Unless you’re playing with the exact same group of people every time you sit down, you will frequently have very little background on many players at your table. When you’re a winning poker player, you’re used to keeping your eye on the steady stream of strangers filling the seats vacated by ill-advised shoves and calls.

It’s no surprise that when we asked for questions about playing vs. unknowns from our community, we received hundreds of responses.

Featuring: Sweeney


Default Lines vs. Unknowns

I want to learn what my standard playing style should be against an unknown so that I can adjust when I figure out info about them” – Jack

When you’re up against unknown players, the best strategy comes down to these six letters: ABC TAG. You want to play a straightforward, rudimentary type of poker that focuses on playing premium hands in position and folding your way out of trouble with a tight pre-flop range. You want to bet for value, forego bluffs, and generally play cautiously vs. aggression.

Related Podcast: Basic Poker Strategy

Understanding Your Opponent’s Understanding

How to know if the Villain is showing position awareness?” – David

If you can identify that a player is not positionally aware, you can profit. These players don’t really compute the fact that they should be tighter in early position and more aggressive in later position. In $1/$2 games, this often manifests as a lot of limping pre-flop. You obviously want to be extra-observant of new, unknown players, but knowing what to look for is key. SplitSuit recommends first figuring out if they’re positionally aware. If they are, then you know you’re up against a certain level of player. If they’re not positionally aware, you and everyone else at the table that is will notice and exploit it.

Plays to Avoid with Unknowns

What sort of plays should I keep in mind when dealing with unknown players? As such, are there plays that I should not think of using against unknown players?” – Larry

Big, expensive bluffs should not generally be run vs. unknowns, SplitSuit urges. Triple barrels are hard to muster when there’s no information to base your idea of how often they will fold. You haven’t even answered the most basic questions about the player, how are you going to know how often they fold to a 5-bet? You’re playing an ABC TAG strategy, remember? Don’t succumb to fancy play syndrome.

Two Barrels, No Information

What should your double barrel frequencies be vs various board textures against unknowns?” – Larry

It’s too situational to give specific advice on even general board textures, SplitSuit says, but he’s got a few things for players to think about: (1) Flopzilla output; (2) Range advantage.

Obviously you can’t use Flopzilla in real-time, but if you work with it off the table, you’ll find yourself using what Flopzilla has taught you about hand ranging as an intuitive skill. Given enough practice, you can “bucket” or group together range types and board textures to make real-time analysis easier, thanks to the insights Flopzilla will give you on range advantage.

Range advantage is about understanding whose range will be ahead given a certain card coming, or a certain board texture being present. Range advantage should inform your more aggressive plays, like double-barrel bluffs.

What Do the Chips Say?

Use of chips stacks as a way to classify an unknown.” – Notam

SplitSuit is focused on two things in regards to how a player interacts with their chips: (1) How they handle them; (2) How they cut and stack them.

Keep an eagle eye out for players that don’t seem entirely comfortable handling their chips. It’s often a sure sign they are a weaker opponent, and you’ll be looking for future opportunities to more closely watch them be uncomfortable handling chips, as they put them in a pot you’ll win. Conversely, players who are doing chip tricks and cutting out raises like it’s their job are deserving of your eagle eye as well, but for more strategic and defensive purposes.

In terms of what to look for in the way a player stacks their chips, SplitSuit will generally regard players who stack in weird amounts as less experienced players. For example, stacks of 20 are standard in $1/$2 for red chips for more experienced players. It’s easy at a glance at your stack and know how much you’re sitting on, and it’s a courtesy to other players to make your stack clearly visible. Players that hide $25 chips at the bottom of red stacks or try to stack chips deceptively are often shooting this angle to compensate for a lack of skill. They’re not fooling anyone. Good players are always looking at the bottom and behind stacks to be sure they know where their opponents stand.

Unknown Radar

how to know QUICKLY if they are good players or not.” – Larry

We mentioned some of the things to look for: weird chip handling or stacking and lack of positional awareness, for example. The truth is, it’s much easier to identify a bad player than a good player. This is because bad players are in part bad because they give off information that clearly telegraphs their weakness. It takes a lot longer to identify someone who is disciplined because discipline is a pattern of behavior, not a few acts.

Sometimes all it takes is seeing the unknown player limp a few times from early position and you can peg them in the fishier category.

Bet sizing is another thing to keep an eye on. Often times, you only need to see one or two atypical bet sizings to put them in the fish bucket. Do they raise to $6 after 6 players limp in for $2? Do they bet $20 into a $12 pot on an A high flop?

Sample Size

How many hands before a player moves from ‘unknown’ to ‘known'” – Mike

While SplitSuit says there is no golden rule for number of hands, his general guideline is that you should know within 30 hands, or roughly 3 full orbits, what the player’s tendencies are. If they are a weaker player, it’s likely you’ll learn that before 30 hands. After 100 hands you should know pretty well what type of player you’re dealing with, and after 500 hands, you’ve seen some showdowns, received ideas on ranges and frequencies, and their style of play should be very familiar to you.

But be cautious when drawing conclusions in the first few orbits. Players could be running good. They might have just lost $500 and are on tilt. They might just be distracted and playing passively. You need some time to pick up all the information you need to peg them on the range of player types, from nit to maniac.

Another way to look at it for live poker (where you’re highly unlikely to have 500 hands with a single player in a single session): After 1 hour, you should have a general idea of player types, after 2 hours you should be able to feel confident enough to exploit them, and after several hours at the same table, you ought to have a clear strategy to exploit their player type.

Paying Attention to Get Paid

Clearly the more information you have the better, so information gathering is the major thing I want to learn. Are there ways to find tendencies without showdown?” – Chandler

This question is exactly the kind of thing SplitSuit’s webinar will explain. The specific wisdom he shares in the podcast is this:

If you want to get really good at reading unknown players quickly and profitably, you’re going to need to pay an incredible amount of attention to what is going on at the table at all times. If you’ve never paid this much attention to a poker game before, the change can take a while to master, and will likely feel overwhelming at first. You are not just observing play, you are storing information about play and comparing it to previously stored information to form new information. That’s a lot of always-changing information to keep track of!

The key is understanding that paying attention and drawing conclusions are a discipline. It’s a practice. Initially, it’s going to be tiring, so play a few shorter sessions at full-on focus until you feel more comfortable absorbing the insane amount of information it takes to classify all the players on your table into types that can be exploited.

Because rivers can be rare and showdowns rarer still, you’re going to want to make sure you’re focused on the hand from preflop onward. Try to range each player based on their action, and narrow the range as the hand goes on. Confirm or deny your suspicious when you’re lucky enough to see the cards flip up.

  • mcgavel1

    Awesome tips – thanks!