Online is different from live poker. Online, the only things that you can directly observe are:
- The cards.
- The sizing of bets.
- The timing of bets.
- Activity in the chat window.
Usually people chat between hands, or when they’re out of hands, and not during, so you can mostly discount (4).
Reading the cards that are visible is the easiest and most direct way to read into your opponent. You don’t actually know anything about what your opponent might have, until they are put to a bet.
Before we get to that, let’s talk about just the cards. We’re only able to look at the ones that are face up: that is, the ones in your hand, and the ones that have been laid out on the board. What do these cards tell you about the strength of your hand? Are you in this hand, or not? You’re in the hand if you think your cards are particularly strong, otherwise you’re not. Simple.
Now, if you are in the hand, you just work back from that. What cards could beat my hand? What cards could improve my hand (on the flop, turn, river)? Are there more cards that beat my hand than can improve my hand? If so, you probably want to think about getting out of the hand, regardless of what your opponent holds. And, once you’ve been playing a while, you don’t need to literally count all the possible cards that could make a better hand than you can make, and the cards that could make your hand better; you get a feel for this after playing long enough, and that’s generally good enough.
Let’s say you have developed this feel, and you’re now thinking about how to get a read on your opponent. This is where looking at the bets tell you comes into play.
Preflop: did your opponent limp? Raise? Call a raise? 3-bet? More-bet? All of that can tell you something about the cards he’s holding. Maybe. Could be he’s bluffing. Or could be he’s a bad player. Could be a lot of things. Really what it tells you is something about what cards they are representing that they may have. But you don’t know for sure until and unless you see them.
But usually you can probably take most people at their word. (Notice how many qualifiers there are in that sentence?)
You can start to doubt them after you observe their play for a while, if you’re seeing behavior that doesn’t match up with what you know about probability. Are they shoving every hand? Probably they’re not holding AA in each of those hands.
After the flop: Those three cards will tell you a lot. You must quickly evaluate where you’re at. Did this flop hit you? Did you make a pair, two pair, or trips? Did you flop a straight, flush, or boat? IYou could even flop quads. f you hit top pair, or better, you may be in good shape. If you have top pair and a good kicker, or better, then you’re in the hand, and if so, then and only then does it really matter what your opponent might be holding. (I’m ignoring the full-on bluff for now, this is not something you can do profitably until you’re more experienced.) So then, once you’ve assessed whether you’re in the hand, think about what cards a reasonable opponent would need to hold in order to also be in the hand.
Then, all you have to do is observe their behavior. Do they check? Bet? Raise? What does this tell you? Checking could mean they haven’t made a hand, and aren’t willing to risk more chips. But it could also mean that they have a very strong hand, and don’t want to scare the other players away from betting. If someone else bets, and they come back and raise it when it comes back around to them, that’s a show of strength. Normally a player who does that is very confident that they have the best hand. Sometimes a monster hand will slow play, just calling passively, letting other players do the betting, until the river. Sometimes a player might check-raise as a bluff.
It’s more or less the same for the Turn and River cards. Watch the cards, watch how the opponent bets them, and infer what you can.
The timing of the bet can tell you something as well. If they bet very quickly, it means they knew what they were going to do ahead of time, and didn’t need to see the action ahead of them to make up their mind about what they were going to do. That usually indicates certainty, and if they’re betting, calling, or raising very quickly, that might indicate a strong hand. If a player takes more time, are they considering whehter to fold? Or just how to size their value bet correctly to extract value from their monster hand? Some players may be conscious of these timing-based reads, and deliberately draw out the clock for heightened drama, to make their opponent wonder what they were thinking about for so long – so, could be good or bad, really, or could be a deliberate mislead. Not that you can tell for sure, but it’s a little more information to factor into your own decision making.
You can also of course rule out hands based on the five cards on the board: There’s no possibility of a full house or quads without at least one pair on the board. There’s no possibility of a flush without at least 3 of one suit on the board. Straights are harder to see – sometimes, 3 or 4 cards are in sequence on the board, and that’s easy to spot; other times there’s gaps in the middle – which may be filled in by your opponent’s hole cards – that obscure the possibility of a straight. Boards that have 2-card gaps, or every-other card in a sequence can mask a straight pretty well. But if you don’t see those possibilities on the board, then you don’t have to worry about your opponent possibly having those hands. And if they were drawing to them, then you know by the river that they might be holding nothing at all, or perhaps just a pair. If you see 3 or more of a suit, 3 or 4 of a sequence, or a pair or trips on the board, those are scare boards, and if those cards don’t give your hand maximum benefit (ie, you make the straight, flush, trips, boat, or quads) then you need to be aware that it could have happened for your opponent, and if you know your opponent’s habits, and observe how they bet the hand, it can tell you what you need to know.
The more you’ve played against that player, the more you can observe about how they play in various situations, and if you can remember that and notice the pattern when it happens again, you can capitalize on your insight. But keep in minds players are dynamic, and they will change their play according to many factors: their mood, how engaged they are in the game at the moment, the size of the pot, the size of their stack, the size of the blinds, they can adjust their strategy from one hand to the next as they gain insights from their observations about how the table is playing, and week to week, month to month based on the aggregation of all their learning as they refine their game.
In a live game, of course, there’s a lot more information available, since you can directly look at the player. This is already too long a response, and it’s not too relevant for a community about online poker. But the idea that a really good poker player can just look at someone and guess the exact cards in their hand is something of a Hollywood myth. You don’t get instant cold reads on strangers, certainly. You might get uncannily close to accurate if you have played the same player a whole lot, it’s close to the river, and are very good at reading.
Hope this helps.