The most powerful poker players in the world are not necessarily those who can instantly calculate pot odds in their heads, or those who have read the most books on strategy. Instead, the real pros are the players who can learn their opponents techniques.
Recognising what manner of player you are up against has a huge impact on how you play poker because it allows you to adapt your style to defeat them. The more you play against a particular person, the more you learn about their style and strategies.
You will gradually understand the logic of their play, and you might learn things that you can incorporate into your own style. You will also be able to begin to pre-empt what they're going to do in a given situation.
Watch and learn
To figure out how your opponent is going to play in a given situation, you need to be extremely patient, and watch what they do. Can do this either by playing in the same games that your given target is playing in, or by sitting on the rail.
Most online poker rooms allow spectators, and if you are consistently being beaten by the same players, then it's definitely worth your while to watch them play. Any thing that you notice about how they play will be useful next time the two of you go heads up.
What am I looking for?
In live poker, one of the things you be looking for are Tells - physical body language that gives away what a person is feeling. This can give you is huge clues to what is going on in their minds when they see a given hand, particularly if you get to see what the hand is at a showdown.
However, be aware that while you are looking for tells, other players are aware that you are studying them, and are faking tells like crazy. This is particularly important because a lot of people placed great stock in the art of reading tells.
Hotels are never as useful as understanding the fundamentals of how your opponent plays. And this is not revealed by tells, but rather by studying how they bet.
It's all in the patterns
If you want to use your opponents playing technique to prove your own game, you need to understand how they are reacting to given hands and why they do what they do. The key to understanding another player is to watch closely how they bet.
Observe the patterns of their calls, raises and folds. Whenever possible tie this knowledge in with the opportunities that you get to see their actual hands when they show them.
Specifically, you are looking for the following sorts of things as you build up information in your mental banks about a player:
- Given the same hand, do they bet differently when in different table positions?
- Is this player capable of bluffing? Do they bluff regularly and well?
- Does this player Slow Play?
- How aggressive is this player when making pre-flop raises?
- Does this player use fake tells? Can you spot when they're faking?
- When dealt a high pocket pair, does this player raise up or just call?
- Faced with a flush draw, does this player check, call or raise?
Understanding the plays you're seeing?
Keep watching your opponent play, and keep asking yourself the kind of questions that are listed above. It's by no means a comprehensive list, but it gives you an idea of where to start from.
Now, for each individual player, the more information you can gather like this, the better you are going to be against this kind of player. If you are really fastidious about this kind of information gathering, then the next time that you go heads up with this player you are far more likely to make the correct decision in a given situation because you will have observed what the player's thought pattern behind their moves is.
But this isn't only advantageous in a confrontational situation. The more of these questions that you answer, the more you gain an understanding of how this person plays, which gives you insight into the reasoning behind their technique. If you understand why they do what they do, you might be able to incorporate aspects of it into your own game.