One of the keenest abilities of any poker playing is the ability to put an opponent on a specific range of hands. When you can accurately predict an opponent’s worst and best possible hand, you can play a lot more winning poker hands.
David Sklansky wrote in his book, Theory of Poker – in a section titled the ‘Fundamental Theorem of Poker’ – that “Every time you play a hand differently than you would have played it if you could see all your opponents’ cards, they gain; every time you play a hand the same as you would have if you could see all their cards, they lose.”
What he meant by this was that putting a player on a range of hands allows you to play as if you can actually see their hole cards. Obviously, seeing their hole cards would tell you exactly how to play your hand – Check, Call, Bet, Raise or Fold.
Now we certainly can’t get a real peek at an opponent’s cards, but through keen observation and heightened mental awareness, you can determine a precise range of hands. Assuming your opponent has the best possible hand within that range, you have virtually the same advantage as if you’d seen their hole cards.
From the beginning of a hand, approximating the hand range is more difficult, as you haven’t yet gathered enough information to really narrow it down. But if you consider all available information, you can get a decent range going.
First, how often does this player bet pre-flop? 10% or less is extremely tight, and you can always assume he has an excellent starting hand. Don’t even bother unless you’ve got a premium starter of your own. A player who continues 15%-20% of the time is fairly tight, and easier to take on.
The next bit of information you need is how often he raises pre-flop. Let’s say he plays about 17% of his hands, and raises pre-flop 15%.
If this player raises pre-flop, you can increase his range of hands to as high as A-A. If he calls a raise, but does not re-raise, his hand range falls. Then again, if it’s a multi-way pot, his hand range alters again as there are a lot of hands a tight-aggressive player will not play in a multi-way pot.
For example, you raise pre-flop with QQ, two others limp in and your focal opponent calls. His hand range would be AJ, AT, A2-9s, KQs-o, KJs, mid to high suited connectors, or any pair of 2-J.
We know he doesn’t have a pair of Queens or higher, or AK, because he would have raised to eliminate the multi-way factor.
That’s a pretty wide range of hands, so we’ll need to gather more information after the Flop to narrow it further.
- The Flop: 2c-7h-6h
You open with a sizeable bet of $20 in NL $1/$2. Both limpers bow out but your focal opponent calls without hesitation. We’ve already ruled out high pocket pairs, and we can now rule out all over cards since the flop offered all small cards, so he should have folded them to your large bet. Over pairs like 88, 99 and TT are out, because he should have raised your Flop.
The only things left are draws, weak pairs, two pair and sets. His range now contains 67s, any open-ended straight connectors, any two connected hearts, or a set of 2’s, 6’s or 7’s.
- The Turn: Th
With the high over-pair, you drop $40 into the pot and he pushes all-in over you. Now what? His hand range becomes a lot more defined. Most likely he’s hit a draw hand since he called the previous two rounds. He could also have that low to mid set. His range is a Heart Flush, 6-T Straight or a set of 2’s, 6’s or 7’s.
If you can’t beat the majority of his hand range, you should fold. In this case, you have QQ, which loses to his entire hand range. You would need at least to match his potential 6-T Straight to consider calling, but realistically, if you had this hand, you’d have been making terrible bets up to this point!
Putting your opponent on a range of hands can be the most useful tool you’ll ever add to your poker strategy regime. It is something you should be practicing and implementing in every poker game you play. Ranging hands will help you to make fewer mistakes, translating into less chip loss and higher pot profits at the poker table.