There are few skills more critical at a poker table than the ability to take small pieces of information about your opponents and to extract from those pieces larger conclusions about how they’re likely to play. One thing to consider when you’re attempting to generalize about your opponents is the fact that people are prone to act very differently at unique points within a single session.
Understanding some basic truths about common tendencies that players exhibit during different stages within a session can present unique opportunities for profit, while failure to recognize a player’s identity shifts can leave you acting on outdated information. Most importantly, paying attention to the impact that session stages have on your opponents can yield useful insights regarding your own play.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll break a typical session into 3 stages: warm up, game time and wind down. Obviously, this is a broad schema, but it’ll do the trick for our purposes. We’ll take each stage in order and break down how to tell when a player’s in a given stage, the factors that are likely to force a player from one stage to the next, and what you can assume about your opponent’s play within each stage.
Session Stage One: The Warm Up.
The warm up is generally a short stage for most players, usually lasting a couple of orbits. During this stage, players are likely to play a bit more conservatively than usual as they settle into the game. For most people, a lack of comfort makes them more risk averse, and sitting at a table with 9 strangers and trying to stop them from taking your money isn’t exactly the most natural setting for a lot of folks. Players in the warm up stage are generally reluctant to play large pots, will generally pass on marginal situations and are likely to be willing to wait for a better hand than usual before they open a pot for a raise. Players in the warm up stage are also likely to be paying extra attention to how you play, and forming strong opinions about you based on what moves you make at this stage of the session.
Some players skip the warm up stage entirely and jump right into game time. Common types who are likely to jump right in: drunk people, players who have just busted out of a tournament, people who have been on the list a long time, people who have come from table games (look for odd chip denominations like $25 chips in a 1-2 no limit game).
Session Stage Two: Game Time
How do you know when someone’s moved out of the warm up stage? It’s different for everyone. For some players, it’s simply a matter of time; other players don’t seem to really enter a game until they win or lose a significant pot (or a pot of any size). Some players wait until drinks or food arrive, and some don’t really start playing until an opponent they perceive as a target enters the game. Whatever the motivation, you’ll be able to notice the change in their attitude – they’ll become more talkative, more engaged. They might increase their buy in, order a drink, or even come right out and make comments about how “it’s time to play.”
Game time is by far the longest of our three stages, making up the majority of the session for most players. As players settle into this stage, their play is likely to open up. As people become more comfortable, they become more confident and generally more aggressive. This isn’t to say that people are going to magically transform into LAGs after an hour at the table; rather, it just suggests that you can just expect most players to become more exaggerated versions of the player they were during the warm up stage. An important exception to this rule: some players will actually become much tighter in this stage of the session, as they’ve resolved to “wait their turn” for a big hand. These types of players can usually be spotted by their tendency to pay attention to the television, a magazine, or conversations with other players – anything but the game itself.
Session Stage Three: The Wind Down
The signs that someone is moving into the wind down stage are usually pretty clear. You’ll get a lot of obvious verbal cues, like players announcing their intention to leave, commenting on the time (or some impending responsibility) or speaking about the session in the past tense. Some people do some pre-packing an orbit or two before they’re ready to bail. Other players announce their intention to exit by checking out of the game mentally – if you see a player who was intently following hand action an hour ago intently following college football on the television, chances are they’re just running out the clock.
How does entering this stage impact a player’s game? A lot depends on how they’ve done to that point. Players who are winners for the session generally loosen up in small pots but tighten up in large ones. Exploit this by isolating these players and building large pots quickly. Pushing strong draws against these opponents is usually a very profitable strategy.
Players who are losers for the session are usually looking to catch up and are willing to make unreasonable gambles, especially if they think they can win a big pot. Plays that rely on fold vig to be profitable should be abandoned against these types of opponents, but your value betting range can safely be expanded, and over betting strong hands can be an insanely profitable strategy.
Break-even players are a little trickier to type, but a good rule of thumb is that the bigger an ego on a break-even player, the greater the likelihood that they’ll make a significant mistake at the end of a session in an attempt to generate the win they think they deserve. If you’ve got a strong sense that you’re up against a big-headed opponent who’s even for the session, be on the lookout for massive bluffs, and be careful about making such bluffs against them, as you’re likely to get picked off.
That’s our quick survey of the different stages of a typical session and the impact each stage can have on the behavior of your opponents. The more you think about sessions in these terms, the more you’ll discover about the natural rhythms and momentum that occur within a typical session. You’re also likely to learn valuable truths about your own play in relation to different points in a session. In the long run, this type of knowledge will give you a more robust perspective on your opponents – an advantage that you can carry into any game you play.