Everybody wants to believe that reading your opponent comes from some magical read of a facial tic. But the truth is that the real work comes from taking mental or even physical notes on the tendencies of your opponents. This means looking for patterns in their play, then making the necessary adjustments to take advantage of your newfound information.
Playing online is an excellent way to practice this talent because you can make notes on the spot, or even save hand histories to look at after your session to examine your opponents. This is a great way of getting into the habit of paying attention to your opponents. When you play a major tournament like the World Series of Poker, you not only will be better prepared to make mental notes on your opponents' betting patterns but also will be able to pick up on any physical tells you see and log them into your memory for the next time you have a tough decision against that opponent.
Before you get into the physical tell reading, learning the fundamentals of how to read betting patterns online is the way to go. Here are some things you should track when playing online poker:
Focus on the aggressive players. It's very important to know who the more aggressive players at the table are because it will directly influence the way you decide to play certain hands. For example, if you notice that a player has been raising at a very high frequency from late position, you can assume he is doing so without necessarily having a premium hand. So, the next time that player raises and you have a marginal hand, rather than fold, you might even decide to reraise him. The aggressive players are the most difficult opponents you'll face, so it's important to identify them as soon as you can so you'll be better prepared in those marginal situations.
Note all key bluffs you see an opponent make. This is the recipe for being able to get a real edge over an opponent: recognizing the situations in which your opponent will attempt big bluffs. You should note all of the bluffs you've seen a particular opponent make, then examine those hands, looking for patterns. Sometimes you won't really find any patterns other than the fact that this player bluffs too much. That in itself is good information to know, as when you are faced with a tough call against a player like that, you can click on your notes, see that he is a habitual bluffer, then make the call. Sometimes he'll have a real hand and you'll lose, but at least you'll be making educated decisions.
Know how your opponents perceive you. You might call this "table image." This is almost as important as knowing as much as you can about your opponents. It's extremely important to have a good understanding of how you are perceived because people will make adjustments to the way you play, just as you are doing against them. For example, if you have been caught bluffing by a particular opponent three times in a session, you should save those hands, analyze them and try to figure out a way to use that information to your advantage. Often the best way to do that is to play a strong hand similar to the way you played the hands you bluffed in. Your opponent might think he's picking up on a pattern, but you would be one step ahead of him.
Take note of how your opponent's play changes when losing. There are a lot of poker players out there who have what's called a "high tilt factor," meaning that when they take a few bad beats or start losing a big sum of money, it will have a massive impact on how they play from that point on. Players who go on tilt usually will play more hands, trying to chase back the money they've lost, and they also are more likely to make desperate bluffs.
Even some of the greatest players in the world have a tilt factor. When they are winning and haven't had too much bad luck, they are on their A-game and really playing excellent poker. However, if they get their pocket aces cracked, that could set them off and have them playing differently than they normally would.
When you sit down at a table, you should note how much each of your opponents started with. Then, as their stacks dwindle or get bigger, you should make minor (or major in some cases) adjustments to how you play that opponent. For example, if you know a player becomes a calling station after a few bad beats, you should avoid bluffing him at all costs, and instead, value bet weaker hands than you normally would because he is more likely to call you with a weak hand, also.
It's hardly a coincidence that in recent years online players have had increased success at the World Series of Poker. Aside from the fact that they gain so much experience so quickly, they also are programming their brain to learn how to better read people in a live tournament through note taking. They get used to the idea of it being important to factor in how an opponent plays. This habit then becomes second nature to them.
The next step for you, after you have focused most of your energy on picking up on betting patterns, is focusing on body language. It wouldn't seem as though taking notes online could help you in that area, but it certainly can. This practice helps program your brain to focus on your opponents rather than your cards.
Daniel Negreanu has won three WSOP bracelets and is a part of Team PokerStars Pro. He plays exclusively at PokerStars.net, where you can play for your chance to make it to the WSOP.