Thinking Through a Poker Hand

By Donovan Panone

In order to progress in the game of poker you have to think beyond the cards that you play. There are many situational factors that you have to take into affect when determining the expected value of your decisions. These factors may be different depending on whether you are playing a tournament or a cash game. To focus this lesson, we will concentrate on tournament play.

Situational Factors

There are many different factors to take into effect when making decisions about a poker hand. In fact, it’s the layers of complexity involved in poker that make this game so fun. You may have seen lists similar to this, but the following (inspired by Harrington on Hold’em: Volume 1) are the primary situational factors to consider during tournament play.

  • The stage of the tournament (early, bubble, final table, etc.)
  • Number of players at the table.
  • Playing styles and personalities of the players on the table.
  • Your image at the table.
  • Your stack size in relation to the blinds & antes.
  • Your stack size in relation to the others at the table.
  • Your position relative to the other players.
  • Action that has occurred before you.
  • Number and type of players left to act after you.
  • The pot odds.
  • Your position after the flop.
  • Tells you may have picked up.
  • Your cards.

Levels of Thinking

In order to get beyond the cards, there are different levels in which you should be thinking about the players and the situation. Please see our lesson on levels of thinking for more on this fundamental concept, but here’s a quick re-cap:

  • 1st Level – What cards do I have?
  • 2nd Level – What do my opponents have?
  • 3rd Level – What do they think I have?
  • 4th Level – What do they think I think they have?
  • 5th Level – Yes, you can keep going and going…

Ideally you should only be thinking one level deeper than your opponent. If they aren’t capable of thinking about what cards you have (2nd level thinking) then there’s no point in thinking about what you think they think you have (3rd level thinking).

The Decision Making Process

As mentioned, the actual cards you hold should only be one small factor to consider. And while I think most people fundamentally agree with this concept, many do not implement it correctly in the process they take when deciding their actions at the table. Additionally, online poker can create bad habits that are counterintuitive to successful poker play. Online, more so than in live poker, the cards you hold can have a higher weight in your decision making process than they should, simply because you see your cards first. It’s important that even though your cards are exposed, you need to train yourself to detach the value of your hand until you’ve seen the action in front of you and thought through the situation.

So when I say the “decision making process”, I specifically mean the steps you go through in your mind before deciding how to act on every poker hand. Here is a typical order of events (assuming you are decent poker player and are looking at your cards last):

  1. Observe the action thus far.
  2. Think about situational factors and the past play and tendencies of other players.
  3. Put each person on a range of hands based on #2.
  4. Hope you pick up a hand that is conducive to the action and the factors.
  5. Look at hand and then decide if it is the right hand to play.
  6. Narrow down possible actions to take and how the players would react.
  7. Act.

This is faulty thinking and isn’t the right process in order to capitalize on each situation. Why? – Because you truly are not playing the players by thinking this way. You are still allowing your cards to be the primary determining factor in your decisions. The following is a more optimal thought process:

  1. Observe the action thus far.
  2. Think about situational factors and the past play and tendencies of other players.
  3. Put each person on a range of hands based on #2.
  4. Narrow down possible actions to take and how the players would react.
  5. Determine what they think I would have based on those actions.
  6. If my actual hand has to be a factor, consider the results based on a show down.
  7. Act.

The key here is simply moving #6 from the first list up to #4 in the second list. #5 in the second list is something that most good poker players usually do, but it is harder to perform this third-level thinking after you’ve already decided to play a particular hand.

Keep in mind that expected value is always part of this decision making process and comes into play when narrowing down all the alternative choices of how to act. But the essence of this process is that we should be thinking about our cards after we have considered possible courses of action. For pre-flop play, this means not even looking at our cards until we’ve done this. But this decision making process isn’t just about pre-flop hold’em. It’s all poker on all streets.

Now with this line of thinking, it doesn’t mean that the action itself is a bluff or a “move”; it just means that we are considering our actual hand last in the process and not somewhere in the middle. This type of decision making process is something that separates the great poker players from the good ones. While many players may feel like they understand the concept of “playing the player”, it is easy to drift back into the habit of just playing cards. The key is to practice this decision making process over and over in order to create a habit of performing these steps at a subconscious level.

Hand Example – Making a Tough Call

  • No Limit Hold’em Tournament (Online Re-buy).
  • Final Table.
  • Blinds: 200/400 + 25 Antes.
  • You and your opponent both have 15,000 in chips.


Your opponent in the hand is an experienced loose aggressive player. The main leak in his game is that he plays with his ego and doesn’t seem to change gears much. But as you have observed he tends to stick to high card combinations. He always continues his aggression post flop with a continuation bet, but you have noticed that he tends to bet stronger when he hits the flop. He also isn’t the type of player to scare easily and you’ve seen him overvalue his marginal face cards in the face of a re-raise.


It folds to your opponent in the cut-off who raises to 1000. Based on your reads, we can narrow his range to any Ace, K9+, Q9+, J9+ as well as any pocket pair. Everyone else folds and you are in the big blind with kdqs:

Figure 1

Figure 1

There are several ways to play this hand based on situational factors. Folding, re-raising and calling are all viable options.

Holding kdqs when facing a raise out of position is certainly not the most desirable situation. But given our stack size in relation to the blinds, the wide range of our opponent and our confidence at playing post-flop, folding is probably too weak here.

If we are ahead in the hand, shouldn’t we re-raise? Well, here’s where some levels of thinking come in. He is experienced enough to understand that we know that he is aggressive. He also knows that our re-raising range doesn’t have to be big because of how aggressive he is. Given our stack sizes, he is the type of player who could easily come back over the top of us here and force us to possibly fold the best hand by representing a monster. Even with a strong read, kdqs just isn’t that strong of a hand for us to be calling all in at this stage of the tournament. Also, by re-raising this particular player we have much less of a chance to take it down post-flop and we’re going to be out of position the rest of the hand.

Since we are relatively early in the final table but deep enough where the pot sizes have value, and given the range of your opponent and your strong reads of his betting patterns, I would lean towards a call.

The Flop

The flop is askh3h and the pot contains 2,450:

Figure 2

Figure 2

How should we play the hand from here? Betting is okay and I would probably mix it up by betting some of the time and checking the others. However, since we are facing an aggressive player who is capable of raising a probe bet, let’s control the size of the pot and evaluate how he plays. We also have a pretty accurate read as to how he plays when he hits the flop or not, so we should be able to gain the information we need without getting forced out of the pot.

We check and our opponent bets 1,200 which is about ½ the size of the pot:

Figure 3

Figure 3

What does that say about his range? It really doesn’t change it except that based on our reads of how strong he typically bets when he has hit the flop, it’s not likely that he has an Ace. Also, if he had an Ace, wouldn’t he bet more to protect against the draws? It’s still possible he has one but there are many other hands he could hold here. He could have a weaker King, he could have a mid pocket-pair, he could have a flush draw. Given that his range is so wide, we can at least proceed in the hand thinking there is a strong possibility that we are ahead, but how? There are certainly cases for raising or calling here.

The theory behind raising here is that we define our hand. Many players are going to respect a check-raise and at least give us credit for an Ace. However, check-raising could also put us in a tough spot against this particular player. Since he knows that we think he’s aggressive, he knows that we don’t need an Ace to check-raise here. This means that he could come back over the top again representing the Ace and causing us to fold. We also know he is capable of this so we have to choose if we are ready to make this type of decision based on deep levels of thinking.

Are we possibly over thinking this? It’s possible. And against a less experienced and less crafty LAG player we wouldn’t need to think this deep. But we at least need to consider the implications of raising. The other implication of raising is that our opponent folds a worse hand that would put more chips in the pot on later streets.

What about calling? Well, calling in this spot is often called a float. Basically it means that the purpose of calling the flop is to either evaluate the turn or to call in order to take the pot down with a bluff on the turn. An additional benefit of calling is that we control the size of the pot.

Against this particular player, I would lean toward calling. One thing we also have to consider is that by calling, what hand does he put us on? If we had a strong Ace he would think we would re-raise pre-flop so he can probably discount AQ or AK. If we had AJ it’s more likely that we would bet or check-raise the flop with the draws showing. So at best, he probably puts us on a weak Ace, but more realistically a King, mid pocket-pair or a flush draw.

The Turn

The turn is a jd and the pot has 4,850:

Figure 4

Figure 4

The Jack is an interesting card in that if he has QT he has now made a straight. It’s certainly something to be aware of, but we shouldn’t be afraid of monsters just yet. The Jack also now gives us a gut-shot straight draw. Should we check or bet here? Since that Jack is somewhat of a scare card there really isn’t a lot of value in betting. He will likely fold a pure bluff and probably calls us with an Ace. I would check here, keep the pot small and evaluate his play. You check and so does your opponent.

The River

The river is a 5s. Okay, now we have to think about what his check means and what he put us on. When a LAG player checks, it should raise suspicion. But based on our reads, we know that this LAG bets into his strong hands. If he had a big Ace, a set, two pair or a straight he would have bet the turn. Since he typically plays high cards, we can narrow his range to a mid pocket pair 77 to TT, KT, KQ, QJ, JT. So what does he put us on? At this point, his read probably hasn’t changed from a weak Ace, a King, mid pocket-pair or a flush draw.

Similar to the turn, betting here holds little value. Sure there are times that he pays off a small river bet with a hand in his range, but there aren’t a lot of hands he can beat by calling unless he has an Ace which obviously beats us. I would check here and hope he checks it down. We check and he immediately fires out 4,500:

Figure 5

Figure 5

What does this mean? Could we possibly have the best hand here? On the surface this seems like a pretty tough call. Since we’ve been paying attention the whole hand and narrowing his range with each action, the answer is somewhat easy. If he had an Ace, two pair, a set or a straight he would have played the hand differently. Since he doesn’t put us on a strong hand and the fact that he’s an aggressive player that uses his ego to make decisions, the most logical conclusion is that he figures betting is the only way he can win the hand. After thinking about all the factors that made up this hand, this is a call. We call, our opponent shows QJ and we rake in a nice pot.

By Donovan Panone

Donovan started playing poker in 2004 and is an experienced tournament and cash game player who has a passion for teaching and helping others improve their game.