Sometimes, when playing online poker or even during live games, the key to success is avoiding confrontation with players who are more skilled than you are. It makes sense to try and take money from the weaker players and not get mixed up with the sharks in cash games or to simply avoid going head to head with the pros until as late as possible in a poker tournament.
One essential aspect in this whole situation is to figure out who the tough players are as early as possible, preferably without losing any of your chips to them in the process. How can one do this though? Well, it takes a bit of practice, a lot of patience, a correct mindset, and good observation skills.
There’s an old saying/joke: “I’ve been a really good fighter ever since running away was invented”. Despite the extremely tough poker games we see on TV, in real life running away from dangerous situations in a poker game can save you a lot of money.
How to spot a good poker player early on
While none of the tells below are absolutely definitive, they are still a good way of telling if you are up against a pro or a novice at the poker table, especially if the opponent in front of you ticks more of the boxes below.
A pro poker player will never consume any alcohol while playing poker. They will need to be on top of the game and take advantage of any players who do. If a player is holding a beer and betting, you can be pretty much certain that he is not a pro. That doesn’t mean you should underestimate him though. Just know that a second beer always follows the first one and the third one is coming soon. There will probably be a time during the evening when you will be able to take advantage of a drinking player.
If you’re not aware of what VPIP is, just know that it stands for Voluntarily Put Money in the Pot. It’s a pretty self-explanatory term and represents how loose or tight a player is. While it is going to be difficult to make the calculations in live poker to see the exact percentage of each player’s VPIP, knowing that this can indicate the skill of a player will help you nevertheless.
Both in online and live poker, a good VPIP is somewhere around 18-20%. In other words, a player who gets involved in around one of every five hands is generally someone who knows what they are doing.
When he looks at his hole cards
Observing when a player looks at his hole cards can tell you a lot about his playing level. A pro poker player will never look at his cards before it’s his time to act. He uses the time before his turn observing how the other players react to seeing their own hole cards, seeing how they place the bets, and trying to find tells in pretty much anything the other players are doing.
A player who only looks at his cards when it’s his turn to act knows a little about the game and has a pretty good experience. Not necessarily a pro, but still a player you should watch out for.
Lack of emotion
One of the most important traits of a pro poker player is his ability to control his emotions. A player who never looks happy, sad, or frustrated is one you should be very careful with. Not batting an eye when winning or losing a huge pot is not something everyone can do and is a clear sign that you are up against a very experienced or talented player.
The way he stacks his chips
They say that the way you stack your chips says a lot about your playing style. A messy stack of random chips can indicate that you are against a chaotic player. A tidy one, with the chips nicely ordered by value and stacked close to perfection, may indicate you are against a player you should be careful about.
In live poker, where bet sizes are not pre-defined like in online poker, perfectly correct bet sizes are quite a rare occurrence. Most people place bets rather randomly according to how strong they think their hand is.
If a player at your table raises the exactly correct number of blinds preflop or c-bets in accordance with the size of the pot, you should be careful. He obviously knows what he’s doing and he is constantly calculating everything, and that surely includes his pot odds. Thread lightly.
What to do when you know your opponent is tough
Once you’ve figured out who can outplay you in a cash game, what do you do? You stay away for a while. You observe, gather information, and build your strategy against them.
Ideally, you would not get involved in big pots against them before you see them playing other opponents at the table in order to understand their game strategy and philosophy.
Once you think you understand a little about them, it’s time to attack. Be sure to play only strong hands against them and don’t bluff too much. Teach them to respect you by winning hands at showdown instead.
Final thoughts on playing against tough opponents in live poker games
Knowing your opponents is essential in a live poker game. Recognizing the ones that can outplay you early on can save you a lot of chips and can earn you a good reputation at the table in longer sessions. Just sit back and observe, make your strategy, and attack only when you feel prepared. Remember: folding is always an option.