At the core of poker strategy is the concept of ranges.
Instead of trying to put your opponent on a specific hand, it helps to assign them—and yourself—a range of possible poker hands after each action.
Why do this? Well, as fun as “hand reading” and making a sick soul read can be, putting your opponent on a specific hand isn’t an effective strategy. This is because, in practice, a player can have several different hands in almost every spot.
So, as a hand progresses you should continually be “ranging” your opponent: For each action, assess your opponent’s range and narrow it based on the available information.
In this article, I will show you how to put your opponent on a range as both as the aggressor and as the caller.
For each example, we’ll break down ranges street by street to show the thought process involved.
The default preflop ranges from the Upswing Lab were used to estimate the ranges in this article.
Ranging an opponent as the preflop aggressor
Suppose you’re playing $0.50/$1.00 6-max online with 100bb effective stacks.
Hero is dealt two cards UTG
Hero raises to $3. 4 folds. Villain (BB) calls.
Here is what Hero’s raising range from UTG might look like:
And what Villain’s calling range in the Big Blind might look like:
Right away we can make some educated guesses about Villain’s range when he elects to call and not 3-bet. Since we can expect very strong hands (JJ+, AQs+, AKo) to be played as 3-bets most of the time, it’s unlikely that those hands are still in Villain’s range.
Note that sometimes your opponent will have a hand that you didn’t think was in their range. This comes with the territory, and it will happen against both good and bad players:
- Good players often use mixed strategies, taking different lines with the same hand at varying frequencies (see: Why the Best Poker Players Make Decisions at Random).
- Bad players will sometimes play their hands in unexpected ways.
So, it’s normal for your ranging efforts to be off sometimes! Ranging is never definitive. An action should indicate a player is less or more likely to have a certain set of hands, but it doesn’t mean they will never have something unexpected.
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Let’s get back to the hand.
Flop ($6.50) A♥ K♠ 3♣
Villain checks. Hero bets $2. Villain calls.
On this flop, Hero enjoys both a range and nut advantage. Hero can feasibly have all combos of sets (AA, KK and 33), as well as a strong two-pair with AK. The strongest hand Villain is likely to have here is 33.
Given this difference in the possible strength of hands, Hero should not expect to be raised when c-betting on this board. When Villain calls, his range will look something like this:
You may have noticed that the bet sizing Hero used on this texture is fairly small (around 30%). Small sizes works on dry boards, such as this one, because equity denial isn’t very important and Hero has a range advantage over Villain.
Despite the small size, this bet should push a fair amount of fold equity versus Villain’s range. This is because many hands in his preflop calling range have whiffed the flop–hand like 87s or J9s–and can’t continue on an Ace-high board. Knowing this, Hero can bluff very effectively by betting small with the weakest hands in his range.
Turn ($10.50) A♠
Villain checks. Hero bets $22. Villain calls.
Hero’s overbet on the turn drastically narrows the ranges of both players. It represents an extremely polarized range from Hero, where he has either a very strong hand—probably AQ or better, excluding AA—or a weak one, such as Q♠J♠.
Villain likely folds every hand except 33 and Ax. Note that Villain can and probably should fold the weakest Ax combos in his range to avoid over-calling versus this massive bet size.
River ($54.50) 2♦
Villain checks. Hero bet $73 and is all-in. Villain calls.
On the river, Hero continues with another polarizing overbet in order to extract maximum value from Villain’s Ax hands. Hero’s value range will contain AKs, AKo, A3s, KK and 33, which comes out to 13 combos of value bets. Hero must then consider the price Villain is getting to call and include the proper numbers of bluffs to make Villain indifferent to calling (see: this article if you’re unfamiliar with this concept).
Villain must call $73 to win $127.50, which is 1.74-to-1 pot odds. So, if Hero’s river betting range should contain 1 bluff for every 1.74 value hand. If we divide Hero’s value combos (13) by Villain’s pot odds (1.74), we get 13/1.74 = 7.47
Hero should bluff with 7.47 combinations of hands on the river to balance out his 13 combinations of value bets. Q♠J♠, Q♠T♠, and J♠T♠ are the best bluff candidates (3 combos). These hands have no showdown value and block Villain’s strongest Ax hands (AQ, AJ, AT). Hero must then bluff with 4 or 5 more combinations of these missed flush draws for balance, which will complete his well-constructed overbetting range on the river.
Ranging your opponent on each street helps you to punish their range when the board permits it. In this example, Hero harnesses his range advantage on the turn to extract max value while also giving himself an advantageous spot to bluff.
Ranging an opponent as the preflop caller
Suppose you’re playing $1/$2 6-max online with 100bb effective stacks.
Hero is dealt two cards in the HiJack
utg folds. Hero raises to $5. Villain (CO) 3-bets to $16. 3 folds. Hero calls.
Hero’s opening range from the HiJack will look something like this:
Villain’s 3-bet suggests a strong range, though it should contain a number of bluffs for balance:
Already, we can see Villain’s range becoming clearly defined after just one preflop action.
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Facing this $16 3-bet, Hero’s calling range will look something like this:
Notice the difference between Hero’ range and Villain’s range:
- Hero’s contains many middling hands.
- Villain’s range is largely polarized.
Remembering this difference postflop is crucial for knowing which boards are favorable for Hero and which are not.
Flop ($35) 9♠ 8♠ 7♣
Hero checks. Villain bets $15.
This is a particularly interesting board for Hero, as he now has a range advantage over Villain despite being at a disadvantage preflop (this rarely happens). Hero’s equity versus Villain’s 3-betting range emphasizes this point:
Just as Hero ranges his opponent, he should expect Villain to be ranging him. Since Hero has both a range and nut advantage on this texture, Villain’s betting range should be narrow. This is because Hero can check-raise frequently and effectively on this board given how many strong value hands are in his range. These equity distribution charts (created using PokerRanger) demonstrate this:
As these tables show, Villain has no nutted hands in his range and Hero has a bunch of them: 9 combos of sets, 5 combos of two-pair, and 4 combos of the nut straight. These nutted hands comprises around 20% of Hero’s entire range on the flop!
Many of the stronger hands in Villain’s range are in an awkward spot here. None of them are slam-dunk value bets, but equity denial is important on a board this coordinated. A reasonable betting range would be as follows:
It makes sense for Villain to bet with JJ and TT while checking AA and KK. The former blocks the nuts, plays well against a check-raise, and has solid equity to improve. AA and KK, however, play poorly versus a check-raise, and checking with them strengthens Villain’s flop checking range on this dicey-for-him board.
Villain’s bluffs on this board are mostly strong flush draws (A♠K♠, A♠Q♠, A♠J♠, A♠3♠, A♠2♠, K♠Q♠), as well as a straight draws with a backdoor flush draw (A♣J♣). Note that a good player will also keep some strong flush draws in their checking range, as is done with A♠5♠ and A♠4♠ in the range, here.
We’ve established that this board heavily favors Hero’s range. So, he elects to check-raise with the range outlined below:
Hero’s value range here is J♣T♣, J♦T♦, J♥T♥, 77, 88, 87s and 98s—a total of 14 combos. His ~9 combo bluffing range consists of flush draws, backdoor flush draws, and some combo draws (Q♠T♠, Q♣T♣, Q♠J♠, Q♣J♣, K♠T♠-K♠Q♠, A♠T♠, and A♠J♠). Note that Hero protects his calling range by just calling with J♠T♠ and 99.
Flop ($35) 9♠ 8♠ 7♣
Hero checks. Villain bets $15. Hero raises to $50. Villain calls.
In responding to Hero’s raise, Villain’s continue range is going to be very narrow. We can expect them to call with JJ, TT, A♠K♠, A♠Q♠ and A♠J♠. Other draws such as K♠Q♠ or A♠T♥ will be called or folded depending on the player–we’ll assume he’s a tight player that folds them in this example.
Turn ($135) Q♣
Hero bets $134 and is all-in.
Given how pronounced Hero’s range advantage is, he can continue on the turn by shoving with his entire flop check-raising range. Look at the equity disparity for yourself:
Based on how we’ve ranged Villain, we can expect him to make the call with A♠Q♠ and potentially JJ/TT combos that don’t contain a spade or club (Villain wants Hero to have an unpaired flush draw when calling, so not blocking spades and clubs is beneficial to him).
To sum up, in both of the examples above, it’s clear that ranging shapes our strategy in two crucial ways.
- By ranging our opponent against the board and their actions, we learn that they are at a range disadvantage with a deficit of strong hands. And by ranging ourselves in this same way, our advantage becomes clearer.
- With a high number of strong value hands, we can leverage the strength of our overall range against the weakness of our opponent’s range. This lets us bluff more effectively, value bet more aggressively, and ultimately pick up more chips!
During your next session, try to range your opponents and yourself at every action. Doing so is key for making sound strategic decisions.
That’s all from me! If you have any questions or suggestions for future articles, drop ‘em in the comments below.
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