Reading Hands Like a Pro

Hand reading is an important, yet seemingly difficult skill to learn. Players often make the process harder than it needs to be, thinking that they need to put their opponents on two cards. Others look at the entire hand, instead of approaching hand reading on a street by street basis.

The truth is, reading hands in poker comes down to establishing a range of hands your opponent could have based on different signals, and then on each street eliminate hands that your opponent is unlikely to have. You take what hands you have left and come up with the best play possible.

The very first step to getting started is to understand what the different signals are and what they mean. This will give you a base for determining a range of hands they’re likely to be holding.

Hand Reading Signals

Your opponents will give off numerous signals. It’s your job to pick up on those and determine what they mean and how it translates to what hands they could have. Below are common signals with comments on what they (usually) mean.

  • Check – This represents weak hands, draws or desire to check-raise.
  • Bet – This represents strength.
  • 3-Bet – 3-bettin or re-raising represents more strength than a bet.
  • Limp / Raise (Shove) – This action is polarized. It means the absolute nuts, or a very weak hand. In my experience it’s usually the former.
  • Check-Raise – This represents a strong hand.
  • Raise Too Much – For example, a 5x big blind raise. This is usually a weak to moderately strong hand. The player is fearful of being outdrawn.
  • Call – A weak hand or draw. Sometimes this is for deceptive purposes.
  • Player Type – Loose players play a lot of hands. Tight players are the opposite. Aggressive players bet and raise, passive players check and call.
  • Position – The rule of thumb – the earlier the position, the stronger the hand.
  • History / Meta-Game – What do you already know about this person? Do you have any history playing against each other?
  • Blocking Bets – A weak hand or a draw.
  • Over Bet – A very strong hand or the nuts.

These are just generalizations, too. This list gives you a place to start. As you play more hands with the same people, you can then tweak your notes for each individual player.

Creating Hand Ranges From Signals

Once you have a couple of signals from your opponents, you can then determine a hand range for them. I have a couple examples of how you might do this below.

1. One example would be a tight player raising from under the gun. He’s tight, which means he’s playing few hands and he raised which indicates strength. He also opened from early position which signals strength. Based on these signals you could assume that his range consists of premium pairs, ATs+ and maybe KQ.

Now take a loose players in the same position. Given that he likes to play more hands, his range would be more wider; hands like A8s+, KTs+, QJs+ and all pairs.

Do you see how I came to that conclusion? Do you see the difference between the two player types?

2. Another example; say there is a player that limped / called a raise from middle position. With the rare exception, I would say that this player does not have premium hands in his range. Players raise and 3-bet these hands. So I would say that he has 22s-TT, maybe hands like KQ or KJ, and suited connectors or one-gapers like J9 or 87.

From here you’ll start to lop off hands that don’t make sense based on flop texture and actions.

For example, say in the first example you called in the big blind. The the flop was 9-8-2 two-tone and you donked the flop. If the tight player had a premium (over) pair, for example, he might raise you here to charge for the possible flush/straight draw. However, if he flatted your bet you might assume that his range (mostly) consists of hands like AK or AQ (suited), while giving a little bit of credit to a premium over pair that might be slow playing his hand (if you think he’s capable of that).

Does that make sense?

The point is that every action will narrow down your opponent’s range, leaving you with only a few hands that make sense. Granted, they might play a hand differently than most people, which will throw you off. But once you see their cards just take note of that for next time.

Example Hand From Blue Fire Poker Training

I wanted to wrap this up by summarizing a hand that cash poker pro, Niman Kenkre, shared on the Blue Fire Poker blog. You can read the hand in it’s entirety here: It’s a good example of looking at and breaking down an entire hand on the river, street by street, to come to a small range of hands that make sense for the villain to have, leading Niman to making a profitable play.

Here are the details for the hand:

  • Game: 25/50 | NLHE | 6-Max
  • Pre Flop: Niman is in the cutoff holding pocket 3s. He raises to $150. The player in the small blind called.
  • Flop: Q-Q-6 rainbow. The small blind checks, Niman c-bets and the small blind calls.
  • Turn: A (completes the rainbow). The SB checks. Niman checks, too.
  • River: A. The entire board is: A-A-Q-Q-6. The small blind leads with a $700 bet (the pot is $900). Niman raises to $2,000. The small blind folds.

What was Niman’s thought process?

On the flop Niman discounts premium pairs, such as AA-QQ. The reasoning was that his opponent called pre flop, whereas premium hands were more likely to raise. Especially given that Niman figured his opponent to be a thinking, position-aware player.

On the turn the ace was a card that Niman considered representing. He figured he could rep an ace that was bluffing / continuation betting the flop. However, he figured his opponent might think he’d rep the ace (as a bluff), and he’d would check back an ace if he actually had one. So that’s why he checked back the turn.

The river card was bad because it counterfeited Niman’s pair of 3s. There is no way he’ll win this hand at showdown. When his opponent leads, Niman thinks about the following:

  • Could the small blind have a queen? Unlikely, since his opponent knows that a worse hand won’t call. If he had a queen he’d be more inclined to check, so to give Niman a chance to bet / bluff.
  • The same applies to 66. No worse hand would call a (large) river bet.
  • An ace was possible, but unlikely since premium aces would re-raise pre flop, A6 would’ve folded pre flop and all other aces would’ve folded the flop.

Niman came to the conclusion that the only possible hands left were pocket pairs (jacks or smaller) or a hand with a 6 in it. However, all of these hands were counterfeited on the river, so the small blind thought the same way as Niman – the only way to win was to bet.

Knowing this, Niman came to the conclusion that the small blind couldn’t call a large bet only playing the board, as he’d lose to a larger kicker. Niman made the bet and won the hand.


This is a much better example than the two I gave above. It shows you a pro thinks about a hand, going through each street and eliminating hands based on what he knows about his opponent and how he thinks he’d play certain hands. Once he was able to pinpoint the few hands his opponent was likely to have, the correct play was obvious. It was a play that led to picking up a $1,500+ pot. Learn how to read hands like this and you could can do it too.