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 Teddy KGB 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. 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 Poker 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:
8 8 7 7 2 2
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? 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 Your Opponent on a Range of All Possible Hands
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. This might sound a bit hare-brained but in fact it's much more sound and reliable than putting him on just one hand.
The Logic of Hand Ranges
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.
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.
All Hands in His Range
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.
Find a Play According to This Hand 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|
|Overpair (TT)||1||50% (Split Pot)|
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. 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 Hand 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!
How to Improve Your Hand Range Skills
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 guess, which will usually be enough to make a good decision during play. Here are some hints on how to improve your range-reading skills:
- You don’t have to consider all possible holdings in detail. It’s enough to know against how many hands you’re a massive favorite versus 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
Learn How to Think in Ranges!
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 than the clueless guy. Be that professional guy and learn how think in ranges!