Any experienced poker player knows that getting reads on opponents is very important. What separates a truly expert player from a non-thinking ABC player is the ability to alter his game in response to tendencies identified in opponents' play. In cash games or even in sit n gos, you may be able to observe your opponents over hundreds or thousands of hands in order to get a good idea of their styles of play.
But in MTTs, you will be seated randomly with players you have never played against before, and you will be moved to new tables regularly. Since you won't be able to build much of a history with most of your opponents, it's very important to be able to get quick reads on their play, which you can begin to use almost immediately. Listed below are a few things to look for that can give you a solid understanding of your opponents' level of play in a very short amount of time.
Preflop Raise Sizing
In the early stages of a tournament, there are plenty of good reasons to open for 3bb or even 4bb, but as the tournament progresses and stack sizes dwindle, there is almost never a good reason to open that large. By the time players have about 40bb stacks or smaller, most good players are making open-raises to 2 – 2.5 bb. If a player is regularly opening for a larger amount at that point in the tourney, he is almost certainly a player who is unfamiliar with tournament poker. He may be a good cash game player who doesn’t know much about proper tournament play, but on the other hand, he may be a complete fish. Either way, you can count on him to make big errors in his opening, three-betting, and calling three-bets strategies. Such a player is probably playing the same strategy that he was playing when the stacks were large.
Three-bet sizing can tell you many of the same things about a player that open-raise sizing tells you. In the beginning of tournaments, it's common to three-bet to three times the size of the initial raise or even larger. But when stacks are smaller, many sophisticated players make their three-bets only 2.5 times the size of the raise or even less. Due to stack sizes and the commitment threshold, making such a small three-bet achieves the same purposes as a larger three-bet would while risking fewer chips. Players who are three-betting too large risk committing themselves to calling any four-bet. You can deduce that a player who continues making these oversized three-bets is not adjusting his strategy as the tournament goes on.
Open-limping is a very bad play across almost all disciplines of poker. There may be spots to open-limp in a deep-stacked cash game or during the beginning stages of a tournament, but by the time the stack sizes are around 50bb or less, there is almost no value to be gained by making this useless play. A player who open-limps is almost always a fish. You can count on him to have wide limping ranges and to have no clue when it comes to the push/fold decisions that are essential in the later stages of a tournament. Such a player is often limping with a range of 30% of hands or even more. It's essential that you punish him by raising his limp with a wide range yourself particularly when you have position. On the other hand, it's likely that his raising range is tighter than normal, so you should be wary when he open-raises – you'll want to three-bet his raises slightly less often than you would against a standard opponent.
Be careful though; there is a class of trappy regs who like to limp with monster hands to set up someone raising behind them, after which they can call or limp-reraise. If you have been playing with a player for a while and he suddenly makes his first open-limp after otherwise playing solidly, you should proceed cautiously and give him credit for a big hand.
Folding Too Often
There are many spots in poker, particularly in tournaments, where it’s correct to call or shove with almost any two cards. For example, the table folds to the small blind, who shoves his small stack all-in for a raise to 3bb. The big blind folds. In this scenario, the big blind made a huge error. He was getting 2-1 odds against a very wide range. He should have called with any two cards. Be alert to those opponents who are oblivious to pot odds. Their ranges are probably static; they are not considering pot odds, and they probably aren’t aware of position either. These players usually do not shove as widely as they should, and they’re not calling all-in as wide as they should either.
Another mistake to watch out for is a player who’s in a very favorable position to move all-in, yet he repeatedly folds. An example would be someone with only 8 big blinds in his stack who open-folds his small blind and then does the same thing on the next hand when it folds to his button. He’s probably unaware of the advantages of going all-in when nobody else has entered the pot. You can deduce that his range for shoving is tighter than a normal player’s.
Screenname and Chat Tells
As with any community of professionals and enthusiasts, the community of serious poker players has its own lingo and jargon, much of which is confusing to an outsider. Whenever you see an adversary demonstrate a knowledge of specialized terminology or online poker culture, you can be almost certain that he’s a regular of some type. He may be a good reg or a bad reg, but even a bad reg is a much tougher opponent than a random fish. A player with the screenname “RangeMergeTriple” or someone who chats about running below all-in EV is almost certainly a serious player, so you should treat his game with some respect until you find out more information about how he plays.
On the other side of the coin, you should give away as little information as possible about yourself and your style of play. There’s no reason to reveal your sophisticated knowledge of poker in the chatbox. You’re there to win money, not earn the respect of your peers. The respect of random low-stakes MTT players, most of whom you will probably never see again, is not worth very much anyway. Stay focused on your goal, and let the other players entertain themselves with chatbox bragging and one-upmanship.
Cold-calls for a Large Fraction of Stack-size
There are some spots where a professional almost never cold-calls. Suppose we open to 2.5 bb, and an opponent with only 10 bb cold-calls our raise. This is usually a mistake on his part. His stack is so small that he’s committed to getting all-in on many flops, so he should instead three-bet all-in if he wants to play. This will allow him to maximize fold equity.
There are a couple of exceptions to this general rule. Competent players may call with a big hand as a slowplay or they may be trying the beloved “stop and go” play with a medium pair. But if you see someone make one of these cold-calls for a large amount of their stack and then fold the flop, you know that he is not trying one of these plays; he is instead an unskilled player. Against a player like this, you may even want to increase the size of your raises when he is on your left and you have a value hand - he’s more likely than a standard opponent to call and then fold his equity share on the flop.
These small tips will allow you to quickly categorize your opponents as skilled or unskilled. While the reads provided by such hasty observations are not very thorough or detailed, sometimes they will be the only reads you have the chance to gather. In the war of information that is poker, even a small amount of information is better than no information. By using all the information at your disposal to outplay your opponents, you’ll be able to increase your long-term bottom line.