How Thinking in Ranges Drastically Improves Your Poker Game

Chips

How do you put opponents on a hand? How do you learn to read their souls?

In this article PokerOlymp's Arved Klöhn will show you exactly how: You don’t!

Instead he’ll answer a much more important question:

What’s a "range" in poker and how do ranges dramatically help your game?

Reading Souls is for Poker Movies

Have you ever seen the movie Rounders? Sure you have. It's a great film. If by some odd chance you haven't seen it, you definitely should.

There's one particularly awesome scene in that movie when the main character Michael (played by Matt Damon) interrupts his professor's home game to drop off some papers.

Just seconds after looking at the facial expressions of the participating players he says what each and everyone at the table is holding. Check out the scene here:


Well, Michael is a poker prodigy and only KGB Teddy can stop him on his way to the top.

And that's just what poker prodigies and professional players do, right? Read souls and pinpoint the exact holdings of their opponents. That's their gift.

Except it isn't.

The Soul Read Doesn't Really Work

Rounders is great movie, but it's a work of fiction. The way the protagonist reads hands is also a work of fiction.

No poker player has the gift to pinpoint the exact holdings of their opponents. And trying to do so is usually futile and detrimental to your game. Let's take a look a simple example hand and see why the "soul read" doesn't really work:

How Not to Read Hands

We're playing $1/$2 Texas Hold'em and holding pocket tens (ThTs) in middle position. After some folds we open the pot with a raise to $6. Only the player on the button calls. Now there's $15 in the middle and we get to see a flop:

     

We're first to act and bet $12 with our decent overpair. Our opponent raises to $40 and we have $182 left in our stack. What should we do now?

Player
Put him on all possible hands.

Well, we're in a tricky spot, that's for sure. We have a good, but not great, hand and there are a lot of turn cards we don't want to see (any 3rd club, any card jack or higher).

Neither do we want to be bluffed off or hand nor do we want to lose our stack should our opponent have us beat. So let's try to put our opponent on a hand. Here are some ways how that could work:


  • Our opponent is very tight, so he certainly has a set and we're beat
  • Our opponent is very aggressive and he certainly only has a flush draw
  • Our opponent is a fish and he clearly has top pair
  • Our opponent is wild and reckless and he certainly only has Ace-Low and wants to scare us away

All those thoughts might appear sound and good if you know your opponent well enough. But they're actually terrible even if you know your opponent perfectly.

Put Him On All Possible Hands at Once

So, what's wrong with those thoughts? The problem is we're trying to put our opponent on a single hand.

Yes, in the end, he is holding one specific hand. But right now we just don't know what hand he has.

Unless he shows us his cards we can't be certain about it. So why would we act like we have some magical ability to read his hand? We simply can't and we shouldn't!

We almost never have enough information to exactly know our opponent’s hole cards and there’s a reasonable chance we’re dead wrong with our read.

We’d look rather foolish (and possibly lose a good chunk of money) if we pinpointed his holding to be a flush draw when in fact our opponent is dominating us with a set.

So what do we do instead of putting our opponent on one specific hand? It's quite simple: We just put him on all possible hands at once.

Player
He probably doesn't have a big pair.

This might sound a bit hare-brained but in fact it's much more sound and reliable than putting him on just one hand. We'll show you how and why.

Let's Apply Some Logic

Let's go through the previous example hand and apply some logic to what our opponent might be holding. Before his first action we don't know anything about his hand so each possible holding is equally likely.

There are 1,326 possible starting hands in Texas Hold'em. But since we're holding two cards ourselves (two 10s) there are only 1,225 combinations left for our opponent. Before his first action we know he's equally likely to have any of those holdings.

Those are a quite a lot of combinations to consider, but fortunately we can remove lots of them (almost all them actually) after our opponent’s first action.

What was his first action? Right, he called our pre-flop raise. Now let's think about the hands he might do that with.

To keep things simple we assume he's a somewhat straightforward player who doesn’t go nuts out of the blue. In this case we can eliminate a huge amount of hands from his possible holdings.

Erik Sagström
Find a play that works best against most of those holdings.

He wouldn't call a pre-flop raise with a hand like Seven-Deuce or Ten-Trey. After his preflop action our opponent most likely has one of the following hands: a pocket pair, two high cards or some medium connected cards of the same suit.

He probably doesn't have a big pair, as he would have reraised with such a strong holding.

Let's Take a Look at All Reasonable Holdings

We already know quite a bit about our opponent’s hand. His action on the flop (which came down 8c7c2d) tells us a lot more, though.

He raised our bet and threatened to play for stacks. Let's take a look at all reasonable holdings he might raise with:


  • A Set (88, 77 or 22)
  • Two Pair (87 suited – all other two-pair variants he would have folded preflop)
  • An Overpair (99, TT, JJ – he would have reraised QQ+ preflop)
  • A Flush Draw
  • A Straight Draw (T9 or 65 suited)
  • A pure Bluff

With other hands he either would have called our bet (for example with 98 for top pair) or simply folded (with all his unpaired high cards without a flush draw).

Depending on what we know about the opponent we can narrow those holdings down even more. For a straightforward player we can practically eliminate the possibility of a pure bluff – he’d most likely pick better spots to bluff.

Now instead of trying to decide which of those possible holdings our opponent has in this situation, and playing according to this “read,” we just put him on all those possibilities at once and try to find a play that works best against most of those holdings.

Let There Be Range

What we've done so far is established a "range" for our opponent. Now we just need to find a play according to this range.

Let’s do some counting and some equity calculations to see how our pair of 10s fares against each possible holding in our opponent’s range (remember we had had a pair of 10s on a 8c7c2d Flop):

 

Opponent’s possible holding

Number of possible combinations

Our probability to win

Set

9

12%

Two-Pair

3

29%

Overpair (99)

6

88%

Overpair  (TT)

1

50% (Split Pot)

Overpair (JJ)

6

10%

Flush Draw

~20

50%

Straight Draw

4

60%

This table shows the complete range for our opponent in this specific situation and our equity against each holding. This table will help us to find the best play with our hand.

We can see straightaway that we’re either miles behind (against sets, two pair and jacks) or more or less a coin flip (against flush and straight draws). Only against nines we’re actually a decent favorite.

Knowing this it’s quite easy for us to find the best move: We simply fold our overpair. We don’t have to know what exactly our opponent is holding.

It’s sufficient to know that there are enough hands in his range that have us crushed and too few hands we beat. Even against his draws (which are semi-bluffs on the flop) we’re only barely ahead.

Using a tool like ProPokerTools (http://www.propokertools.com/simulations) we can calculate our exact probability of winning against our opponent’s range.

Erick Lindgren
Is this “thinking in ranges” stuff really that important? Yes. Yes it is.

It’s 42%. We’re not favored to win this hand and can let it go without giving up too much.

Why It's Important to Think in Ranges

We went through quite some time and effort to develop a range for our opponent in this one simple example.

Is this “thinking in ranges” stuff really that important and do you have to spend so much time thinking about ranges to become a good poker player?

Simple answer: Yes, it is that important. You should start working on your range-reading skills as soon as possible and practice it diligently. It’ll drastically improve your game.

Let’s go back to our first attempt in the example hand where we tried to pinpoint the exact holding.

If we put our opponent on a weak hand (like a smaller overpair) we want to get all our money in. But if we put our opponent on a big hand (like a set) we don’t want to get any money in at all.

If our read is wrong, our play is most likely catastrophically wrong, too. A small mistake in reading our opponent can lead to disastrous consequences.

But if we think in ranges this does not apply. Even if we’re not 100% accurate in putting our opponent on a range, we’re probably not going to be too wrong. Forgetting some realistic holdings or including unrealistic ones does not change our overall probability of winning too much.

It might go up or down 5% but in general our play won't change even if we make some mistakes in assigning a range. Small mistakes will not lead to huge consequences.

When thinking in ranges you basically try to find out how you perform on average against the opponent. The better you fare, the more inclined you should be to invest more money. The worse you fare, the more you should be inclined to invest no more money.

It’s that easy and simple. And that’s why all poker pros think in ranges. You should do so, too!

Isn't That Too Complicated to Make Decisions on the Spot?

It’s rather obvious you can't accurately go through all of these thoughts during a hand.

But good poker players are pretty well versed in estimating an opponent’s range within seconds and roughly calculating their equity against this range.

Practicing this away from the poker table is important to get a good grasp of ranges. This will allow you to do some rough calculations or at least a decent guesstimation, which will usually be enough to make a good decision during play.

Jonathan Duhamel
Be the pro.

Here are some hints on how to improve you range-reading skills:


  • You don’t have to consider all possible holdings in detail. It’s often enough to know against how many hands you’re a massive favorite, against how many hands you’re a massive dog and against how many hands you’re roughly 50/50
  • You don’t have to know exact probabilities. Rough numbers are enough
  • Ranges are usually quit robust. So even if you make some mistakes when assigning ranges, it won't drastically change the result
  • Ranges can be used for virtually all decisions during poker hands. For example, bluffs: If you estimate that 60% of your opponent’s range cannot call a decent-sized bet (maybe because he has many busted draws in his range) a bluff is very profitable
  • Ranges require a lot of hard work. Professional players spend a lot of time training their ability to estimate ranges and percentages thus allowing them to use this knowledge and technique at the table

Be the Professional!

The ability to accurately and quickly think in ranges is one of the hallmarks of good poker players -- not the ability to read souls like they do in the movies.

Usually when you see a player making incredible calls or folds on TV, and the announcers attributing those actions to insane soul reads, you either witnessed a professional guy exerting great range-reading abilities or a clueless player getting lucky after a poor decision.

It might look the same, but the professional will get it right so much more often then the clueless guy.

Be that professional guy and learn how think in ranges!

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Giordano Bruno 2016-10-15 11:26:29

Hi Arved,

While I really like the analytical approach to determining the best EV play, I don't necessarily agree that this should be played in a vaccum - here's what I mean.

When you size up a player, generalizations are dangerous.

This is one player - with one play style, with one set of emotional responses that trigger once certain conditions are met. These responses are predictable to a certain degree because they are shown, in subtle ways, through their actions, timing, and inaction at a poker table. While soul reading is not really that helpful, I can't say that we should apply this logic over every hand where 10's are dealt and we are faced with this decision - creating an average "best call" scenario. If we do this, we are placing blinders on our play, forgetting that this tournament has its own rhythm, its own pace, its own set of responses that can be noticed and capitalized on.

If this scenario happens again, even with the same player, the modus operandi will still be drastically different (level, stack size, is he tilting? to name a few).
While a mathematical approach certainly rationalizes some plays, there are simply too may external factors that NEED to be considered AT THAT POINT IN TIME. This particular hand is unique in how it is played, when it is played, from what position it is played - because humans are like that. We try to create patterns over situations that, really, have nothing in common.

So yes, we can create +EV by creating generalised rules then adhering to those rules, but we should never forget that each read is unique to the time that it is being made. The emotional continuum is not something that exists as a static entity, it is ALWAYS shifting up and down, left and right, diagonally, side to side. It's like a boat in the ocean constantly being battered by waves. Once you know how the boat navigates those waves, you'll know its trajectory. The hands before dictates how your opponent will play the next one.

From a purely mathemtical standpoint, I agree with your view. From a more emotional, in-the-moment standpoint, I think that there are other factors that should be considered before deciding to muck this hand.

Ken 2014-09-21 08:59:55

Arved

I want to thank you for your replies and time. Just want to hit on a few things then I will leave this alone

'no clear idea what the bet shall accomplish.'
The turn bet does accomplish something. If it is called, we can eliminate a set and 2 pair. Which leaves J J A-9
and a series of combo straight-flush draws with overs

Calling the raise on the flop and betting the turn seems like a *horrible* idea to me. Basically we're throwing money at our opponent without any idea where we're at

This is the most true statement and why I now agree that this should have been a fold. It is not just about defining his hand., When he took the lead with the 3 bet and we just called He has defined our hand with our call without us getting much information leaving us in a very precarious position moving to the turn and river
thank you





Arved 2014-09-19 12:35:54

Hey, Ken, always love replies and discussing hands.

Calling the raise on the flop and betting the turn seems like a *horrible* idea to me. Basically we're throwing money at our opponent without any idea where we're at and no clear idea what the bet shall accomplish.

What's the plan for the river should our opponent call? If we bet $65 on the turn and our opponent calls there'll be $235 in the middle and we'd have less than $90 left in our stack. Are we again check/folding to a club or an overcard?

Playing this way offers our opponent plenty of opportunities to bluff. True, a low stakes player usually does not bluff for all or most of his chips, but our line is still incredibly vulnerable.

Basically what happens when we call the raise on the flop is hoping for a lot of things: a) that our opponent does not have us crushed; b) that our opponent does not catch his outs in case we're ahead; c) that our opponent does not bluff in case we're ahead and some scare cards peel off.

This is really a lot to hope for, way too much to play this hand profitably. I'd personally be done with this hand once our opponent raises on the flop. Even if his range includes like 20 top pair good kicker combinations, we're still only a 53% favorite. Well yes, we are a favorite, but not by much and we're out of position and potentially beaten badly.

Ken 2014-09-18 09:45:00

Thank you so much for your response as it has the best line which is
In general: playing big pots out of position with a marginal holding is one of the key errors beginners tend to make. Just folding is usually the much safer (and in the long run more profitable) play.
I whole heartedly agree but we are dealing with things as they stand in the hand right now.

If a club comes we are check folding. If a jack comes we are check calling as we have the blockers, If an ace or king comes I am probably check folding cause I wouldn't assume a small flush draw. If a non threatening card comes
I am doing the same thing I would do with a thin value bet, I am bet-folding and I would bet about half my stack about $65.00. which makes it look like I am committed.
If he just calls we now no exactly where we stands and yes many players with straight/flush draws are going to bluff us out with our marginal holdings.
I appreciate you taking the time to answer my question as it was not really about the subject which was ranges and your article on this very important subject is a must read for beginners and others.

Arved 2014-09-17 16:01:13

Hey guys,

thanks for the replies. Some thoughts:

@steve: While it's certainly possible he could have a pair, it's rather unlikely. I didn't include this hand at all in the opponent's range because I labeled him as a straightforward player and implied that he knows what he's doing (at least to some extend). A decent player will virtually never raise top pair in this spot in position. He'd just call.

But: if you're up against a weak low stakes player, a hand like top pair, decent kicker becomes more likely. In this case the whole opponents range shifts and with it our equity, meaning we can profitably call the raise or even move in ourself.

It all comes down to how we evaluate our opponent. Against an unknown player I'd be inclined to assume he knows what he's doing and would let go of the tens because we're not favored against his range.

@Ken: Yeah, we're certainly getting pot odds to call the raise. But then, what are we gonna do on the turn? There'll be $95 in the middle and we'd have $154 left in our stack. We're out of position and there are billions of cards we don't want to see.

Well, not billions, but at least 15 (9 clubs, 3 Jacks and 3 Fours). That's more than a third of the remaining deck. And let's say a blank peels off (e.g. a deuce). To deny the draws in our opponents range correct odds we'd have to bet at least another $50, meaning we'd have put in more than half of our stack with a hand which might very well be behind already.

Calling the raise on the flop out of position is not a good idea. Things might look different if we had position. Then we might get a chance to see what our opponent does on the turn before deciding whether we want to bet, fold (in case he bets) or check behind (in case he checks). But out of position we're just burning money.

In general: playing big pots out of position with a marginal holding is one of the key errors beginners tend to make. Just folding is usually the much safer (and in the long run more profitable) play.

steve 2014-09-17 11:29:33

why are you deciding he can't just have a pair? a8 a7 a2 98 97 86 76? Surely most low stakes players play pairs in this way, they know there are a lot of turns coming that are bad for their hand. They want to know if they're good right now, and in a lot of loose live games a2 is gonna be best here

Ken 2014-09-17 10:53:56

I feel some hands were left out but for this question lets assume your range for the villain is 100% accurate.
If we are 42% against his range with the 3 bet of $40.00, there is now $67 in the pot and it cost us $28 giving us better then 2-1 to call and take a card off. Once we take the card off, if anything hits, we can fold. Flushes straight draws flush/gut-shots, overs, are priced out of the hand with our big bet on the turn. With all that information, I don't understand why at 42% that this is a fold. I am not saying I am right here but would love a response. justken@rocketmail.com

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