How to Master the Art of Hand Reading in Poker

master hand reading skills

5 minutes

Last Updated: June 10, 2024

Today, I want to share with you a system that has been instrumental in my success at the poker table: my “Hand Range Funnel.”

This methodical approach has helped me navigate some of the biggest games in the world, including my 11th-place finish in the 2023 World Series of Poker Main Event, and I'm confident it can elevate your poker game as well.

Hand reading is arguably the most critical skill in poker. It allows you to make informed decisions and exploit your opponents effectively. Think about it: if you can correctly identify the most likely poker hands your opponent is holding, the rest is easy.

Understanding the Hand Range Funnel

Hand Range Funnel Flow

The concept of a hand range funnel is simple yet powerful.

A hand range is the set of all possible hands that your opponent can hold at any given time.

The goal is to narrow this range progressively as the hand unfolds from preflop to the river.

The funnel analogy helps illustrate that the range of possible hands narrows down as more information becomes available through your opponent's actions, just like a funnel you’d use in the kitchen.

Starting Preflop – How to Use the Hand Range Funnel

To use the hand range funnel, you start wide and progressively narrow down your opponent’s range with each action they take. Your goal is to arrive at a select few hands by the river.

Preflop is where hand ranges are at their widest. When an opponent is dealt in, they can theoretically have any of the 1,326 possible starting hands. This point in the hand represents the top of the funnel.

However, most players only play a subset of these hands based on their position, playing style, and previous actions.

Here’s where you want to consider the player types, stack sizes, history, and more.

  • Tight Players: Typically play about 10% of hands. Expect stronger hands, such as big pairs and high Broadway cards.
  • Loose Players: May play up to 25% of hands, including a wider array of connectors and weaker aces.
  • Maniacs: Could play up to 50% of hands, involving a very wide variety of weak suited and offsuit hands, such as 96s and K9 offsuit.

You can already see the power of the Hand Range Funnel in action. If you’re playing against a tight player who opens in an early position, for example, you can reason they will only play the top 10% of hands.

master hand reading with hand funnels
Use our free preflop charts to evaluate opponents' opening ranges

By using the funnel and observing this one singular action, you’ve already eliminated 90% of the hands from their range.

Postflop Action: Narrow Their Range

On the flop, hand ranges start to narrow significantly. Players will fold weaker hands that don’t connect with the board or offer potential draws.

You’ll spend the next three streets eliminating hands further until you get it down to their most likely holding.

Focus on the following:

  • Betting Patterns: Continuation bets from preflop raisers often indicate some connectivity to the board. Other more advanced players will bet on boards that favor their range vs. the range of their opponent. Understanding this nuance requires more expertise.
  • Check-raises: Usually signify strong hands or strong draws intending to build the pot or push out weaker hands.

Let’s take a look at an example.

On the Flop

If a player raises preflop and then bets the flop on a AQ9 board, their range likely includes strong aces, sets, two pairs, or strong draws.

It’s prudent to give your opponent an exact range at each point in the hand. Although it will take time and practice to improve your accuracy, any guess is better than none.

In the example above, we can reason that their hand range is the following:

  • Sets: AA, QQ, 99
  • Two Pair: AQs, AQo, A9s
  • One Pair: AKs, AKo, AJs, AJo, ATs, A8s-A2s, KQs, KQo
  • Draws: JTs, KJs, KTs

Naturally, this will vary widely by player and situation, but it’s a reasonable starting point.

In my Hand Reading System, I’ll share with you a blank worksheet that you can use to practice your funneling while reviewing your hands.

improve hand reading skills
Easily check your winning chances for any hand with our free poker odds calculator

On the Turn

Your goal here is to use the updated information to further narrow their range. This will require some finesse, since people will act differently on different cards.

So, for example, if your opponent bets full pot on an Ace, it’s different than him betting full pot on a 2 that brings a flush draw.

The reason is the former shows a lot more strength. Bluffing into what could potentially be three aces is unwise, so many will simply check when the board pairs.

However, bluffs will often continue bluffing on blank turns or when they pick up more equity with a backdoor draw.

In short, the Villain’s range is wider on a two than an Ace. As a result, you’ll have to update your analysis accordingly.

In general, betting patterns on the turn provide more clarity. The turn is where many players' ranges become sharply defined:

  • Large Bets: Often indicative of very strong hands.
  • Check-calls: Usually weaker made hands or draws that are not confident enough to raise but too strong to fold.

On the River

The river is where the opponent’s range is at its narrowest. Here’s where you make your final assessment:

  • All-in Bets: Typically polarize the opponent’s range to either very strong hands or bluffs.
  • Checks: Usually indicate medium-strength hands hoping to win at showdown without risking more chips.

Only a savvy, more balanced player will check with a strong hand to trap you after showing aggression on all previous streets.

Continuing with our original example, if the final board is AQ924 and your opponent shoves all-in, their range likely consists of very strong hands like sets, two pairs, or bluffs that missed, like Jack-Ten.

Perhaps an aggressive player will make a value shove with Ace-King.

Your task is to evaluate whether they are more likely to be bluffing or holding the goods based on their previous actions and your read on their tendencies.

Going deeper, you can also learn to count combos to figure out the probability they are bluffing vs. value betting.

Finally, there are three key principles to a “Hand Range Funnel,” which I hope to have the opportunity to share with you in my free guide. For more on Hand Reading, including exactly how I use this funnel in my everyday cash games and tournaments, download my Intro to Hand Reading, available for free at Conscious Poker.

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