how the top pros analyze poker hands

How the Top Pros Analyze Poker Hands in 2018

If you’re trying to find out what beats what in poker, check out our guide to poker hands.

How to Analyze Poker Hands

The difference between a strong player and a weak player is what they do after a poker session.

Weak players play poker hands and forget about them. They put themselves in tough spots and fail to make adjustments based on past mistakes.

Strong players look back on their poker hands. They analyze spots thoroughly, and try as hard as they can to eliminate leaks from their game. Once a strong player finds a leak, they plug it in preparation for the next time a similar spot arises.

How exactly do strong players analyze hands? There are two techniques: one for when you’re attacking (betting or raising) and one for when you’re defending (facing a bet or raise). I’ll break down techniques for both in this article, and look at a hand example from both players’ point of view so you can see them in action.

Once you master these techniques, your confidence in tough spots at the table will soar.

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Minimum defense frequencies are your shield

Minimum defense frequency (MDF) is the frequency at which you need to continue when facing a bet in order to make Villain’s zero-equity hands indifferent to bluffing (see: this article on minimum defense frequencies and pot odds).

In other words, MDF is the fraction of your range that you must continue with when facing a bet to prevent Villain from profitably bluffing any two cards.

For example, if Villain bets 75% of the pot, your MDF can be calculated to be 57.14%. So you need to continue with roughly 57.14% of your range against this bet to prevent Villain from being able to exploit you by under- or over-bluffing.

Pot odds are your sword

Pot odds help you decide how often you need to bluff to make your opponent’s bluff catchers indifferent to calling your bet. In this sense, pot odds are related to the frequency at which you bluff when you make a bet.

On each street, we can make Villain indifferent to calling by giving up bluffs proportional to the pot odds that we give when we make our bet.

For example: if you bet 75% of the pot on the river, the pot odds that Villain is getting on a call is 30%. This means that Villain needs to be right 30% of the time to call with his weakest bluff-catcher. In essence, you can reduce the EV of Villain’s decision to zero by bluffing exactly 30% of the time – Villain will not be able to exploit you by over- or under-folding to your bet.

Let’s work backwards to determine the optimal frequencies on the turn and flop (assuming the same 75% pot bet size). 30% of your betting range on the turn needs to give up on the river, while the remaining 70% will bet on the river. If 70% of the hands that you bet on the river are value hands, then the proportion of your hands which are value bets on the turn are 70%*70% = 49%.

Repeating this process for the flop (49%*70%), we see that the proportion of value hands on the flop is 34.3%.

In other words, to make bluff-catchers in Villain’s range indifferent to calling we need to have a value betting frequency of roughly:

  • 34.3% on the flop (65.7% bluffs)
  • 49% on the turn (51% bluffs)
  • 70% on the river (30% bluffs)

…while giving up with an average 30% of our range on each street.

This assumes our bluffs have no chance to win when called. If our bluffs have equity, however, we can get away with bluffing more often — value betting less frequently than the numbers calculated above. This accounts for the fact that our bluffs have a chance to become value bets on later streets.

Texas Holdem Poker Hand Example

Let’s use MDF and pot odds to analyze the following hand history from both players’ perspectives.

100NL, 100BB Effective Stacks

Folds to CO who opens to 2.25BB, 2 folds, BB calls

Flop (5BB) A T 6
BB checks, CO bets 3.75BB, BB calls

Turn (12.5) 2
BB checks, CO bets 9.38BB, BB calls

River (31.26BB) 3
BB checks, CO bets 23.45BB, BB calls

We’ll start with the player in the big blind.

Defending from the BB

100NL, 100BB Effective Stacks

Folds to CO who opens to 2.25BB, 2 folds, Hero/BB calls

poker hands in BB range vs CO open

Call range from the BB vs a CO open (99-22,A9s-A2s,KTs-K2s,QTs-Q2s,J9s-J4s,T8s-T4s,94s+,85s+,ATo-A8o,A5o-A4o,KJo-K9o,Q9o+,J9o+,T9o,98o)

Flop (5BB) A T 6
Hero checks, CO bets 3.75BB, Hero…?

CO bets 75% pot so Hero’s MDF is 57.14%

First, let’s take a look at how our pre-flop range compares to the CO pre-flop range:

bb vs co poker hand equity

We see that our range has only 47.01% equity, meaning that we are at a range disadvantage. As a result, it is fine for us to fold slightly more hands on the flop than as required by our MDF. Otherwise, we will end up with too weak a range when we get to the river and we will be forced to overfold then.

(The flop is the best street to over-fold because the pot is smallest and we have the least invested.)

poker hands in BB range vs CO flop cbet

BB continue range vs CO flop c-bet (66,A9s-A2s,KTs,K6s,QTs,Q6s,J6s,T8s-T4s,96s+,86s+,ATo-A8o,A5o-A4o,KJo-KTo,QTo+,JTo,T9o,98o)

We choose to continue with 188 combinations out of the 354 pre-flop combinations that we started with. This represents a 53.11% defending frequency.

Something notable: despite being higher in absolute strength, hands 99-77 have less equity against Villain’s value range than hands like J6s or 98o:

poker hands odds 99 on at6 odds J6 on at6 odds 98o on at6

Given Villain’s range advantage (and for the sake of simplicity), we will continue our entire range as a call. Strong hands that could conceivably be check-raised, such as 66 or ATo, will remain in our calling range to prevent Villain from over-betting aggressively on later streets.

Turn (12.5) 2
Hero checks, CO bets 9.38BB, Hero…?

CO bets 75% pot, thus Hero’s MDF is 57.14%

bb continue range vs co turn bet

BB continue range vs CO turn c-bet (66,A9s-A2s,KTs,QTs,T6s,Ts8s,9s8s,Ts7s,9s7s,8s7s,Ts5s,Ts4s,ATo-A8o,A5o-A4o,KTo,QTo,JTo)

The 2♠ is a brick. It doesn’t help many of CO’s bluffs and only brings a backdoor flush draw. Against this 75% pot bet we choose to defend 110/187 combinations = 58.82% of our range.

Our weakest Tx hands without a flush draw can be folded. Our gut-shots are now too weak to continue without the flush draw – the only draws that are strong enough are 9s8s, 9s7s, 8s7s. You might choose to check-raise these draws, along with your set of 66, because of their low showdown value and high draw strength. For the sake of this example we will continue with these hands as a call.

River (31.26BB) 3
Hero checks, CO bets 23.45BB, Hero…?

CO bets 75% pot, thus Hero’s MDF is 57.14%

bb range vs cutoff river continuation bet

BB continue range vs CO river c-bet (66,A9s-A6s,A3s-A2s,T6s,ATo-A8o,A5o-A4o)

The river is the 3♣ bringing the backdoor straight but bricking the backdoor flush. Here we need to fold all of our Tx and some of our weakest Ax. We choose to defend 63/109 hands = 57.8% of our range.

Attacking from the CO

100NL, 100BB Effective Stacks

Folds to Hero/CO who opens to 2.25BB, 2 folds, BB calls

poker hands in cutoff open-raise range

Cutoff open-raise range as recommended by The Poker Lab

Flop (5BB) A T 6
BB checks, Hero…?

First we need to make a plan of attack. For the sake of this example, we can choose a simple attacking strategy of betting three streets with our value hands for 75% of the pot on each street. The question then becomes: what are our value hands?

To figure this out, we need to consider all of our hands and their equity against the hands that we expect Villain to call all three streets with, given relatively blank run outs.

equity vs hand range

From our analysis of the BB above, we see that Villain needs to call down with most of the Ax in their range. We can map out the equity of all of our hands against Villain’s three street continuing range in Power-Equilab. Using all Ax+ from the Upswing Lab‘s recommended BB vs CO range, we see that the weakest hand that has more than 50% equity against this range is A9o with 56.5% equity.

56.5% is cutting it close – we will not be able to comfortably call a flop or turn check-raise. It is strong enough to bet for two streets of value, but then we need to choose one of three lines with this hand:

  • Bet flop, bet turn, check back river
  • Check back flop, bet turn, bet river
  • Bet flop, check back turn, bet river

For the sake of this example, we will check back A9 on the flop and go for three streets of value with AJ+.

CO flop range vs BB

  • Flop Value Range: AA,TT,66,ATs+,A6s,T6s,ATo+

Counting the number of hands in our range, we see that we have 451 combinations after card removal from the board. Our value range is 58 combos, or 12.86% of our entire pre-flop range. From this we can calculate the minimum number of bluffs we need if we choose to bet 75% of the pot on all three streets.

We know that at most 34.3% of our flop range should be value hands, so our entire flop betting range should be at least 58/0.343 = 169.1 combos in size. This means we need at least 169.1 – 58 = 111.1 combos of bluffs. (Remember, the more equity our bluffs have the more often we can bluff.)

When selecting bluffs, we look to choose hands with good draw value and/or low showdown value. One of our best bluff candidates is 98o – it has 4 outs as a gut-shot straight draw to the nuts but will almost never win at showdown. 84s is another good candidate as it has no showdown value.

6x hands are reasonable bluff candidates for a few reasons: it has 5 outs to two-pair or trips, can put pressure on stronger pairs, get called by draws, and fold out up to 30% equity from over-cards to the pair.

  • Flop Bluff Range: 55-22,KJs+,K6s,QJs,Q6s,J6s,95s+,84s+,74s+,63s+,53s+,43s,32s,KJo+,QJo,98o

Here we choose to bluff 159/451 hands = 35.25% of our range. When we bet, our value betting frequency is 58/(58 + 159) = 26.7%. You might think that this is low, but remember that our bluffs have good equity and we have range advantage so our flop bluffs will be slightly more profitable.

Turn (12.5) 2
BB checks, Hero…?

CO turn range vs BB

The 2♠ is a brick for our range. The only bluff that improved to value a bet is pocket deuces. However, we do pick up some backdoor flush draws and some more gut-shot straight draws with 54s/53s/43s.

  • Turn Value Range: AA,TT,66,22,ATs+,A6s,T6s,ATo+

This value range is 61/213 hands = 28.64% of our flop betting range. To balance this, we need to choose some bluffs so that at most 49% of our turn betting range is value hands. Knowing this, we calculate that we need at least 63.5 combos of bluffs to balance our 61 value hands.

Taking a look at our bluffs, we need to pick hands to give up or we risk over-bluffing. Combinations like 33-55 or 8♣4♣ can be checked back looking to give up on the river because they have very little draw value.

Hands like KQ have 4 gut-shot outs along with the 6 outs to 2nd pair which might win at showdown. However, if we bet the turn, Villain’s continuing range shrinks to roughly JT+, meaning that the 6 outs to 2nd pair will no longer be good enough to win the pot.

32s picked up a weak pair, and we can use the 5 outs to two-pair or trips to barrel turn. 54s/53s/43s can also use the extra equity from the gut-shot to continue bluffing. We will also continue bluffing with all of our backdoor flush draws. We continue bluffing with only our weakest 6x because our stronger 6x may still win the pot at showdown if checked back.

  • Turn Bluff Range: J6s,96s+,86s+,76s,63s+,53s+,43s,32s,KsQs,KsJs,QsJs,9s5s,8s5s,7s5s,8s4s,7s4s,98o

We’ve decided to continue with 68 bluff combinations = 31.92% of our flop betting range. We’ll check and give up 84 combinations = 39.44% of our range. This is higher than the give up proportion of 30% that we we’re aiming for, but this is a result of getting ‘unlucky’ on a brick turn card.

River (31.26BB) 3
BB checks, Hero…?

CO river range vs BB

The 3♣ is a good card for our range. We make the nut straight with 54s and some two-pair hands with 63s and 32s.

  • River Value Range: AA,TT,66,22,ATs+,A6s,T6s,63s,54s,32s,ATo+

This gives us a total of 69/125 combinations = 55.2% to value bet. When betting 75% pot, we need to bluff at most 30% of the time to make Villain’s bluff-catchers indifferent to calling. Since our bluffs have no equity, and Villain’s continuing range will block some of our value range, we cannot bluff more than 30% of the time and still remain balanced.

  • River Bluff Range: 97s+,87s,9s5s,8s5s,7s5s,8s4s,7s4s,98o

When selecting bluff bets on the river, we choose hands with the lowest showdown value and/or hands that significantly block Villain’s continuing range yet do not block the folding range. Here we bluff all hands 9-high or weaker for a total of 29 combinations, meaning our bluffing frequency when we bet is 29/(29 + 69) = 29.6%.

Poker Hand Analysis Wrap-Up

Analyzing a poker hand isn’t just about the hand in front of you. You need to look at your entire range and analyze how each decision affects each of your hands.

  • When defending, you can use MDF to estimate the optimal continuing frequency
  • When attacking, use pot odds to figure out your optimal bluffing frequency.

With these techniques, you should now be able to analyze your own poker hands, looking at lines where you’re defending, attacking, or counterattacking. However, complete understanding takes practice – so bookmark this article, and refer back to it when performing a full analysis of your own hands.

Now go analyze some hands and join the rest of the strong players.

(I used the paid software Power-Equilab for all of the calculations and range building in this article.)

(Note: Ready to take your poker game to the next level? Discover the methods behind world class poker players’ successes in the Upswing Lab. Click here or below to learn more.)

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Thomas Pinnock is a math whiz and Upswing member turned GTO wizard. When not preparing for his MD exams, he’s either playing poker, crunching numbers in the lab, or coaching. Get in touch on Facebook.



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