How to Identify Fish & Size Up Your Opponents at The Poker Table

Poker is a game that is played and enjoyed by a wide variety of individuals. From the complete degenerate, to the world-class, poker has always been a popular game for anyone that chooses to participate. In this article, I will outline and detail how to identify each type of playing style each player possesses, and how to exploit each weakness accordingly.

Identifying The Fish at Your Table

Guy Laliberté poker

Guy Laliberté: Ultra-Successful Businessman/ High Stakes Fish.

The “fish” at the table is the weakest opponent, and therefore should be our target to exploit when the opportunities arise. If you are aware of where the fish is sitting at your table, you need to attempt to get on his left side to gain position on him for most rotations. Fish like to play a lot of hands, and because of this you want to be able to isolate them in position from the rest of the table. To isolate fish, raising and re-raising (3-betting) is essential pre-flop. Fish are known for open “limping”, instead of open raising. This dynamic creates a lot of dead money pre-flop which we can aggressively attack from our power of position.

Fish are known for calling many pre-flop raises, with extremely speculative hands, that play extremely poorly post-flop out of position. Being in position gives you the advantage of acting last on each street of betting. We get to see what our fish does before we have to act. Most fish simply fold if they miss the flop, and don’t get too creative with their bluffs. Most of these opponents play “ABC” poker which easy to identify and exploit. We can play aggressively in pots we have initiative in, and when we hit a big hand, we can extract maximum value from our weaker opponent if he has an inferior hand.

Most fish simply can’t fold top pair type hands which means if we hit a hand of 2 pair or better, we can expect to capture our opponents entire stack if we size our bets correctly on each street.

As an example:

Live 2/5 NL Hold’em Game at your local casino. You have $1,000 in chips, big fish directly on your right has about $450. 3 players limp including the fish, and you raise to $40 on the button with A10 suited. 1 player calls ($750 stack) along with the fish. Flop comes A 5 10 rainbow, and it checks to you and you bet $95. We hope here that someone also caught an ace, and they simply can’t fold it. Player 1 folds, and the fish flat calls our bet creating a pot of ~$275 on the turn.

The turn brings a K, fish checks, and we barrel $125, a small bet knowing we can get all of our chips in on the river without over betting the pot. Fish tanks for a few seconds than calls, leaving ~$200 behind.

River brings a meaningless 2, fish checks, and we tank for a few seconds, then slide our entire stack in. Fish tanks, but can’t find a fold and calls, paying you off with A7.

Mistakes the fish made in this hand: limping pre-flop, calling a raise out of position pre-flop with a hand that is extremely vulnerable and hard to get away from when he flops an ace. Calls the turn bet, and commits a good portion of his stack with top pair weak kicker. Fails to realize our perceived hand range, only focusing on his hand and its value. Calls our river bet not realizing we are probably not betting each street with any hand he could possibly have beat.

The fish should have either open raised pre-flop with A7 or open-folded. After limping,  fish should realize that calling a raise with 2 other people in the pot with A7 is usually suicide in the long-run. There are no flops that hit A7 hard except trip 7s, which is extremely rare, and will not necessarily get you paid off by stronger players. The fish in our example played loose-passive, giving us a great opportunity to felt his entire stack.

Notice How Each Opponents Stacks Their Chips

poker shark fish

In the long-run, the poker sharks feed on weaker fishy players for profit.

Each opponent at the table has a unique way of stacking their chips in front of them. Most experienced players stack even neat stacks, while most amateurs will have an unorganized mess in front of them. These unorganized opponents are usually very loose, love to splash around in pots, and generally play very weak against the stronger players at the table. They tend to lack discipline, and are prone to tilt if they begin to lose.

Notice How Comfortable Your Opponent Appears at The Table Through Their Body Language

A lot of players give away a lot of information subconsciously without realizing it. Certain players will give away the strength of their hand based on their physical demeanor during a hand. The most common body language read I pick up on is when a player is trying to act “weak” when they have a strong hand, and “strong” when they have a weak hand.

A tell may be common to a class of players or unique to a single player. Some possible tells include leaning forward or back, placing chips with more or less force, fidgeting, doing chip tricks, displaying nervous tics or making any changes in one’s breathing, tone of voice, facial expressions, direction of gaze or in one’s actions with the cards, chips, cigarettes or drinks.

An underlying rule to many tells is: “weak means strong, strong means weak.”Thus, players who hold weak poker hands attempt to convince other players at the table that they are strong: staring down an opponent, throwing chips down forcefully into the pot in an effort to discourage others from calling. Alternatively, players who hold strong hands tend to try to disguise their hand as being weak. They attempt to fly under the radar by being a passive player at the table – not making direct eye contact, softly tossing the chips in, being friendly and talkative. They are deliberately trying not to come across as intimidating, so as to entice a call.

Notice if Your Opponent is Drinking Alcohol.

As Doyle Brunson once said, “No top poker player drinks when he plays poker”. Alcohol is served for free in most poker rooms, and many players like to drink when they play. Most of these players are looking for action, will play fast, are prone to bluffing more frequently, and make fatal mistakes due to lowered inhibitions and a lack of complete focus.

These players are usually playing poker strictly for fun, and not profit in the long run. They may get lucky at times, but in the long-run, most are long-term losers. It is important to be patient and wait for strong holdings to play profitably against these players because they don’t like to fold. Bluffing a player who rarely likes to fold is a mistake you must eliminate.

Notice if Your Opponent is Frequently Distracted

There are an abundance of distractions in every poker room. Sports games are broadcast on the array of televisions around the room, and free Wi-Fi is often offered to all players. I notice a lot of players not focusing on hands they aren’t involved in, failing to pick up on information that is given away in each pot they aren’t involved in. Focusing on the table action when you are not in a hand is essential for sizing each up opponent’s hand-ranges and tendencies of betting with certain hands. This information is vital when you get involved in a pot with different opponents at your table. You will have a stronger understanding of the possibilities of hands each opponent could hold in each situation by watching them play pots against other players. Your bet sizing, and betting frequency against these players will be determined by observing how they act and react in situations prior to you getting involved with them.

Notice if Your Opponents Are Observing You

hac dang poker

Hac Dang is an expert at exploiting tendencies of weaker players.

Expert poker players are constantly trying to “out-level” or “out-think” each of their opponents at the table. Strong, solid players are aware of everything that is going on at the table, including realizing the opponents who are watching them play hands. We can safely assume that while we are developing reads, so are some of our opponents. If I notice certain players focusing on my play in pots they are not involved in, I must take a mental note that they have a better understanding of my play than those who aren’t exercising any focus. You will have to get creative and mix up your play against observant opponents to confuse them, and bait them into making mistakes against you.

Experiencing Flow & Playing in The Zone

When I sit down to play a poker session, my initial goal is to slip into a relaxed, focused, trance like state for optimal play. There can be nothing else on my mind except poker when I play if I want to achieve any success in the game. Any lapse of focus could result in making a mistake, and mistakes compound themselves over time to negatively affect my bottom-line.

Remember to consciously focus on your breathing at the tables and analyze each possible decision to the best of your ability. Maintaining a zen-like state at the table is essential for avoiding tilt and negative emotion based decisions. Treat each hand like a completely new session where you are looking for an opportunity to exploit an opponent’s weakness for maximum value. Without proper focus, concentration, and relaxation, you cannot experience maximum profit potential in the long-run. Becoming a solid winning player takes a long time to develop into, and you must be willing to put in the time to improve your game if you want to win. Much like studying for a test, if you don’t study the game and your opponents, you are prone to fail. Avoid failure by putting in more time and effort than your opponents, and you will ultimately come out ahead more frequently.


About TD
Live Consciously, Expand Your Awareness!

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