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It can be hard to evaluate the strategy behind making a big read, because hands like those rely on a player’s subjective evaluation of his opponent.

In the example video shown below, Phil Hellmuth calls down JC Tran’s triple barrel bluff with middle pair—despite the fact that two of the flopped draws hit on the river. Was it a good call? If Phil observes that JC bluffs too often in those situations, then sure it was. But if Phil is just guessing–or hoping–that JC likes to bluff in those spots, then his call was a mistake.

Being able to make a ‘good read’ as opposed to an ‘ambitious read’ is contingent on what you’ve learned about your opponents through studying them. It’s tempting to zone out at the table—and I like staring in my phone too—but gathering info is mandatory for knowing who’s capable of what. Is that young guy across the table scared money in his first tournament, or an anonymous online pro who knows better than to say anything? Is that foreign player simply a tourist having fun, or a veteran from another region? You won’t know without watching, so get in the habit of it.

And that’s watching people in the hands you’re not playing, let alone the ones you do. Of course, when it comes time to make a big read, you’re going to assess your opponent’s body language.

Most professionals know to hold still and stay quiet during big hands, but casual players are often less composed. I asked the best players I know what they look for in these moments, and Dan Smith put it succinctly when he said “Does the guy look comfortable?” In my experience, when casual players make a big bet, but look comfortable, they have it. That doesn’t necessarily mean that people who look uncomfortable don’t have it (because some players get nervous whenever they’re in a big pot), but the likelihood that they’re bluffing increases when they’re nervous.

Lastly, to make a correct big read, you have to risk being wrong…and looking stupid if you’re being filmed. Using your read to run a heroic bluff, or make an improbable hero call, sounds awesome–right until your opponent tables the nuts. You might walk away from the table thinking you threw your tournament away, and you might even be right. But the guy who’s unwilling to be wrong will never find out.

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