There is an old military maxim that applies to poker: time spent in reconnaissance is seldom time wasted. In other words, your chances for a successful mission (tournament) will improve greatly if you have more intelligence about the strengths and weaknesses of your enemy (opponents).
While there are numerous HUDs available for online players that compile all sorts of data, collecting intelligence at live tourneys presents unique challenges. First, you are likely to change tables often, meaning that you may not spend more than an hour or two with a specific group of players, and several of those players will change during that time.
Second, unless you’re Raymond Babbitt from Rain Man, it’s hard to remember a lot of different data points on several players, let alone the dozens you will wind up playing against if you manage to last a while in the tourney.
Third, you don’t really have a good way to keep the data in hard format. While it’s generally not against tourney rules to have a notebook and keep notes at the table, you really want to be watching the table, the players, and making mental notes. It’s hard to do that if you’re writing in a notebook or typing notes into your cellphone.
Despite these difficulties, it’s still worth it to try to get some intelligence on your opponents. The best time to do so is when you are not in a hand. Watch the other players and take mental notes. Too many players take out their cell phone and text their friends about the bad beat they just suffered or listen to music when they fold.
Ditch the headphones as well. You need to be able to hear all that is going on at the table. You might be able to detect a subtle change in a player’s voice when he has a really strong hand, but you would never know that if you are listening to music.
The most important thing to do is keep it simple. Don’t try to compile numerous data points on every player at the table. Instead, pick out a couple of players at the table and keep tabs on some of their stats. Are they seeing a lot of flops? Do they limp into hands? Do they C-bet the flop out of position?
The object is not to submit all these data points to memory. There is no way you’ll be able to remember the player across from you has seen 9 of 35 flops, check-raised out of position 3 times, or C-Bets 62% of the time after a pre-flop raise. Instead, what you are trying to do is figure out which players know what he/she is doing, and the sooner you make that determination the better.
The only opportunities to get hard data on a player is when a hand goes to showdown and he tables his cards or if he voluntarily shows his cards. If you are only going to track one piece of data, this would be the one, because it’s the only time you get true insight into how a player plays. When you see a player reveal his cards, you should make note of what his pocket is and then think back on the hand to remember how he played it. Was he the initiator or was he simply check-calling? What was the pre-flop action? Was he the BB?
Very few hands actually make it to showdown, so don’t miss out on these opportunities. 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 went to showdown. While this survey was for cash game play, the data is probably similar for tournaments.
In the next installment, I will look at some steps you can take to increase your ability to get information on your opponents, and perhaps most importantly, what you can do to deny your opponents the same intel on you.