Poker is an endlessly fascinating game. I have never played the same hand twice and I never will. But poker would not be nearly as interesting to play if it were only a numbers game. What keeps me coming back time after time is the psychology of the game. Taking a good read is one of the most satisfying things you can do at a poker table. And the thrill you get from catching a big bluff will stay with you long after the cards and chips have been put away for the night.
Becoming a good poker reader does not happen over night. There may be some fundamental principles of reading people in poker, but you will have to learn how to apply those principles to different players in different situations; and doing that effectively will only come with time and concerted effort on your part.
The best way to start your education in bluff catching is to buy a copy of Mike Caro’s Book of Tells. In it you will learn the basics of the tell. The book has pictures and very good descriptions of different situations, and it will give you a lot of things to look for in your opponent. But the overriding theme of his book is the fact that, in poker, “weak means strong” and “strong means weak.” An opponent with a big hand will put the chips in the pot weakly and try to not scare you into folding. While a big bluffer might sit high in his chair and look you straight in the eye; he can’t afford to give you any reason to suspect that he has anything less than a stellar hand.
Any time your opponent takes an action, you need to decide if she is telling you the truth. Did that check really mean that she is weak? Is she trying to check-raise me with a strong hand? Many actions at a poker table are straightforward. Your opponent has a strong hand and makes a big bet. It is just as important to detect poker truths as it is to detect poker lies. If you don’t, you might be good at catching bluffs, but you will also call large bets when you are badly beaten. Your opponents might notice this, and stop trying to bluff you. But they will also punish you when they have a good hand. Your results will suffer.
When someone is telling you the truth with their actions at a poker table, their demeanor is neutral. They aren’t trying to oversell you. If they have made a big bet and they have a big hand, they sit comfortably in their chair and they neither try to intimidate you, nor do they shrink from you. We all know how easy it is to tell the truth. Your mother asked you if it was you who broke her expensive vase and you were able to deny it with ease and grace because you didn’t do it. If you were guilty, somehow you always gave yourself away. There was something about your pleas of innocence that were nervous and over the top. And you quickly found yourself doing extra chores around the house to help “pay” for the destroyed piece of pottery.
I hate to say this, but you need to become like your mother. Study each one of your opponents and carefully watch each time they turn their hand over. What did the guy in the red hat look like when he got caught bluffing? How did the women with the sunglasses move all her chips into the pot when she had the nuts? If you get good at it, you will be able to quickly build a very accurate profile of each of your opponents. Applying Caro’s basic principles while working up a custom profile for each opponent is most effective. Everyone is different, and some players will even try to “double reverse” you. If they figure out that you are using some of these principles, they might try to act very strong when they are strong against you. The possibilities are endless.
I also want to caution you against overusing you reading skills. Poker is still governed by basic mathematical principles. Your first task when presented with a big bet is to determine if you have a close decision. If you start to make big lay downs when the pot is laying you a big price, you will quickly find yourself trying to figure out why you never seem to win. A good situation for using your reading skills would be if you have top pair and a mediocre kicker. Your opponent makes a good-sized bet and you now have to make a decision for a large portion of your stack. On the nights where you fold your top pairs when you are beat and call when you have the best hand, your reading skills will be making you an unstoppable force.
Becoming a good poker reader takes work and commitment. There is a lot to think about while you are trying to build up your opponent profiles. Reading players makes poker more interesting and fun, but it means that you will be working harder. After you fold, you need to pay attention. While your opponents may be socializing when out of a hand, you will be watching the action intently. It might seem like they are having more fun than you, but nothing in poker is more enjoyable than stacking up the chips at the end of the night.