This great article just came in from Steven Lawrence, one of our most popular No-Limit Holdem teachers. It’s an excellent look in to the mind of an expert and how we think about hands as compared to intermediate players. We hope to feature articles from some of our coaches in this section every month, and as long as they keep sending them we’ll keep posting them.

Hands Off! (Know your table before your cards)

I posed the following question to a new student during an evaluation of his current level of play at his regular stakes (5/10 and 10/20 live No Limit Hold’em):

What more do you need to know BEFORE you look at your cards? A player raises; it folds to you on the button.

The question was the first one that came to mind as I was writing out the evaluation, and even eighteen questions later, I could not come up with a better one to gauge how someone was thinking about the basics of their play, at least for the easiest street — preflop. How many players, even winning players, either do not grasp what they should know, or if they do, are not focused or disciplined enough to gather the information for every hand they play?

This is easiest to see with most casual players. Almost invariably a question will start out “So I had pocket jacks (or whatever hand), and this guy raised…” What follows is almost impossible to answer. You see, the player posed the question backwards. As soon as he attached the progress of the action to his hand he lost the information war. In fact, the war was probably lost before the hand was even dealt.

To a coach, or even to most winning players, the problem is apparent almost immediately — the person probably doesn’t even know enough about the situation to ask a meaningful question. And, if they don’t know, there is no way to provide useful feedback. The initial raiser could be tight, loose, maniacal, good, bad, or of unknown skill level. The player could be short stacked, deep stacked, tilted, focused, or restless. What about the blinds? Are they loose, passive? tight, aggressive? rocks? loose, aggressive? Short stacks (professional or otherwise)? Deep stacks? Are you seen as a tight player? a bluffer?

Before you care about what your hand is, you need to know the current state of the table. At the very least, you should be aware of each player’s relative position, style, stack size, emotional state, and likely image of you. You need to know all of this as soon as possible, preferably before the hand is even dealt. If you play online, some of this work is done for you in the form of statistics, but you still need to know ahead of time.

After the hand is dealt, observe the actions of the players, how they make them, and how others at the table react to the progress of the hand. How much is the raise? How did he make it? Did anyone react, audibly or otherwise? Are the players behind me reaching for chips? Looking disinterested? Ordering a drink?

If you do this, your questions will start to sound more like this:

“A loose, passive player with 200 big blinds interrupted his conversation with the cocktail waitress and raised to 10 big blinds under the gun. I have never seen him raise preflop even though he seemingly plays every hand, and he has been here for three hours. In the previous hand I tried to three barrel him on a King high two tone board, and he called my third barrel with the pair of deuces he rivered with his three high flush draw. I have him covered. The cutoff with 50 big blinds paused before mucking his hand and said ‘I guess this isn’t any good.’ The small blind only has 30 big blinds, sat two orbits ago, and has shoved over preflop raises four times already. The only time he was called he showed king-seven off suit after shoving from the big blind over a tight player’s early position raise. The big blind has slightly less than 100 big blinds, has been at the table for an hour and hasn’t played a hand yet.”

If you don’t know that information, I don’t want to know what your cards were, and neither should you.

Steven Lawrence