Smart Players Don’t Always Rely on Intelligence

In a multi-table tournament, players change tables frequently throughout the event, making it very difficult to generate reliable reads on opponents. (Image:

One of my favorite places at Cardschat is the Tournament Hand Analysis forum. Users submit hands that they encountered in a recent live or online multi-table tourney; ones that they usually lost and ask for advice on how they could have played the hand better.

One of the most common questions asked by users reading the threads is about intelligence on the other players involved in the hand. Was he/she a nit? Did you think they were loose? Overly aggressive?

Getting accurate reads on your opponent’s style of play is often considered to be a key for tournament success, but I believe that it is somewhat overrated and definitely fraught with peril. To get an accurate read on a player, you really need to see a lot of hands go to showdown so you will actually get to see what cards they are playing.

The Tables, and the Players, are a Changing

In a typical MTT, you are going to change tables frequently, and the players at your table will also come and go. You may not spend more than 2 hours on any one table. Given that it generally takes about 2-3 minutes to play one hand in a live tourney, that means you might see as few as 40 hands and probably no more than 50 hands with a group of players in that span. What can you really learn about someone in such a limited sample, and how much hard data will get you get any way?

In December 2008, PokerStars paid a company to analyze more than 10 million live cash hands on its website. The data showed that roughly 25 percent of hands actually went to showdown. While this survey was for cash game play, the data is probably similar for tournaments. If anything, the trend is probably higher for cash games because there is more of an emphasis on winning each hand.

So if you are at the same table for 2 hours and play 50 hands with an opponent who puts money into the pot 20 times, the odds are that only four of their hands will go to showdown. Unless they voluntarily show their cards in other hands, you are only going to get verifiable data from them on four hands- and that’s assuming they win all four showdowns and show their cards (on a side note, I think all players at showdown should be forced to show their cards!). Can you really make broad assumptions about someone based on four hands?

Similarly, a player who puts money into the pot only eight times may see just two hands go to showdown. Are two hands enough data to make an assumption about their style of play?

First Impressions Can Be False Impressions

I don’t think so. For instance, you would normally assume the player who is playing a lot of hands has a wider opening range, but what if the player is simply on a heater? It’s not entirely inconceivable that he has been getting good starting hands worth playing during that stretch and has also been maximizing his position. Incorrectly labeling him as a loose/aggressive player could cost you.

And can you really assume that the “tight” player who has only opened eight hands during that same time span is really a tight player? What if he was on an extended stretch of card dead, and the few times he had decent opening hands, he was in a bad position or somebody put in a big raise in front of him? I have been in live tourneys before where it seemed like I folded every hand for more than an hour because I simply was not getting anything worth playing and no opportunities presented themselves to try and steal the blinds, especially early in a tourney when blinds really aren’t worth stealing.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to figure out your opponents’ styles of play, but making assumptions based on a limited set of data is inherently dangerous. Intelligence should be based on a pattern of play, and it is difficult to establish a player’s tendencies in just a few hours of play.

I have been playing in a local pub league now for more than a year, and I have started to figure out the differing styles of play of certain regulars that I have played against dozens of times. But in a tournament situation with a bunch of strangers, where players and tables are changing frequently, gathering intelligence on individuals is more of a challenge and should be done so with caution.

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