The Hand Reading Lab Review – Learn The Most Important Poker Skill
Review of The Hand Reading Lab by James ‘SplitSuit’ Sweeney
I start many reviews with a question – “Is It worth it?”
However, the ability to read the hands of other players is one of the most important skills that every poker player needs, but very few have. Therefore, if this course can help you even a little bit improve in this area, how it could not be worth it?
This skill is often misrepresented or not understood correctly by those new to the game. The fact of the matter is, reading hands has little to do with guessing and is based on an almost scientific process of building hand ranges.
Those interested in how exactly this process works, The Hand Reading Lab by James ‘SplitSuit’ Sweeney offers all the answers. This long and detailed course devoted to hand reading explains the process of constructing and assigning ranges to your opponents based on various factors, and is more detailed compared to what you can find in the best poker training sites online.
The course is conveniently split into three parts. The first one deals with the theoretical foundations of Texas Holdem that are vital to understand before moving forward.
In the second part, SplitSuit moves from theory to practice, digging into various preflop and postflop scenarios, and applying these theoretical concepts to explain how hand ranges are constructed.
In the final section, we’re presented with a range of videos with concrete hand examples demonstrating all the different spots discussed in the second part.
So let me break down what you will find inside The Hand Reading Lab!
Hand Reading Lab Theory Part
Like most things in poker, the ability to read hands begins with certain rules and theoretical foundations that are required before we’re able to move on. These fundamentals are explained in the first few videos of the course, where SplitSuit also devotes one lesson to using Flopzilla, one of the best poker software solutions for analyzing hand ranges.
The Three L’s
The first three videos deal with concepts that Sweeney dubs the ‘Three L’s’. These represent a simple framework created by James to help better understand the building blocks of hand reading. They are Laws of Liner, Logic, and Learning.
- Linear means that ranges start from the beginning and change as we get closer to the end, i.e. the showdown. By that point, we should have a very narrow range. Ranges should never really expand; they can stay the same or get smaller. There can be a situation where someone has the same range on every single street, but you can’t have an expanding range – if they don’t have a certain hand before the flop they can’t have it on the river as well.
- Logic – ranges in poker have a certain logic to them. You’ll be building your ranges based on the logic used by your opponent. Thinking players are usually logical, using legitimate strategy, considering the position, opponents, board texture, etc. The logic may not necessarily be the same as yours, but you can still understand it. Some players aren’t as logical and instead choose their hands based on their emotions, ego, or stuff like having a favorite hand they want to play almost always. Recreational players tend to have much wider ranges that are more difficult to pinpoint.
- Learning – You’ll be wrong a lot when hand reading, and this is perfectly fine. There is a large margin of error when putting people on ranges. However, you’re going to get better moving forward and learning from your mistakes. We are making assumptions and building the range based on assumptions about their logic. If and when we make a wrong assumption about a particular opponent, we can learn from it and use it in future situations to become better.
Shapes of Hand Ranges
In terms of ranges, shapes are exactly how a particular range looks and which hands it contains. It is defined by actions from your opponents. Two important things are the width of the range and also its shape, i.e. how exactly it is built. The video goes on to discuss shapes of hand ranges through several common situations such as:
- Calling vs. raising – open-raising ranges are usually fairly static; calling ranges (and pretty much all other ranges) are much more dynamic depending on a player and a situation
- Auto vs. manual – when using poker software, you can use default ranges or assign them manually. Doing it manually is much more precise and effective. Computer builds shapes without context or consideration for the player, table action, etc.
- Polarized vs. depolarized – a range that has nuts and very non-nut hands (polarized) vs. a range containing nuts and medium-strength hands (depolarized)
- Escalator ranges – if a hand is within a range, similar ones above it are as well
- Parallel ranges – certain hands, although different, are usually included in the same range, i.e. people tend to play hands like AJ and KQ similarly, although they are different hands
You can use these concepts to deconstruct your opponent’s hands at a showdown and build their ranges. The more information you have, the better you’ll be able to do it, and all of these tools, like tracking software and Flopzilla, will help you to do exactly that.
Flopzilla is one of the best tools players can use to learn about ranges, and James Sweeney takes a full video to explain how to take advantage of this software. The video covers everything you need to know about how to get started with Flopzilla even if you’re completely new to this tool. So you don’t need to be an experienced user to keep up.
SplitSuit explains why this software is very good for technical analysis and also very useful in general terms. For example, you can see how different starting hands stack up on the flop (flopping a top pair, a second pair, top two pair, etc.). In terms of this particular course, Flopzilla is essential because it can also calculate various ranges vs. different flops scenarios and help you construct better ranges for yourself.
The Practical Part: Preflop Hand Reading
After going through these theoretical concepts, the course moves on to the practical part, where Split Suit covers a range of concrete situations both before and after the flop. Going through the processes of constructing your opponent’s ranges in various spots (based on their vpip/pfr ratio, when they raise, when you’re the one defending against the raise, 3-bet pots, etc.).
Many of these videos have certain overlapping points, and they keep going back to the same theoretical foundations, which is why it makes the most sense to watch this course in the order it is presented.
Hand Reading: Open Raises
Figuring out what the players are opening with can help you decide what is the most +EV line. You will understand when it is better to 3-bet or simply call, and play a hand from flop onwards. This can give you a big advantage.
If you’re able to put someone on a specific range of hands early, you can use that info to make a better decision moving forward in the hand.
As stated earlier in the course, open raising ranges are the most static and depolarized by nature. Although they vary by players, they are still somewhat similar, and you can expand and narrow them slightly based on general tendencies.
There are four main categories in every open raise range, namely:
- pocket pairs,
- broadway hands,
- suited connectors,
- and other hands.
Start building your opponent’s range by asking yourself certain questions, such as what is the worst pocket pair or broadway combo they’d open with, what worst suited connectors they’re going to raise with, and what other hands do you suspect might be in there as well.
For example, some players are tighter with smaller pocket pairs early and will prefer to limp with them instead of raising, which is something to consider when building their hand range. Then, you can go through a similar process for their broadways using the escalator idea, etc.
Solid players use logic when making their decisions, so you also need to use logic when making yours. These players don’t typically open randomly, but they can adjust ranges based on a specific situation.
Think about what it is and use that idea to construct their ranges before the flop. Are they opening more hands because there is a recreational player in the blinds or maybe playing much tighter because they have aggressive regulars to the left?
Always ask yourself what a good player is looking at and how they’re making their decisions.
Against recreational players, building their hand range will depend greatly on what type of a player they are. Some are just using default ranges without thinking much about the situation or other players. Others are going to raise with random poker hands just because they feel like it, so make sure to identify such opponents.
Hand Reading: 3-Bets
The video covers the basics of 3-betting, 3-bets vs. flats, polarized vs. depolarized, playing from the blinds, and, of course, reading hands. The starting point is understanding how your range correlates with the flat calling range.
Based on their position, people mostly use polarized and depolarized ranges when 3-betting, and these shapes were covered in one of the previous videos.
In polarized ranges, there are more blind spots as it is harder to figure out exactly what they’re 3-betting. So, to start building the 3-bet range, begin with nutted hands first, i.e. big pocket pairs and strong broadway hands. Keep an eye on the percentage and use this information in an online setting where you have someone’s 3-bet stats to structure their range.
Then, move to some strong hands like AQ and pocket 9s, for example. Once you have their strong range defined, you can move on to trying to figure out the non-so-strong part of their 3-betting range. Keep in mind that weak players have either too much or too little air in their range, while strong opponents will have a proper ratio of hands most of the time.
Once you figure out these details and tendencies, you can figure out how to exploit them. Maybe 4-betting more against players who have too many weak and/or weaker hands in their range, or flatting more hands in position.
SplitSuit goes on to explain this idea in more detail in the rest of the video, emphasizing the importance of visualizing their range by using a pie chart.
Calling Preflop Raises
This video addresses situations where players are faced with a raise and have an option to 3-bet but choose to call instead. Like the previous lesson, this one also focuses on explaining the process of figuring out your opponent’s range in these spots, specifically addressing how to approach good vs. recreational players.
As already mentioned in the previous lesson, flat calls and 3-bets are somewhat intertwined. So, the good starting point is figuring out what hands your opponent would 3-bet with and removing them from their range. Then, we can proceed to try and construct their calling range by looking at four broad categories: pocket pairs, broadway hands, suited connectors, and other hands.
Pocket pairs are a baseline starting point as many players are going to set mine in these situations. Then, there are broadway hands – what percentage of them they call with as opposed to 3-betting? It is really important to understand the kind of hands your opponents are going to 3-bet with as it helps you construct their calling ranges.
When thinking about suited connectors, it is important to distinguish between good and recreational players. Regulars are going to consider all sorts of aspects, such as the stack depth and position. While other players are going to call a lot with hands such as suited connectors simply because they look too “pretty” to fold.
In terms of other hands, you’ll face many more surprises in 3-bet pots when playing against weaker and more passive opponents.
These players will often flat call with hands they don’t like folding but also don’t feel comfortable 3-betting. SplitSuit goes on to explain how to deal with these situations.
Like in other pieces, SplitSuit first explains what 4-bet and 5-bet are on practical examples for those who may not be familiar with the terminology.
With that out of the way, the lesson continues by once again explaining the concept of a fork – i.e. once a player faces a 3-bet, they have a certain range of hands they’ll continue playing. Some of these hands they’re going to call and others will be in their 4-betting range.
James proceeds to explain how in most scenarios, these 4-bet+ ranges are going to be either polarized or depolarized, meaning very strong hands or not at all strong. In these spots, especially with 5-bets and 6-bets, it is not uncommon at all for the players to have just the nuts, meaning hands such as 10-10+ and AK.
It is harder to construct these hand ranges because it is difficult to have a big enough sample for these spots. However, you can start by assigning a very strong range by default and work your way from there based on the information you manage to get.
Calling 3-bet Ranges
The lesson addresses the fact that flat calling and 4-betting ranges are intertwined and then use similar logic to start with building the calling range by eliminating the 4-bet area of the spectrum.
This particular video uses much of the same logic to explain how to construct 3-bet calling ranges of your opponents, and thus we won’t go into too much detail.
That said, this is a very important lesson in The Hand Reading Lab so you should by no means be skipping it. If you’ve watched previous parts, it will be much easier to keep up with the ideas and logic used by SplitSuit.
The Practical Part: Postflop Hand Ranges
After addressing all the various preflop ideas and concepts in constructing your opponent’s hand ranges, the course moves on to postflop strategy.
In the first video, Sweeney explains a few vital elements for this area.
Of course, the ability to read hands well after the flop stems from good preflop reading abilities, primarily due to the previously explained Law of Liner, i.e. the ranges can only become narrower as the hand progresses.
The flop texture is the starting point of everything – it heavily influences all ranges. Of course, there is, once again, the difference between good and recreational players, as good players will make much more rational decisions.
In this video, SplitSuit explains the concept of combos and how these are used when building hand ranges. While this is a slightly technical idea, it isn’t too difficult to understand and implement it in practise.
Moreover, it is crucial for your postflop hand reading abilities, so it is very important to understand and accept the math part of the game.
Postflop with the Lead
This particular video deals with situations where we’re going into the flop as the preflop aggressor against an opponent who decided just to call your raise.
SplitSuit states that it is important to be linear in these situations and start by thinking about what hands they likely called before the flop. Then, consider how that particular range connects with the flop in question.
James continues to explain this concept with a concrete example. After figuring out this first part, you can move on to thinking about what the opponent is likely to do based on your action – what hands from their range are they likely to give up on the flop, what hands they will continue with to the turn, etc.
Figure out what type of a player you’re up against. Sweeney explains that if they play the fit-or-fold style, we can continue against them a ton. Mostly because most ranges miss the flop more than 50% of the time, which means that continued aggression will win us the pot quite often.
Of course, we won’t always win the pot on the flop, so the video explains how to continue constructing the range based on the preflop and flop actions, and how the turn card influences the board texture.
Like with many other lessons, SplitSuit suggests using the pie chart concept here to visualize the entire range of your opponent, split into two sections – the range of hands they’ll continue with and hands they’re going to fold. By using this concept and applying the Law of Linear, we can make very good assumptions about our opponents’ hands and construct their ranges after the flop.
Postflop without the Lead
This lesson covers the situations where your opponent is the aggressor going to the flop and/or the turn and the river.
Like the previous video, this one also leans on ideas covered in previous parts of the Hand Reading Lab Review, which is why it is quite important to go through these videos in order and not skip on any of them when first watching the course.
Without going into too many details, we’ll just say that SplitSuit once again covers a number of important ideas when playing without the lead and how we should approach the range building in these situations.
Of course, the video also talks about how to recognize the most profitable spots in these scenarios and take advantage of them.
Capped Ranges & Advanced Range Advantage
The final two videos in the practical part of the series cover the idea of capped ranges and the “advanced range advantage”. These two videos represent a nice way to wrap up the course and introduce some new concepts to go along with everything that’s been discussed.
Capped ranges are ranges that are limited to certain strength hands based on previous actions. Sweeney demonstrates this through an example for a better understanding of this fairly important concept.
Namely, it is another thing to consider when constructing hand ranges preflop and postflop as it is the way to eliminate certain hands from our opponents’ possible holdings. The video also presents several questions to help identify capped ranges during a hand.
Finally, the Advanced Range Advantage video explains what this concept is and how you can use it to build ranges.
In the simplest of terms, it explains which player’s range is likely to be ahead. Based on this presumption, we can figure out what boards and textures are likely to benefit our opponents and us.
Examples, Bonus Videos & Conclusion
The rest of the videos in the course are mostly examples of hands that highlights various points discussed earlier.
These examples are a great watch after all the videos because they demonstrate all the different concepts in action and are likely to be very helpful if you still have some uncertainties.
So, the final question – is worth the time and money? And the answer is most certainly YES.
This is one of the best courses that address the topic of hand reading with this sort of detailed approach. While most videos on this topic seem somewhat general and non-specific, James “SplitSuit” Sweeney leaves no stone unturned.
The additional benefit of the Hand Reading Lab is that you’ll learn a lot about ranges in general, how they’re constructed, and just how significant they are in all segments of the play.
So, while the main focus of this course may be hand reading, you’ll pick a lot of valuable information along the way.
It really explains the entire process involved in putting your opponent on a certain range of hands and how to use this ability to your advantage in pretty much every scenario you can think.
So, whether you’re looking to improve your hand reading abilities or understand how the best players can “read” their opponents so well, this course will help you immensely.
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