot. I was playing five-card stud high-low split with a replace on the end. With an ace and an 8 showing, I called the maximum raises on third street even though two other players each had a 6 and a 5 showing. There was another player in the pot with an obvious pair of kings. When it got down to the last card, I had A,8,6,3 showing. One 6,5 had folded, but despite the strength of my board, the other stayed with a ragged 6,5,10,Q showing. And of course, the pair of kings stayed. Now I was betting and raising, hoping the Q, l O low would get out. But that player read me too well. He didn't even take the opportunity to replace one of his cards.

What I was trying to do was win the whole pot, the high and the low, from the two kings, but the Q, l O low was clever enough to figure out my hand. He said to himself, "Sklansky is representing an 8 low, but could he have an 8 low? No, he couldn't. Why? Because he would never have called all those raises on third street with three cards to an 81ow when there were two other players in the pot who looked as if they had three cards to a 6 low. Therefore, he must have another ace in the hole." He was, of course, absolutely right. I won the high with my two aces, beating the two kings, but the Q,10 low was rewarded for his accurate reading with the low half of the pot (which I would have won against the two kings with my two aces counting also as a low pair). The player with the Q,10 low considered the way I played the hand not just at the end, but from the beginning, and he combined my play with the cards showing to arrive at the correct conclusion about what I was holding. He also analyzed the order in which I received my up cards. He knew I started with A,8 and then caught the 6 and the 3. If he had not known that - if, for example, he had not been sure whether I started with A,8 or A,6 - it would have been impossible for him to conclude with such certainty that I had a pair of aces.

It is in this way that you use logic to read hands. You interpret your opponents' plays on each round, and in open-handed games you note the cards they catch on each round, paying close attention to the order in which they catch them. You then put these two pieces of evidence together - the plays and the up cards - to draw a conclusion about an opponent's most likely hand.

In that high-low split hand, the Q, l O low was able to put me on a specific hand quite early. However, it is generally a mistake to put someone on a specific hand early and then stick to your initial conclusion no matter how things develop. A player who raises on third street in seven-card stud with a king showing may have two kings, but he may also have a small pair in the hole with the king kicker or a three-flush or a J,Q,K or a number of other hands as well. Drawing a narrow, irreversible conclusion early can lead to costly mistakes later, either because you fold with the best hand or because you stay in as a big underdog.

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