How do you identify the fish in a poker game?

December 10, 2016

Imagine I bet you and a group of your friends $10,000 that you couldn’t win a soccer game against another team. Imagine I gave you the option to play against one of two teams, the first team is made up of 10 year olds and the second is the first team of your local high school. Even though it might hurt your pride a bit to play against 10 year olds, you wouldn’t risk losing the bet with that amount of money on the line. Your line of thinking in this imaginary situation is as follows, “since the combined skill level of my friends and I are superior to the combined skill level of the 10 year olds we are more likely to win the bet”. Every time you sit down in a poker game you need to make the same type of bet with yourself.

Sometimes you are new to a game or there are a bunch of new players in your regular game who you’ve never played against before. The sooner you can identify the weaker players in the game the sooner you will adapt accordingly and start exploiting your competition.

There are a number of ways to identify the fish in a poker game. In this post I will cover the main ways that I use to identify fish both online and offline. If you have other methods then please let me know in the comments section below.

A fish is consistently forgetting the rules or simply doesn’t know them

Poker like all games has a learning curve. You may be fortunate to sit down in a game which has one or more players who have either never played poker before or are very new to the game. These players will consistently make very amateur mistakes and will need to be reminded of the rules many times during the session.

Many experienced players make the mistake of being impatient with these players and make them feel bad. Don’t be one of those guys and discourage such behavior because the poker ecosystem can’t survive without new players entering the game.

After a few sessions these “newbies” will get the hang of the flow of the game and this will speed up the game. Depending on the financial situation of the player and the size of the game the newbie may become a whale in the game which is good for the game, especially for the winning players.

To avoid being a fish make sure you study the game and learn the rules. Let an experienced friend teach you the ropes and play online for free to get familiar with the game.

A fish is a player who plays too many hands

The most common sign that a player is a fish is a player who plays too many hands. This is especially true if the player is cold calling pre-flop raises with the bottom 30 – 50% of the poker hand range.

Around 75% of poker hands will cost you money in the long run and should be folded almost always. A weak player has yet to understand this concept and will play a range which includes 70 – 90% of hands, calling everything from 9 2 to J 3. These hands cost players money because they don’t flop well often enough and when they do flop well can be easily broken verses a more dominating hand.

When you are up against such players you should value bet all your made hands and cbet frequently. Consider double barreling if these players are sticky to force them to lay down single pair hands on the turn. If this doesn’t work then adjust accordingly. Mix it up now and then when you do have the hand to throw them off, but generally you should bet with all your top pairs or better, and also include semi-bluffs.

To avoid being a fish play a solid range of the top 20 – 30% of hands. Make sure you adjust your range based on position and the players that still need to speak after you.

A fish is a player who starts out short-stacked (and usually stays that way)

In most cash games there is a minimum and maximum starting amount. Many fish will opt to start with the minimum amount or close to it. In some games this might be as low as 20 big blinds. These players don’t know or understand a fundamental concept in poker called stack-to-pot ratio.

The concept is that the size of your stack and the size of the pot determines how you should play. The more big blinds you have in front of you the more “small ball” you can play. A big stack also allows you to make a lot of plays you simply can’t do with a small stack. Some of these plays include floating, check-raising as a bluff, leading into the raiser as a bluff and leading the turn against a pre-flop aggressor. If you only have 20 – 50 big blinds in your stack at any one time you simply won’t have the room to maneuver and you will be very limited.

The worst fish will constantly buy in for this minimum throughout the session as the stacks grow. Not only are these players limiting themselves, as I covered above, but by having such a small amount of blinds in comparison to the others in the game, they are setting themselves up to be run over by the entire table. The bigger stacks are more likely to add more pressure than usual against these players, and gamble it up since every time the short stack folds its a win, and if they get it in behind and lose the damage is minimal.

To avoid being a fish buy in for 100 big blinds and add-on if needed to keep your stack equal or above 100 big blinds.

A fish is a player who is consistently putting his money in bad

Have you ever played with a player who will chase every flush draw they flop no matter how much it costs them? This player is a fish.

Many poker players play the game for the rush of hitting a made hand and scooping a big pot. I love it when I hit a made hand and can scoop a huge pot but I enjoy winning money more than this rush. Thankfully not all poker players think like I do and many will choose to lose money in the long run for the occasional thrill of hitting that flush, straight, two pair or set.

There is statistics in poker and even though there will be times when the poker gods seem to be drunk and awarding bad player over and over again you must remember that you are playing for the long run.

An important exception to this rule is when you see a good player who is consistently getting all-in with a small edge. An example is getting hundreds of big blinds in the middle with 50 – 60% equity. Sometimes these spots are unavoidable like flopping top two vs a massive draw since you can’t put your opponent on such a strong hand. The reason you should try and avoid such spots is because your variance will be through the roof and you want to be more patient and wait for better opportunities so you have a better chance at growing your stack.

To avoid being a fish learn the statistics for common situations and avoid putting in huge amounts of money when you are confident your opponent won’t fold, and you will therefore be badly behind in equity when he calls.

A fish is a player who tilts very easily

The mental side of the game is even more important than knowing the math, basic strategy and rules of the game. A player who can’t keep his composure and tilts after one bad beat is a fish since it is impossible to make money in this game in the long run if you can’t control your tilt.

There are numerous signs of tilt but usually it is very obvious. A tilting player will seem more frustrated than normal, he will be talking to himself or others at the table about how unlucky he is and/or the hand he just lost. Other common signs are a change in the players betting frequency and amount. All of a sudden the player needs to force the action in an effort to win his money back.

The best way to play back against such a player is to check-raise more often with top pair or better since they will be more aggressive than normal. You may also need to gamble it up a bit more since the tilting player will be trying to force positive results by over betting and gambling it up.

To avoid being a fish read good books on the mental side of poker and work on controlling your tilt.

If you have other methods that you use to identify the fish in your local game then please let me know by sharing in the comments section below. If you enjoyed this post then consider subscribing to the blog by entering your email in the sidebar.

Justin Butlion

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Welcome to my blog. My name's Justin Butlion and I'm the owner of The Great Grind. At The Great Grind I share my thoughts on beating the game of poker. The blog covers poker strategy, game theory, poker related statistics and the psychology needed to grind out consistent profit at micro and low stakes online poker.