Four ways to spot a fish at the poker table (part 1)

The easiest way to win big at poker is to play all your pots against fish. But how do you spot a fish? Cash game pro Ross Jarvis is here to let you in on some fishy secrets

What do Inspector Morse, Hercule Poirot and Phil Hellmuth have in common? There are two answers. One is questionable dress sense. The other is they are all experts at detecting. While the first two sought out a mix of criminals and, Hellmuth has a different skill set. He has won 13 WSOP bracelets and a shed load of money despite being derided as a poor player past his prime. So how does he do it?
 
It’s simple: he is the best in the world when it comes to recognising who the fish are at the table and deciphering ways to gobble up all their chips. It’s not as glamorous as pulling off a multi-levelling war seven-bet bluff against a top player but it is damn sure effective. It’s time to channel your inner Poker Brat as we teach you the tricks of the trade that have made Phil a household name. And before you run for the hills, none of them involve dressing up as Caesar or crying on national television. You’re safe here.

Fishy clue 1: limping

What is the evidence of fishy behaviour? If a player limps into the pot when they are first to act it is a decent indicator that they suck at poker. How can we ‘Hellmuth’ them? Good players hardly ever limp into a pot first, especially in cash games. It’s just not as profitable as raising (or folding). Any player that limps frequently should have a huge bullseye on their chest. Not only are they likely poor players, but they’ve also announced that their hand is not good enough to raise in the first place. You must isolate these players in position with a huge range of hands. You can expect to be called often as fish don’t like to fold, but you will win the vast majority of pots by making a simple c-bet on the flop. Due to this your isolation-raise should be quite large, typically between 5-6BBs, because this will allow the pot you’re going to win to be inflated.
 
A limping fish’s range can be hard to decipher but it will often include hands like Q-J, J-T and so on that are playable but have to fold versus a three-bet. Therefore, you should avoid bluffing flops that hit this range. As with most continuation betting spots the best flops to bluff are dry ones such as K-5-2 or A-6-3. Even if your bet is called by the limper you should fire a second barrel on a lot of turns. This is because by limping the fish’s range will usually be limited to top pair, weak kicker at the very most and a bit of pressure should usually get them to fold.
 
Unfortunately, isolating limpers doesn’t go unnoticed by the other attentive players at the table. You’ll find yourself getting three-bet a fair amount because everyone wants a slice of that fish pie. Depending on the player three-betting you and your hand strength you’ll have to make a decision between letting them steal the pot and playing back with a four-bet. While high variance it is essential that you four-bet them light on occasion, especially if you know they are aggressive preflop. You may win a decent sized pot without going to showdown and it will discourage good players from three-betting you in future when you are attempting to isolate the fish.

Fishy clue 2: size issues

What is the evidence of fishy behaviour? Irregular bet sizing preflop can easily identify a fish. Any competent player’s standard preflop raise will usually be between 2-4BBs. If you spot a player opening to 10BBs under the gun, he is a fish. Likewise, there is a standard raise size of between 8-12BBs when three-betting. If a player clicks it back to 5BBs or shoots his load and pumps it up to 20BBs you can once again rest assured they swim in the sea.
 
How can we ‘Hellmuth’ them? The reason why there is somewhat standardised bet sizing preflop in cash games is because maths geniuses have worked out the perfect solution for each situation. For example, three-betting to 9BBs in position works well because it is large enough to gain value from your strong hands, but not so big that it is too expensive to bluff with or discourages players to continue with weaker hands than yours. A common trait of fish is that their three-bets will be much too small. This allows you to call 100% of three-bets with the entire range that you opened with. It’s a great situation to be in if you know the fish only ever three-bets his monster hands. Now you can attempt to crack their Aces and Kings on the flop as you are getting a great price and know it is unlikely a fish will fold if you are lucky enough to flop a big hand.
 
If a fish takes the opposite approach and starts making their three-bets excessively large your play is equally straightforward. This time you should fold all of your marginal hands (such as small pairs and suited connectors) and only continue with the very top of your range that you are willing to go all-in with. By making these basic fundamental sizing errors preflop, fish put themselves in a position where it is easy for them to get stacked but nigh on impossible for them to win a big pot from you.
 

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