If you have played much poker, you have undoubtedly encountered a situation where someone went all-in before the flop only to have their opponent say, “I put you on A-K, so I call with my small pair.” Most likely, the player who made the call with the small pair does not understand the concept of putting opponents on a range of hands.
As an example, suppose a tight, straightforward player with a $200 stack in a $1/$2 game raises to $6 from early position. It is important to realise this player would make a $6 raise with a range of hands, not one specific hand. Even though they will have one specific hand, this time, that does not matter because you have no way of knowing their exact holding.
The fact that your opponent raised allows you to immediately start eliminating hands from their potential holdings. Assuming your assessment that your opponent is tight and straightforward is accurate, they would almost certainly fold their worst hands. They would also likely fold marginal hands, such as A-7 and Q-9 because they are in early position.
You will find that most tight, straightforward players raise a range similar to this:
Understanding How Ranges Work
Notice this range implies your opponent is raising every hand they plan to play, meaning they are never limping in. It is important to formulate each player’s range based on their specific tendencies. If the opponent instead limped the worst hands in this range, or if they were a maniac who raises with a wide range of junky hands, our evaluation of the situation would change drastically.
Let's continue with the previous example ( Remember our tight, straightforward player open-raised in early position.) →
You have 9s-9c and decide to call on the button
Everyone else folds
The flop comes Kc-8d-5s
Your opponent c-bets $10 into the $15 pot
Suppose you know your opponent likes to make a continuation bet on the flop with all their possible holdings when they are the preflop aggressor - meaning that you cannot narrow their range at all. Against players who bet with some hands and check others, their action will give you information, allowing you to narrow the range.
Using a poker equity calculator, you will find that your 9-9 will win 46% of the time against that assumed range, even though there is a King on the flop.
(Note: All of the percentages in this article are found using a free online poker equity calculator.)
While you are “behind” at the moment, calling is the correct play due to your pot odds. You have to call $10 to win the $15 pot, plus your opponent’s $10 bet, plus the $10 you will be putting in, meaning you only need to win 10/35 = 29% of the time.
Since you know you have the best hand 46% of the time, and only need to win 29% of the time, you should call. It is important to realise that we are not calling because “we put our opponent on A-Q”, as most amateurs do. We are not also not folding because we “think they have K-Q”.
Adjust Your Range Based on Your Opponent’s Tendencies
The turn is the (Kc-8d-5s)-4c
Suppose you know your opponent plays very straightforwardly on the turn and river, betting when they think they have the best hand and checking with either a marginal hand or nothing. If your opponent bets, you should fold because that bet narrows their range to top pair and better made hands.
Since you are crushed by top pair; you have an easy fold. Even if your opponent would bet turned flush draws and a few possible middle pairs, you still have an easy fold because you lose to most of that range. You will likely win about 4% of the time when facing a turn bet, which is not enough to justify calling. This specific opponent’s turn betting range would be roughly this:
If instead your opponent checks, you can take all of the top pairs and better made hands out of their range. You should be left with all of the hands worse than top pair and against that range, you will win 69% of the time.
This specific opponent’s turn checking range would be roughly this:
Notice that while there are some hands in your opponent’s range that you lose to, such as Q-Q, J-J, and T-T, you have most of the range in bad shape. When you have your opponent’s range crushed, and there are numerous river cards that could make your hand much worse, such as any Ace, Queen, Jack, or Ten, you should bet.
In this situation, you should bet about $18 into the $35 pot. This bet size will give your opponent the incorrect pot odds to call with any unpaired hands while roping them in with any marginal one pair hands you beat. Also, when they happen to have you beat, you don’t lose too much money. Betting large in this situation would be a blunder because your opponent would only call your turn bet when you are crushed. Always be sure to give your opponent a realistic opportunity to make a mistake.
Of course, poker is not always this simple. In this situation, most strong opponents would elect to check their entire range on the turn. Notice that, if their turn checking range is exactly the same as their flop continuation betting range, which is the same as their preflop raising range, you will have the best hand 50% of the time on the turn, putting you in a marginal spot.
In this spot, checking makes your opponent difficult to play against. Also, if they bet the turn with all of their range, you would also have a difficult decision.
Put Your Opponents in Difficult Situations
It is important to put your opponents in difficult spots by making your range as wide as reasonably possible. You can do this by playing large portions of your range in the same way. A classic mistake that amateurs make is to raise to 3 big blinds before the flop with all of their playable hands, besides exactly J-J and T-T, opting to raise those to 5 big blinds. Observant opponents will know that when they raise to 5 big blinds, they have exactly J-J or T-T, making them incredibly easy to play against.
Another typical error that amateurs make is to continuation bet the flop with all of their hands, besides the absolute best possible hands. Their opponents will realise that when they bet, they cannot have the best possible hands, drastically weakening their flop continuation betting range and strengthening their checking range. Notice this flaw is easily fixable by checking with your best hands and your worst hands. This strategy will keep both your betting range and checking range reasonably strong. In poker, you rarely want to take an action that is only extremely strong or only extremely weak.
All of this being said, if your opponents are oblivious to what you are doing and are simply playing their cards in a face-up manner, “protecting” your ranges by keeping them all reasonably strong is usually an unnecessary adjustment. If your opponents only care about their own two cards, simply play a strong, tight, aggressive poker strategy and crush them.
However, as you move up in stakes and play against tougher opposition, the concepts of putting your opponent on a range and concealing your range become vitally important.
Be sure to check out my next article where we will discuss how to avoid tilt and stop being result-oriented.