In the words of a great sage Mike McDermott from the seminal poker movie Rounders, "If you can't spot the sucker in your first half-hour at the table, then you are the sucker." I don't know how reliable the advice coming from a guy taking an insane shot with his entire bankroll against a Russian mobster can be, but in this article we're going to talk about spotting the players that are perhaps more interested in the entertainment value that poker provides and are willing to pay some of their hard-earned money for that entertainment.
Hopefully, after reading this, you'll be able to consistently detect the recreational players in 30 minutes or less.
While it's possible to play poker poorly in both aggressive and passive manners, if you want to play it well aggression is your only option. That's why the passive play of limping preflop is so common for bad players. This certainly isn't true for every game. In some variants like head's up sit and go or spin and go, limping can be an important part of a winning preflop strategy. However, in your regular 6 or 9 max cash games and tournaments, limping is very often suboptimal and therefore every time you see someone making this particular play you can assume that he or she isn't exactly at the cutting edge of winning poker strategy.
The reason for limping being a bad play in the context of those multiplayer games is very simple. Putting pressure on the blinds and giving yourself the chance to win them without seeing the flop is beneficial simply because of the game structure. When you decide to limp you rob yourself of that opportunity by allowing the big blind to see the flop for free. Even in the 6 or 9 max games, limping preflop can be viable in some narrow situations, but betting the minimum habitually is definitely not the way to go.
This doesn't work in every form of poker. In tournaments, any given player can have any amount of big blinds at any given point. In limit games, you can buy in for any amount and you're limited to a fix number of big bets, so unless you see someone who doesn't have enough money to bet the maximum you can't really read too much into the amount of money players have at the table.
However, in no-limit and pot limit games where the amount you bring in is crucial from the strategic point of view, players who opt to buy-in for the amount that's lower than the usual 100bb are either professional mid/short stack players (few and far between these days) or they aren't aware of the deep connection stack size has to the optimal strategy. Every time you see someone with 7.78$ at the NL10 table or 169.69$ in a PLO200 game you can somewhat safely assume he or she is not the greatest player in the world.
Calling Too Much
Going back to the idea that you can't really design a passive winning poker strategy, one of the easiest way of spotting a fish is keeping a lookout for players who choose passive lines with high frequency. This is slightly more tricky than simply acknowledging that someone limps a lot preflop, and requires a touch more awareness but it's also much more reliable.
VPIP or Voluntarily Put Money In The Pot is a staple statistic in almost every head's up display out there. Even if you're not a "stats guy" you can still observe how many hands your opponents elects to play preflop. Depending on the game format, it's highly unlikely that playing more than 1/3 of your hands can still be profitable for most players (assuming 6 or 9 max table), so unless you're playing against Phil Galfond at NL2 (he could probably beat those games playing every other hand) if you spot a player with VPIP of 30% and above (40% for good measure) you can mark him as a fish in most cases.
This is true for both aggressive and passive recreational players (though with aggression you're certainly more likely to play around 30% close to the profit line), but if you combine high VPIP with low PFR (Pre-Flop Raise) you can be almost certain that the owner of those stats is going to donate money to the table for the sake of entertainment.
Correct bet sizing is a vital part of any winning player's strategy. According to the modern standards, everything between half and full pot can work in most situations (with some sizings yielding better results than others depending on the particular situation). Underbetting (betting less than the half pot) and overbetting the pot are most common for players who don't really know what they're doing.
Again, just like with limping, underbetting and overbetting can be valid elements of winning poker strategy and those plays certainly gained popularity in recent years, but awkward bet sizing should be another position on your "how to spot a fish" checklist.
Showdowns can be invaluable in the process of spotting a fish at the poker table. They allow you to confirm your suspicions by shining the light on the suboptimal (or just plain bad) plays of your opponents. The fact that passive recreational players are far more likely to see the showdown than your average aggressive regular make this even more straightforward. No matter if you're playing at a live cash table or you're multi-tabling 12 tournaments at the same time, whenever players are forced to show off their goods you should be paying attention.
The most common mistakes from bad players exposed by the showdown will be calling down with a weak hand despite bad price or not playing strong hands aggressive enough. On the rare occasion when you're playing against the aggressive fish, showdowns will definitely be less frequent, but they can also shine the light on some outrageous bluffs giving you an open invitation to introduce some thin bluff catchers into your calling ranges.
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