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An In-Depth Guide to Creating, Identifying Ranges in NLHE
Competent hand analysis is one of the most essential parts of poker. It’s the foundation of all your good decisions and the base of success.
Today we're going to take a look at putting your opponent on a range and how to build your own, with explanatory videos by Jonathan Little and Jaime Staples.
To master hand analysis, you have to start thinking about ranges. We’ll tell you how to do that along with Little and Staples providing some examples from their practice.
Part 1 – Identifying Ranges
Unlike games like chess or backgammon, poker is a game of incomplete information, because you know your own hand and the community cards, but you don’t know your opponents’ cards.
The following quote is from David Sklansky’s The Fundamental Theorem of Poker:
Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents' cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose.
Conversely, every time opponents play their hands differently from the way they would have if they could see all your cards, you gain; and every time they play their hands the same way they would have played if they could see all your cards, you lose.
What this basically means is that the player who wins the most is best at narrowing down the ranges of the other players and thus makes the best decisions.
What Is a Range?
A range is a number of hands that depends on the game situation and that develops while the hand plays out.
While amateurs often try to “put their opponent on a hand”, professional players put them on a set of most likely hands in a specific situation, and then try to cut away single hands from this set as the hand plays out.
Here’s a very simple, theoretical example. A very tight player raises from early position. His range is A-A, K-K, Q-Q, A-K, and maybe J-J.
If they don’t bet an ace-high flop, we can eliminate aces and A-K and so on.
This series is going to focus on three elements that make up range estimation:
1. How to put your opponent on a hand and how to narrow this range down across the streets.
2. How to generate and represent your own range.
3. How to include the way your opponent perceives your range into your decision-making.
Analyzing the Opponents’ Range
When the hand starts, our opponent can obviously have anything, so his range is all possible hands.
If there is a raise from first position, that already gives us some hints. It’s a lot more unlikely that they have 7-3o or J-2o in their range than it is likely they have aces or ace-king.
The more we know about our opponent, the more exact we can determine their range. A fairly tight player’s range for a first position raise would then possibly look like this.
A-A – 9-9; A-Ks – A-Ts; A-Ko – A-To
If we’re dealing with a looser player, the range would rather look like this.
A-A – 55; A-Ks – A-Ts; A-Ko – A-To; T-9s; 9-8s; 8-7s
With this estimate, we’re taking a look at our own hand and ask ourselves two questions.
- How does my hand play against the range?
- How should I play my hand because of that?
Let’s see how a hand like 2-2 plays against the tighter of the two ranges above. It’s a hand that has almost 40% equity, and is certainly worth playing out of the blinds.
Our hand is worth less than our opponent’s range, but a call is mathematically correct. If we’re in the blinds, we can justify a call with the pot odds, on the button or cut-off we can justify it with the implied odds.
Let’s take a look at numbers to clarify this. If we’re in the big blind, the opponent raises to 3bb and it’s folded to us, there are 4.5 bb in the pot and we have to pay only 2 bb to play.
We’re getting pot odds of 4.5 to 2 or 2.25 to 1, which means we have to win one in 3.25 times, equalling 30% equity. If the raise is lower than 3bb, our pot odds are even better.
If we’re on the button, the situation is a little different. Now we’re calling 3bb for a pot of 4.5 bb – provided that there is no raise or call behind us.
This gives us pot odds of 1.5 to 1, which is just good enough as we need exactly 40% pot equity to justify a call, but the implied odds, which refer to the money we can potentially win, make this a profitable call.
The point is, we need to start assigning our opponent’s range pre-flop and consider how your own game influences it.
If we, for example, re-raise with 2-2, we’ll only make the worst hands of our opponent’s range fold, but we’re also building a pot with a marginal hand that rarely improves.
Watch Jaime Staples discussing his opponent's pre-flop range in the following, exclusive video.
We started the hand with a basic evaluation of our opponent’s possible hands. We’ll now try to narrow down this range and play accordingly.
A) If They Take the Lead
For this example, let's assume we're holding Q♥ J♥ versus the loose range mentioned above. We have called the pre-flop raise on the button.
Like the deuces in the former example, our hand has about 40% equity, so the situation is similar.
The flop is J♣ 8♠ 2♦, and our opponent c-bets. Let’s see what our chances are against the opponent’s range.
If we put the opponent’s range and our hand into a range calculator like PokerStove, we find out that our Q-J now has 64% against the loose pre-flop range.
This is important information, but it’s not enough, because now we’ll have to ask ourselves if and how the opponent’s range has changed.
If we know that they always c-bet the flop, their range hasn’t changed and we have a call because of our equity.
But if we play against someone who plays tighter on the flop and bets only part of his range, we have to re-calculate.
We assume that they would their pairs, top pairs, and draws. The range is A-A – 9-9, A-Js, A-Jo, T-9s, 9-8s, and 8-7s.
Our top pair queen kicker has 48% equity against this range, making a call still justified.
But the hand isn’t over yet, and the turn is the 2♣. If we think our opponent would now only bet A-A – 9-9, and A-J, we should fold to another bet, because our opponent’s range has become too strong.
If we think they bet the same range as on the flop, we can call again.
This is how narrowing down a range works, and the more we know about who we’re playing against, the easier it is.
B – If We Take the Lead
If we have the initiative in the hand, we’re still trying to find a set of hands our opponent could have.
We raise with A-5s from middle position, and a tight player on the button calls. We estimate that a player like him would call a raise with roughly these hands:
A-Qo – A-To, A-Qs – A-2s, 9-9 – 2-2, KQs, KJs, KTs, QJ, JT, J9s, T9s, T8s, 98s, 87s, 76s
We don’t have a very strong hand – maybe our raise was a little too loose – so our equity isn’t too good against this range. We have just 46% equity.
But on a flop like A♣ 8♠ 2♦, things become interesting. We now have about 70% equity against our opponent’s range and we bet out.
If we get a call, that range changes dramatically. We can assume that they only call with A-Qo – A-To; A-Qs – A-2s, 9-9, 8-8, 2-2, T-8s, 9-8s, and 8-7s while they fold everything else for good reasons.
Against this range, our hand has only 39% equity.
That call has an effect on how we proceed, of course. Let’s say the 2♣ appears on the turn again. We shouldn’t bet again against a tight player, because that player wouldn’t call with a hand worse than ours and there are no draws on the board.
If both players check the turn, it would still be correct to check the river, because the range of our opponent hasn’t changed.
If there is a bet into us, we’re facing a tough decision.
This is how professional players think about their poker hands based on training, practice, and experience.
If you play recreationally, try to stop putting your opponents on one hand and try to start thinking like a professional.
Hand analysis is a deductive process, and every range has to be re-evaluated on every street.
Part 2 – Building Your Own Range
When you’re playing a hand of poker, it’s not only about analyzing what your opponent has. You also have to build up reasonable ranges for your own hand in different situations.
This presents quite a daring challenge, because not only are there nine (or at least six) different positions that come into play, there are even more factors to consider.
Before we talk about what a range can possibly look like, we have to get the basics straight. We can put them in broadly in three categories.
- A) The raising range
- B) The calling range
- C) The re-raising range
This is a very general classification, as it doesn’t consider our position, the opponent’s position, the number of opponents, or the playing style, but it’s a start.
The Balanced Range
What is a balanced range? Let’s take an example. Once a week, we’re playing in an aggressive home game where players often raise and re-raise.
We can play any reasonable hand at this table, but let’s say we’re getting aces in first position and limp. There are several raises behind us and we end up all-in with a player holding A-K. We win the pot.
Everything’s fine, right? Not really. Our litte trick has worked, but the next time we limp in, our opponents are going to be well aware and proceed carefully.
Our problem is now that our range is very unbalanced. From the viewpoint of our opponents, it consists or pretty much one hand: A-A.
Remember David Sklansky: “Every time they play their hands the same way they would have played if they could see all your cards, you lose.”
When your opponent can narrow your range down to one hand, that’s exactly what’s happening.
This was an extreme example, but it makes a point for how important it is for us to properly build a range.
Our range should always have different types of hands in it, of which at least one might have hit the flop.
Developing a Range
Let’s approach the task by developing a raising range from early position against an average tight player. We need to consider the following.
1. Our hands have to be rather strong, as there is a large number of opponents still to act, and they might enter the pot with good hands.
2. We shouldn’t choose our hands only with regards to their absolute strength.
3. We have to balance our range to make it more difficult for our opponents to play perfectly against it.
Let’s further say we want to play 10% of our hands from this position and then raise that percentage the closer we get to the button.
When we only take pot equity, these are the ten strongest hands: A-A – 7-7, A-Ks-A-Ts, A-Ko-A-Jo, K-Qs, K-Qo, K-Js, K-Ts, Q-Js, Q-Ts.
So there we go. We have our range, right? No, we don’t as this range has several problems.
1. Several of our hands can be dominated.
2. The range is easy to see through.
3. The range is too one-sided. It consists mainly of Broadway hands.
Balance Does It
We can solve the issues #1 and #3 by eliminating K-Qo, K-Js, K-Ts, Q-Js, and A-Jo. These are the hands that will often be dominated by hands that are going to call us or even re-raise.
Also, these hands make us rely too heavily on Broadway cards, which touches on problem no 2.
We have eliminated 16 suited (K-Js, K-Ts, Q-Js, Q-Ts) and 24 off-suit hands (K-Qo, A-Jo) from our range, so we need to find 40 other hand combinations to fill in.
Suitable replacements would be the suited connectors and one-gappers T-9s, 9-8s, 9-7s, 8-7s, 7-6s (20 combos) and 6-6, 5-5, 4-4 (18 combinations), which brings us to 38 hands overall, which is fine.
Our range now looks like this:
- A-A – 4-4 (these amount to 66 possible hand cominations)
- A-Ks - A-Ts, A-Ko - A-Qo (16 suited and 24 off-suit Broadway hands)
- T-9s, 9-8s, 9-7s, 8-7s, 7-6s (20 rather speculative combinations)
Overall, we now have 126 different possible hands in our range – 11 pairs, 4 suited Broadway hands, 2 off-suit Broadway hands, and 5 suited connectors.
Apart from a few smaller adjustments – e.g. adding a Broadway hand or eliminating one suited connectors hand – which we should make with regards to our opponent’s game, we have now created a reasonable range to play from early position.
It has all the really strong hands in it, but also several speculative hands like low pocket pairs and suited connectors that can be good for the odd surprise.
Note that it isn’t a problem that this range is a little weaker against the typical calling range than the top 10% of the hands, because it’s much more about the potential to hit all sorts of boards.
The main features of our range are it has strong hands and it doesn’t have too many hands, but is still balanced.
So, this is how you create a range in tight position against tight players.
The further we move towards the button, the more hands we can add to our range, as the number of players behind us is getting smaller, so we don’t need only strong hands to play.
We’re going to add hands from all the different categories, and we’ll become looser and looser.
Make no mistake, this isn’t the answer to all questions, we were merely trying to demonstrate the process of creating ranges.
Obviously, the playing style of our opponents is also an important factor for us. Generally speaking, we should always go against the tendency of the table.
At a tight table, we’re loosening up, while at a table with a couple of maniacs, we should tighten up.
Further adjustments will be necessary if we we’re dealing with player who particularly defiantly defend their blinds – or don’t.
Now, having a raising range is not enough, we also need a plan about how to carry on after the flop.
We have already discussed how to analyse the opponent’s range and how to adjust to it. By deduction, we are narrowing down that range to then make a plan.
If we’re betting or not depends on two questions.
1. Which hands worse than ours can call.
2. Which hands better than ours can we force to fold.
Calling and Re-raising Range
Pre-flop play consists mainly of call, raise, and re-raise – the limp we mentioned earlier only plays a minor role.
The ranges for calls and re-raises follow the same rules as the raising range. It has to be balanced and it has to have hands with perspective in it.
If we always only call with hands like Q-J, 4-4, or 8-7, we’re making it too easy for our opponents. For example, if there is a raise before us and we find aces on the button, it makes sense to just flat call occasionally.
This could induce a re-raise from an aggressive player in the big blind and/or make the original raiser overestimate their hand.
When we get to showdown, we’re protecting our calling range for the future and we’re making it harder for our opponents to bluff.
Another example: A-Q is a very nice hand to just call with from the blinds. Against a raise from early position, it’s not looking that good anyway, which would make a re-raise too loose, but against a button raise we’re favourite most of the times and we’re hiding the strength of our hands very well.
Watch how Jonathan Little explains the different elements and factors of range-reading in detail.
Re-raises – Strong and Speculative
The approach is similar when it comes to re-raises. We can’t only re-raise the strongest hands but have to do it also with speculative hands.
Example: We are on the button and a loose player raises from middle position. We should re-raise pocket tens and higher, A-K and A-Q, but also T-9s, 9-8s, and 8-7s.
On the other hand, we shouldn’t re-raise with hands like A-9. It’s simply too weak, and we can easily get in trouble even if we hit the flop.
Suited middle connectors on the other hand can turn into a monster and are rarely dominated.
Again, it’s all about finding the right balance between premium and speculative hands.
The main objective when building our range is balance. Without balance, we’ll get figured out and we won’t be able to play our hands profitably.
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