How to Think Like the Pros

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While millions of people around the world play poker, probably only 5-10% of them are winning players in the long run, and less than 1% can call themselves professional players. Nowadays poker players have access to all manner or training information: poker theory books, video training sites, discussion forums and TV shows but most of us won’t ever make the grade and earn millions from playing poker, but what we can do is think about what professional players do that’s different to what we do and try to emulate their approach to the game, in the hope that at least some of their habits rub off on us.

What are the key things that professional players do differently?

Assigning Hand Ranges

One of the most important things professional players do differently is that they are constantly thinking about hand ranges, or to put it in simpler terms, what potential hands their opponent could be holding. They start their range assignment before the flop and then make an attempt to narrow the range down as the hand progresses. For example if a professional player is sitting in the small blind and is facing a raise from a tight player in early position he might assign this player a range of JJ,QQ,KK,AA and AK. When the flop comes down AT2 with a flush draw, and the pro checks and his opponent checks back he’ll use his experience and hand reading ability to narrow the preflop range down. It’s unlikely that the tight player would check back with AK as this is quite a vulnerable hand on a board with a flush draw. While it’s possible he could check back with AA to lay a trap, this is still somewhat unlikely. By far his most likely holdings in this spot are JJ-KK which are afraid of the Ace.

Let’s say the turn brings a Jack and the pro player leads out and the tight player now makes a raise. Given this action the tight player is extremely unlikely to have KK or QQ and now it’s very likely that he has a set of Aces or Jacks. Note that a good player will also think back and adjust his pre-flop ranges sometimes if they fit in with the action. A good example of this would be the addition of KQ, which fits in with the post-flop action. If you saw this hand on TV, you would think the pro might be a little crazy to fold a hand like AQ in this spot, but in fact it’s a very straightforward fold.

Inexperienced players will find it tough to assign hand ranges in the beginning, but with practice and constant observation of other opponents, narrowing down your opponent’s possible holding will become second nature.


While most poker players can become proficient at assigning hand ranges, one skill the pros have which ordinary players find it difficult to emulate is leveling. Leveling refers to always being a level of thought above your opponent. A new poker player will only be thinking about their own hand. This is level one thinking. As you get better at the game, you’ll start to think about what hand your opponent could have (as we discussed above). Beyond that, very good players will start to assess what hands their opponent thinks they have. They will try to keep their opposition guessing by making it difficult to assign a possible hand range to them. The final practical level of thinking is trying to assess what range your opponent is trying to project and differentiating this from what range he can actually have in a given spot. These last two thought levels are very advanced and are extremely difficult to achieve during live play. Your best hope for getting good at the leveling game is to review hands after they’ve happened and try to decide what levels of thought are at work in each case.


Having balanced ranges ties in with the leveling game. Balance in poker is about not being predictable. If you are only putting money in the pot with very strong hands then you become very easy to play against. A good example of being balanced would be with the range of hands where you would raise a continuation bet on a flop of TsJs5c. If you’re only ever raising JJ, TT, or 55 on this flop then your opponent can feel good about folding pocket Aces when you raise, which is a very bad result for you. To remain balanced, aggressive and difficult to play against you need to have a range of value hands like the sets, semi-bluffing hands like the nut flush draw or KQ and pure bluff hands with some equity like As9c. This way your opponent has no idea what will happen if he makes another raise, or calls to see a turn. Keeping your opponents guessing by having a wide hand range wherever possible is important if you want to beat good players.

Another good spot where you’ll often find that people aren’t playing a balanced strategy is when it comes to raises on the river. At lower stakes, you’ll find that the vast majority of players are very imbalanced and they’re only ever going to be making a raise on the river with very strong hands.

When it comes to being balanced yourself, it is only really important when playing against good players, or players with whom you’re playing regularly. If you’re playing against the same players all of the time, then you need to completely eradicate being easy to read from your game if you can. On the other hand if you’re playing against bad players who aren’t even paying attention to what you might be holding or taking previous hands into account, then you can play an unbalanced strategy and simply go for maximum value from your hands.

These three factors are the most important things that professional players do better than the rest of us. Also, remember that there’s no substitute for experience. Most professional players, particularly in the online world will have played over a million hands and have a vast range of experience in putting these techniques to work.