If you really want to get good at poker, you’re going to have to learn how to analyze a poker hand. Virtually all of your poker strategy in Texas Hold’em poker is going to come down to this one skill, reading a poker hand range, so it’s best to get good at it as soon as you can.
Today we’re going to talk about how to deal with the process of determining a poker hand range. This is the key to analyzing poker hands and learning how to win poker tournaments. It’s also the key to becoming something other than a barely-competent player at any poker table in the world.
How to Identify Poker Hand Ranges
The first thing you have to admit when you play poker games is that you don’t necessarily have all the information that you need to win. Even when the poker games progress to the point at which you can see all the cards on the board and in your own poker hand, the poker rules dictate that you’re still missing a vital piece of information – what’s in your opponent’s hand?
If you’re working on building a poker strategy for playing in Texas hold’em poker tournaments, it can be really disheartening to remember that you’ll always be working from a place from incomplete knowledge. The good news, though, is that your opponents are always going to be in the same position.
Your job as a player is not to know your opponent’s hand – that’s impossible. Instead, a big part of your job is to learn the poker hand range of your opponent so you can make actions based on a reasonable approximation of what could possibly be in the other player’s hand.
At the same time, you’re also going to have to deal with how your opponents perceive your own poker hand range. Remember, you need to do whatever you can to make your opponent act in ways that run counter to what you hold.
In short, the best way to win Texas Hold’em poker tournaments is to be the player who is best at determining the poker hand range of every opponent at the table while still being able to realistically disguise his or her own hand. It’s tough, but very doable.
What is a Poker Hand Range?
All this talk of ranges is undoubtedly important, but it’s probably not very helpful if you don’t understand what a poker hand range actually is.
When we talk about a poker hand range, we’re actually talking about the theoretical composition of the hands that a player at a table could have based on all of the available knowledge. This is very much something that evolves over time, as each new card and bet reveals something new to those players who pay attention.
The big difference between amateur players and professionals comes down to how they deal with the concept of the poker hand range. An amateur does his or her best to narrow down the opponent’s hand to one specific combination of cards. The professional, on the other hand, tries to narrow things down to a range of possible hands before eliminating the most unlikely combinations.
We are going to do a little poker practice to talk about poker hand range.
Let’s pretend like we are playing against a player who is typically very tight. If he raises early on, he’s probably got something preferred – a pair of face cards, possibly an Ace/King combination. That’s easy.
When the flop comes out, we need to pay attention to what he does. We can reduce that range very quickly, if an ace comes out, and doesn’t he bet out – we know that he probably doesn’t have a pair of aces or a pair of kings. With just a little information, we’ve eliminated nearly half of the possible hands. Not bad.
We are going to concentrate on a few things as we work on learning how to estimate a poker hand range. The first thing we’re going to look at is how to narrow down a range as the game goes on. Then, we’re going to deal with how you represent your range to the table. Finally, we’re going to figure out how we use our perceived range to our own advantage.
If you can get through all three of those steps, you’re going to outplay the vast majority of players at your average Texas Hold’em poker tournament.
Analysis: Your Opponent
One of the most important things you can know about analyzing ranges is that you have to keep doing it as the game goes on. As such, we’re going to look at things at specific points in your game.
When the game first starts, your opponent has a wide open range. He can have literally any potential hand – remember, he can even start out in the same place as you. It’s how your opponent reacts to this hand that gives us our first bit of information.
Most opponents who raise before the flop have something good. You’re looking, at minimum, at a pocket pair. The more we know about the other player’s reputation, though, the more we can narrow down that range.
If we are playing against someone with a reputation for being tight, just having a pocket pair might not be enough for a raise from an early position. We’re looking at high pairs, or really excellent face card connectors.
What about when that player is looser? Well, that just means things open up. Maybe slightly lower pairs, maybe slightly lower connectors. A looser player is much more likely to play with something that’s not recommended, after all.
Once we see what our opponent does, we can ask what we should do. We’re going to figure out how our hand stacks up against what the opponent might have, and then what moves we should make because of that information.
Let’s pretend like we have pocket twos for this hand, and that the hand has somewhere around forty percent equity. We know that our pocket two is mathematically unlikely to be better than our opponent’s hand, but it’s not so bad that we should fold.
Instead, we call. This is going to be especially easy to do if we’re in one of the blinds, but the math still supports staying in but not raising.
We can get really mathematical with the best here if we like. We know that if we’re a big blind and that the opponent has raised up to three big blinds, we just have to pay two to stay in. That gives us nice pot odds (2.25 to 1), and one only has to win about one in three times.
Even if we’re not in the big blind, we’re actually still in a good place – 1.5 to 1 odds, so we’re still potentially going to come out ahead of our opponent thanks to the money that we could potentially win. Since we know our opponent’s range and we know what kind of poker hand we have, we know whether or not it’s worth playing this hand.
The point to make here is that checking out your opponent’s poker hand range is vital to making smart choices when you play. Even if you’re not going to sit around and calculate odds in your head, you still know that what you’ve got in your hand isn’t going to defeat anything but the worst part of your opponent’s range. That’s still information you should value if you want to be successful at poker.
When the flop comes out, you get a significant amount of new information. It might not be enough to tell you exactly what’s there, but it’s all the information that you will want to use in order to play your best poker. We’re going to look at a couple of different possibilities with this type of play.
We’re going to start with assuming that the other player takes the lead.
Let’s look at a loose range and assume that we’re holding the reasonable hand of a suited Queen and Jack (let’s say spades). We called before, mostly because we paid attention to what both of us had in terms of range. We have about forty percent equity in this hand, so we’re basically just playing the same hand as above mathematically.
When the flop comes out, it’s a jack of clubs, an eight of hearts, and a two of diamonds. Our opponent throws down a continuation bet and we’re going to try to figure out our odds of pulling out a win.
There are plenty of really good odds calculators out there, but we’re going to cheat really quickly. We already know that our hand had a sixty-four percent chance of winning against the loose range we talked about above. For some, this would be enough to play – but not for us. We want to know how things have changed.
If we are dealing with a player who places continuation bets on every flop, we should just assume that the range is the same. We’ve got money in now, so we might as well call and see what’s going on. If the opponent is a tight player, though, we need to re-evaluate that range to make better choices.
Now we’re looking at a tighter range, we can figure that the other player is only going to stick with big guns – top pairs and great draws. This means that the other player has a pair above nine, a jack with an Ace kicker, K J or some kind of 9 T straight connectors.
In this range, our queen kicker isn’t doing quite so good. In fact, we’re almost twenty percent in terms of odds. We’re still doing well enough, though, and we’re going to be able to stay in.
Now the turn is going to be a two of clubs.
If our opponent bets out, we know that he’s probably got a high pair or an ace/jack combo. This means we probably need to think about folding because we’re probably behind – we don’t have anything useful to do here, it all depends on your read, how tight is he?
Now let’s look at the situation if we’re the ones taking the initiative.
We come in and raise, and the player in on the button calls even though he’s usually tight. We can figure that the player who calls in this situation probably has a pretty good hand – maybe nothing preferred, but either a non-face pair, looking to mine a set or some high connectors and wants to see a flop in position.
Unfortunately, our hand isn’t great this time and we shouldn’t have raised. We have bad equity against this tight range, at least until the flop.
This time the flop is going to drop out an Ace of spades, an eight of spades, and a two of diamonds. If our starting hand was an Ace and a five, we’re pretty happy because we now have a tremendous amount of equity against the poker hand range that we calculated before.
What do we do if our opponent calls? Well, we can assume the opponent would have something reasonably good – an Ace with – X or Ten kicker, an Ace and two suited, a set of eights, a set of twos, or he might be working on a flush.
Unfortunately, our equity plummets against that range because we’re no longer likely to win. We need to look at the turn.
If the turn gives us that same two of clubs again, the range hasn’t actually changed at all for us. We made a mistake betting against that tight player, and now we’re going to pay for it. Even worse, that player has probably figured the same thing out by this point.
We didn’t do our job of reading our own range, so we’re going to decide between folding now or hoping that our opponent gets skittish. Neither is good for building our bankroll.
You should always be thinking about poker hands in terms of ranges. That’s how the pros do it, and that’s what you need to practice. Start trying to look at more than one hand when you play for fun and start taking your thinking to the next level. Once you master it, winning becomes much easier. See you at the WSOP!
Poker Hand Range – FAQs
A: It’s the range of hands that you will play.
A: This means you have a stronger range than your opponent, which means you should be profitable against that player. That’s only in theory, though. There is a lot more that goes into it.
A: I would recommend using SPATS if you are a beginner. You can find out more about this strategy in The Perfect Range, which is available in paperback, Kindle and audio.
A: You apply the information you already know about that player based on their betting patterns in previous hands. Most of the time, your opponent will give you the answer. You just have to listen (not verbally).
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