As you’ve probably heard before: everything you do at the poker table conveys information.
Anyone that has played live poker for a long time understands that humans are oftentimes bad at hiding what they are thinking. That’s why it’s so important to pay close attention to what your opponents are doing, especially in a live setting. They will often times give away a lot of information.
By honing in on this information, you can learn to exploit your opponent in a way that allows you to win more money than you would win by playing a perfectly GTO strategy.
But before you jump right into exploiting your opponent, you would be wise to ask yourself the 10 questions that follow.
In order to answer these questions, you need to have a solid knowledge of game theory-influenced play. Without this, you will not be as equipped to identify when your opponent is making drastic mistakes.
Additionally, it’s important to only make adjustments based on reliable information, usually when you have a long history of playing with your opponent. Avoid making big adjustments based on shaky information.
With that out of the way, let’s dive in to question #1.
Note: The following questions come from the mind of Dylan Weisman, one of Upswing’s elite PLO coaches behind the Advanced PLO Mastery course. Dylan might be a PLO player, but these questions apply to all game types, including No Limit Hold’em cash games and tournaments.
When you have solid fundamentals, you should be able to put your opponents on a range of hands that they are likely to have in a certain spot.
Here’s a simple example: if you raise preflop and a player calls from the big blind, you can rule out hands like AA, KK, or QQ from their range because they almost certainly would have 3-bet these hands preflop.
Another example: you’re in the big blind and call a raise from a player in middle position. The flop comes Q♠ 4♦ 2♣ and you check. This is a board on which your opponent should be c-betting 100% of the time (or very close to 100%) because of how ranges interact — you will often have missed this flop and he has a big range advantage.
By knowing the range of hands your opponent is supposed to have, it is much easier to identify how they are deviating. In other words, it’s easier to know what your opponent is doing wrong when you know what is right.
Once you know what your opponent’s range should be, you are then able to use your reads to adjust that range.
For example, let’s say you raised preflop and got called by the big blind. The flop comes wet like T♥ 8♦ 6♦ and the big blind check-raises your c-bet.
If you know the big blind is a good and aggressive player who understands this spot, you can expect his check-raise range to be at least somewhat in line with what’s theoretically correct. And the theoretically correct range in this spot is quite diverse, containing some combinations of each of these hands:
- Two pairs
- Flush draws
- Straight draws
- Pair + straight draw
- Pair + flush draw
Playing against this range is pretty tough. You’re going to have to make a lot of calls with hands that may feel marginal to prevent the good player from denying you of your equity.
On the other hand, if you know the big blind is a tight and passive player, they are much less likely to have a diverse range. You can reasonably assign them a range of:
- Two pairs
- An occasional strong draw
Against such a check-raising range, you should play tight and avoid putting in chips without a strong hand or draw.
By knowing both what a baseline strategy should be, in addition to your opponent’s tendencies, you are able to assign a more accurate range in a given spot.
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Similar to question one that asks what your opponent’s range is supposed to be, you also need to be familiar with how you are supposed to play your own range.
It is always important to be aware of what level your opponent is thinking on. Is your opponent a competent regular? Or are they a newcomer that is playing at the casino for the first time?
If you are playing against an opponent that does not think on a deep level, you can take on a much simpler strategy to exploit their weaknesses. Do they call too much? Bluff less, value bet more. Do they fold too much? Bluff more.
You don’t have to play down to their level, but you are leaving a lot of money on the table if you don’t adapt against the weakest players at the table.
Question #5: Given what I know about them, what is my perceived range from their perspective in this spot?
If your opponent is capable of thinking about ranges, you need to be aware of how they view you.
Here’s what Dylan had to say about this:
I have to try to understand what they perceive my range to be. For example, are they [less] likely to put bluffs in my range because they are scared? Or are they [more] likely to put bluffs in my range because they are tilted?
It’s important to modulate your perceived range based off of the information your opponent is giving you.
It is almost impossible to always be on your A-game at the poker table. By being observant of your opponents’ behavior, you may be able to pick up information that you can benefit from.
Are they stuck and on tilt? Then they may be more likely to call you down light because they aren’t in the mood to be patient.
Are they up big after buying in for a short stack? Maybe they will make a hero fold because they don’t want to risk losing chunk of their profit.
This goes in line with earlier points about needing to understand your fundamentals.
When exploiting, it’s helpful to be aware of the bet size that you should be using in a given spot. From there, you can use what you know about your opponent to decide whether or not you should use a different sizing.
Here’s a key disclaimer from Dylan:
Can I adjust [the optimal sizing] to make more money one way or the other?
This is a really hard thing to do. I don’t recommend doing it as often until you have a super solid fundamental game theory understanding.
You don’t want to make adjustments until you know what your baseline is, and bet sizing is such a complicated spot within the game. So, trying to mess with it is relatively difficult.
From my perspective, it’s easier to play the correct bet sizings [most of the time].
However, there is one situation in which bet sizing adjustments make a lot of sense: when your opponent is inelastic to bet sizing.
If you think your opponent is inelastic to bet sizing, then you should absolutely try to exploit that. This means that you expect them to not adjust their calling range enough when you mix up your size.
For example, if your opponent will call with all of their draws and marginal hands on the turn regardless of your bet size, it makes more sense to bet big with a value-heavy range to extract maximum value.
Making extreme adjustments like this should only come when you have a lot of experience playing with a particular opponent.
Question #9: Should I deviate from the optimal bet sizing strategy here to generate more game value? How can I be sure this is the right thing to do?
Like mentioned in the last two points, adjusting your bet sizing to exploit a player requires a lot of history.
While you may make the correct play from time-to-time, by only thinking about how to play a spot from an exploitative sense, you are hindering your ability to fully learn what you are supposed to do in the long run.
However, there will be specific opponents where you have a great read that allows you to use exploitative bet sizes. When that’s the case, by all means, go for it.
In most cases, if you want to exploit your opponents well, you need to have a lot of history with them. The more information you get, the more accurate your reads can be because you have more data to back up your hypotheses.
Keep in mind you often won’t need a ton of data against the most extreme opponents. For example, if someone sits down and open-shoves the first three hands, that is a significant enough sample to deduce that they are not playing logically and are willing to gamble.
But in most cases, you should wait to exploit until you have a much larger sample.
These are just some of the questions you should think about before trying to exploit an opponent. You should always be aware of your perceptions of others, in addition to their perceptions about you.
If you want to read up on some specific exploits, check out 5 Strategic Mistakes Poker Players Make (And How to Exploit Them).
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