In poker, to win big (if at all), it’s never been enough to only think about the two cards you have in front of you and the strength of your hand alone. If you want to win, at the very least, you also have to think about your opponents’ hands so that you can relate this to your holding and be able to act accordingly and with logic at the tables.

Taking it even a step further, you can’t just think about 1 or 2 possibilities of what villain could be holding. Instead, it’s imperative that you start to think of all of your opponents’ possible holdings in something that we term a range in poker.

How many times have you heard someone say, “Oh, I put him on Ace-King!” (or some very specific, high card/weak holding) and make a hero call? Or say their opponent must have a flush and just outright fold their three-of-a-kind? Many times, inexperienced players assume only a very specific few possibilities of made hands that their opponents could have, instead of considering all hands from their opponents’ range in making the basis for their decisions at the felts.

In this article, we’re going to elaborate upon and break down the following:

• Further details on what makes a poker range
• How to range your opponent’s street-by-street during a poker hand.
• How ranging your opponents should help you in poker.
• How to build your poker ranges and considering some balancing of bluffs with value bets.
• How to improve your range analysis to improve your gameplay and decisions (i.e. software and practice).

What Is a Poker Range?

How To Visualize a Poker Range

The following table is commonly found in poker training and analytics software to assist you with visualising ranges:

poker range chart


• Pocket Pairs are represented by the middle diagonal of hands (white).
• Suited Hands are represented in the top-right half of the diagram (light-blue).
• Unsuited Hands are represented in the lower-left half of the diagram (dark-blue).

A Brief Word on Combinatorics

While the diagram makes it look like there is an even number of suited and unsuited hands, you must remember that this is not the case. The diagram is simply designed to help players visualise poker ranges. Remember the following points regarding how many possible combinations there are of the various poker hands:

• Pocket Pairs have 6 combinations each.
• Non-Paired Hands have 16 combinations each.
       o Unsuited Hands have 12 combinations each.
       o Suited Hands have 4 combinations each.

An Example of a Poker Range

A commonly agreed upon number of poker hands that should be opened from the Lojack position (UTG in a 6max game) is somewhere around 15% of possible starting hands. How might a range that encapsulates 15% of starting hands look?

poker range chart 2

 

However, found below is another possible starting hand range chart that satisfies the ~15% of starting hands, but includes a different range of hands, albeit slight. Upon analysis, you’ll discover that it excludes some hands from the chart above (ATo, 65s), but adds others (K9s, Q9s, J9s, and some higher suited connectors), while still containing approximately the same number of starting hand combinations:

 

poker range chart 3

 

Ultimately, range software programs and pre-sets will give you different starting hand ranges for whatever percentage of hands you want to begin with, and that’s okay! As you become more familiar with using ranges, your abilities to accurately range your opponents will become better. You’ll also feel free to discover which starting hand ranges will work best for you in certain situations and from certain positions (always customisable to an extent).

Why is a Poker Range Important?

As you’ll soon see, especially in the post-flop section, merely applying some sort of range to your opponents and thus making maths-based decisions from these ranges will give a lot more clarity, precision, and profitability to your poker playing. This situation, of course, is contrary to the amateur “cut-and-dry” approach of, “If he has AK, I lose. And I think he has that, so I fold,” whereby they don’t account for all possibilities of various poker hand holdings into account.

Ranging Your Opponents Street-by-Street

Over the course of a hand, a player’s range by no means stays the same. While it starts out widest preflop, during postflop play, it will narrow immensely because of how the player will choose to bet with various holdings from his preflop range over the course of how the hand develops. Relating these betting patterns to a player’s normal betting tendencies will help you deduce a close approximation of a villain’s range throughout a hand.

Preflop Poker Range

As poker training content has become more prevalent in recent years, so has many players’ understanding of which starting hands they should play from the various positions at the table.

In general, this means starting with a very tight, narrow range when opening from early position (to compensate for probably having to play from out-of-position later in the hand) and having a wider range when opening in later positions, the widest of which would come on the button. Remember, position is everything in poker, and your greatest win rates will come from the button and those hands you play in position. Position is power, and this equals profit!

As such, while starting hand guides will generally stay constant (at least, regarding the percentage of hands one should open from each position, in addition to a general consensus as to which hands to open), there is always some wiggle room as to exactly how you want to solidify it. As you saw earlier, 15% of starting hands doesn’t necessarily mean the same exact starting hands in every case!

As such, here are some recommendations as to the percentage of total hands you should open from various positions at a 9-handed table.

POSITION

% of Starting Hands When Open-Raising 

Under-the-Gun

9%

UTG+1

10%

UTG+2

12%

Lojack/UTG+3

15%

Hijack

20%

Cutoff

26%

Button

40%

Small Blind

67%

Big Blind

n/a (cannot open-raise)

How HUD’s Can Help You With Preflop Range Analysis

Now comes something that’s really cool! With a heads-up display, such as PokerTracker 4 or Hold’em Manager 2, you can actually see the percentage of hands that your opponents open raise with from each position and compare this with the “standard” data in the table above (in addition to the corresponding RFI charts from Upswing)! If they’re opening up perhaps 15% of hands from UTG in a full-ring game, you know that they’ll be opening wider than optimal and you can exploit this and counter it as a result (i.e. perhaps by 3betting more often). Additionally, if you are trying to put them on a “range” during a hand, you’ll have a better idea of what hands to include in their preflop range and then go from there.

The only problem is that – especially with regards to the percentages for each position – you’re going to have to have a massive data sample on your opponents for thousands of thousands of hands. If you play on smaller sites with similar player pools from day to day, perhaps these numbers will become more and more accurate over extended periods of time as the data sample increases. However, in other cases, you’re going to have to refer to more general numbers to help you out.

For example, VPIP (voluntarily put money in pot), PFR (preflop raise), and 3B% (3bet percentage) will be very handy stats to initially judge a player’s looseness/tightness/preflop aggression. It will also tell you exactly how you should adjust your “base” range to include or exclude specific hands from their starting ranges, so you can have more accurate post-flop range analysis.

Typical VPIP/PFR stats for a full-ring game may be somewhere around 19/17 while for 6-max, it’s likely more around 24/21. If your opponents’ stats are smaller or larger than these base numbers, you can range them accordingly by adjusting as you need. You should also notice whether these stats are within about 4 percentage points of each other; the wider they are apart, the fishier the player may be.

Post-Flop Poker Range: Flop/Turn/River

Post-flop analysis regarding poker ranges is where the real fun begins! This fact is because no two players will play a hand the exact same way with the exact same bet sizings and timing tells. There is also an insanely high number of board runouts that can occur that will change how a hand is played so dramatically, depending on what suits come down and what values the cards are.

By using logical reasons of deduction, not only will you be able to take that preflop range of your opponent(s)’s and narrow it down further, but you’ll also be able to ideally counter that against most opponents using an exploitative style approach.

For example, some general questions you can ask yourself during a hand is:

• Is my opponent more of a passive player who checks his medium-strength and bad hands and only bets his good hands? 
• Does my opponent ever bluff? Does he bluff too often or not enough?
• Does my opponent use certain board textures to play accordingly in favour of his hand range?
• Is my opponent straightforward or tricky?
• Is my opponent a solid reg who combines the appropriate number of value hands to bluffs in his range?

Depending on how your opponent bets on all 3 streets combined, you can use logical reasoning to assume what strength and range of hands a villain might have.

Then, relating this to…

• the strength of your hand relative to your opponent’s range
• the strength of your hand in relation to all the hands in your entire range
• the bet sizing your opponent used

…you can work out a strategy to successfully counteract many of the scenarios you’ll find yourself against in a poker hand so that you find yourself profiting on average more than you’ll lose (and profiting big time)!

Types of Betting:

Poker_Range_Image

 

It’s important to recognise the different approaches to betting that you may find in your opponents.

With weaker players, you’ll usually be able to deduce quickly what betting pattern corresponds to a particular hand strength. Often, they will be the most straightforward type of opponent.

Other times, you’ll have to recognise betting patterns that good players utilise and then have to decide what they mean and how to counteract it.

Against good players, the most common differential in betting patterns that you’ll have to determine is in relation to bet sizing (as they have more meaning and purpose in them – as elaborated upon below).

• Larger bets tend to err on the side of polarisation: either having a super-strong hand or nothing. (As you’ll later find out, using larger bet sizings like this can often warrant including more bluffs in your range. However, not many players follow this point, as more often than not, they’re simply going for max value.)

• Bets that are on the smaller side tend to be more weighted toward value. However, that “value” range consists of many more hands that are more than just premiums. For example, if someone bets half-pot on the river, regarding the value part of their range, it might be anything from the nuts to having second pair with a good kicker (thinking they can get called by worse). As a result, it can be tough to fold more of the middle-of-your-range hands because (on average) it will be able to beat enough of the hands in your opponent’s range to justify a call.

Post-Hand Analysis

If you ever get to see your opponent’s cards at the end of a hand, either during showdown or when they voluntarily reveal them to you, this information will be HUGE in identifying leaks and exploitable tendencies in your opponents - along with how to profitably counteract their play in the future. Often, you’ll get reliable answers to the questions posed above (and more!) and be able to correctly profile your opponents and see how you should be playing against them.

Post-hand analysis can also refer to study session material. For example, to improve at poker, you must review your own play and analyse that of your opponents. This way, you can better deduce which hands you should call with (or bet with) in certain situations and improve your in-game play even more.

River situations are often the most crucial street of a hand. By the river, pots have often been well-bloated in size and the difference between correctly calling/betting on the river and folding/checking back can make a huge difference in your winrate and profitability. Therefore, reviewing river situations and your decisions on the final street of play can have HUGE profitability implications!

For example, if your opponent bets ½ pot, this would give you 3:1 odds on a call - meaning you have to win 25% or more to make a profitable call. If you compare whatever hand you have to a narrowed-down range of your opponent, you’d be correctly able to deduce whether or not you had the right odds to call.

Now, that said, as each hand is very precise in outcome, it can always be tough to assign an appropriate range to an opponent. To put it another way, it’ll be tough to know the exact range of hands an opponent will bet within a similar manner for all 3 streets in the way he’s done. However, if you’re thinking about ranges, and correctly trying to determine how your hand does in terms of equity relative to that of your opponent, you’ll quickly rise to become one of the top players of your stake. How accurately you calculate your opponent’s range will directly correspond to how profitable you will be at the felts.

What Equity Do You Need to Call Vs. X-Size Bet?

Opponent’s Bet Size

Equity (%) you need to profitably call

You must win 1 out of X times to breakeven

Villain BLUFF / WORSE HAND : VALUE ratio to have a breakeven call

2x pot

40%

2.5

1 : 1.5

1.5x pot

37.5%

2.7

1 : 1.7

Pot-size

33%

3

1 : 2

¾ pot

30%

3.3

1 : 2.3

2/3 pot

28%

3.6

1 : 2.6

½ pot

25%

4

1 : 3

1/3 pot

20%

5

1 : 4

¼ pot

16%

6

1 : 5


As you review hands and equities, it’ll also be important to determine a “tipping point” regarding range. For example, if you give an opponent an optimistic range (where mathematically, it is correct and profitable to call against a presumptuously looser range), and a pessimistic range (something on the tighter, more value-heavy side), it’s essential to determine what the deciding factor will be. You will also have to consider which hands must be included in villain’s ranges in each situation to make your calls profitable.

When using these “pot odds” to determine whether or not you should call, you are relating the equity of your hand to the range of your opponent’s that you’ve created. This “pot odds” concept is one that should always be kept in mind but doesn’t include the strength of your hand relative to all of the possible hands in your range. (We’ll expand on this in a later section.)

Working on this on the back-end will ultimately help improve your real-time decision-making abilities and help you win loads more profit than you otherwise would.

How To Counter Your Opponents Based on Their Range

Specific concepts must be addressed to be able to correctly counter your opponents’ bets and raises from a GTO (game theory optimal) standpoint while in-game.

1. Minimum defence frequency

This concept refers to the minimum amount you must call or raise your opponent’s bet, to not be exploitatively bluffed out of the pot (by overfolding yourself). In other words, with regards to your range of possible hands and the size of your opponent’s bet, the minimum defence frequency will show you how often and how much of your range you should be defending to not be overfolding against your opponent’s bets.

The formula for this calculation is:

Pot size / (Pot size + bet size)

Opponent’s Bet Size

Minimum Defence Frequency (MDF)

2x pot

33%

1.5x pot

40%

Pot-size

50%

¾ pot

57%

2/3 pot

60%

½ pot

67%

1/3 pot

77%

¼ pot

80%

 

WHEN TO USE MDF:Working with MDF’s is something that you’ll rarely be able to think of in-game and should be primarily focused on in your off-table hand reviews. It’s the study work you do on the side with these concepts that will help translate into you being able to think in a more clear, simplified way at the table.

• When you have zero or little info on your opponent(s) and/or are playing against strong, well-balanced players.

WHEN NOT TO USE MDF:
• Defending against flop/turn cbets out of position. You’re not going to be able to realise your full equity from out of position, and you’re also going to have a range disadvantage most of the time against the preflop raiser by having just flatted preflop.
• When your opponent doesn’t have any bluffs in his range or logical hands that you can beat.
• When you’re playing against weaker players – those by which you can profit the most from using an exploitative style of play.

2. Big blind defence

In the big blind, when acting preflop in a heads-up pot, you’re should be defending a large part of your range, to not be exploited by folding more than you should be.

Against a 2x open raise, you’re getting odds of 3.5:1 (2bb + 0.5bb + 1.0bb:1bb you need to call), meaning you only need about 22% equity to defend against an open.

Against a 3x open raise, you’re getting odds of 2.25:1, meaning you need about 31% equity against your opponent’s range to profitably call.

If you play live where raises may be a bit larger than those typically found online, against a 5x raise, you’d be getting odds of 1.625:1, where you’d need 38% equity to call.

That said, note that it will be challenging to play profitably out of position and with a range disadvantage versus your opponent. These points combine to mean that the equities should be adjusted by about 7% points to not over-defend and actually put yourself in more –EV situations than are necessary (i.e. versus a 2x raise, defend hands with 29% equity instead of the pot odds recommended 22%).

Additionally, playing a wide defending range from the blinds is only recommended for players who have stronger post-flop abilities. If you’re more of a beginner player, it’s okay to tighten up your range from the blinds even more to avoid tricky post-flop spots that will likely create –EV situations for yourself.

3. Playing Various Opponents Differently

While there are many various tips and recommended strategies to follow to play poker profitably in the long-term, the biggest of which (especially versus weaker poker players) is going to be identifying who the weak players are. By figuring out what weaker tendencies they have, you can then exploit these by counteracting them to gain maximum profit.

For example, Ace-Queen suited will typically be a fine hand to 3-bet from the button. However, if you are against an opponent who limps with most of his starting range and only raises preflop with AA, KK, QQ and AK, it seems pretty foolish to raise here, as you’d just be lighting money on fire (especially if you then get 4bet).

A PERSONAL NOTE from the AUTHOR: One poker site I play on allows only three colours to “code” players (from within the software). While I can ultimately colour-code and categorise them better and with the use of my HUD, I experimented with additionally using their simplified colour-coding system(using just two colors) to differentiate fish from good/competent players. I ended up really liking this and found it beneficial. I can always look at my HUD stats and notes for greater specifics on how to play optimally against each opponent, but for things like table/seat selecting, along with having a general idea on how to approach certain players during a hand (how to play with fish vs. with regs), I found it made things quite a lot simplified and easier.

While better players may strive for a more balanced approach (unexploitable by playing their ranges in a way that always includes strong and weaker hands in various betting patterns of their range), exploitable tendencies you can consider for many opponents are:

• How passive or aggressive are your opponents, usually?
• How loose their preflop range is, by each position, and how you should adjust your postflop range analysis to account for this?
• Do they always have it on the river if they triple barrel?
• What is their win rate? (In many HUD’s, you can usually see the bb/100 and all-in adjusted EV of your opponents for the hands you’ve played with them.) How does that relate to their stats? (Are they super fish or just bad regs, and how can you counter this?) Can you find their most exploitable tendencies so that you can profit from them the most if they are significant or even slight losers?
• What are their frequencies for cbetting?
• Do they overfold or under-fold against cbets? 
• Do they play exceptionally poorly out of position?
• Do they call too often, or fold too much?
• How straightforward are they? Do they ever bluff?
• Do they have any sure-fire tells?
• How often do they call overbets?

While “GTO” is a continuously developing part and strategy of poker, usually such complex methods aren’t needed against most players (those that you can counter best using an exploitative approach).

How To Balance Your Own Poker Hand Ranges

Poker player at a table looking about a balanced weigh scale that’s even on both sides

 

Thinking about your opponent’s hand range is just the tip of the iceberg to becoming a good player. The greatest players also think about their own hand ranges and how they should progress with all the hands in their range on post-flop betting rounds to maintain a balanced approach and/or play ideally.

Draws are often hands that people misplay. Not all draws are created equal, and if you always semi-bluff with all of them, you’re probably including too many bluffs in your range (and can set yourself up to being exploited with check-raises and counter-aggression as a result). As a general rule of thumb, you should aim to bet or raise with your weakest draws and check or call with your strongest, or ones that contain showdown value already (or large amounts of equity). Of course, there will be exceptions, but fold equity should be the focus most by draws, which have little-to-no showdown value (SDV).

Concerning how many bluffs you should usually include in your range (versus the number of value hands), generally speaking, on the flop, you want to be betting with more bluffs/semi-bluffs than value hands, by a ratio of about 2:1. On the turn, it should be roughly equal. Then, on the river, bluff to value hands should be a ratio of about 1:2.

However, this will be more specifically calculated by your bet size! As you can see in the chart below, the number of bluffs you can include in your betting range (on the river) will be individually calculated by how large or small you bet. This way, it doesn’t matter if your opponent calls or folds, as you’re going to be breaking even (or profiting) from such bets/plays in the long-run.

RATIO OF BLUFFS TO VALUE HANDS:

Your bet size

% of time you must win

You must win 1 out of X times to breakeven

Unexploitable BLUFF : VALUE ratio

OR

the FOLD : CALL ratio of villain to have a breakeven bluff

2x pot

66%

1.5

2 : 1

1.5x pot

60%

1.66

1.5 : 1

Pot-size

50%

2

1 : 1

¾-pot

43%

2.3

1 : 1.3

2/3-pot

40%

2.5

1 : 1.5

½-pot

33%

3

1 : 2

1/3-pot

25%

4

1 : 3

¼-pot

20%

5

1 : 4

Other Things to Remember Regarding Poker Hand Ranges

- Weighted Hand Ranges: Weighted hand ranges come into effect when an opponent will only make plays a certain amount of the time with specific hands, and not 100% of the time. For example, if you raise/4bet QQ, and your opponent 5bet shoves, perhaps he’s 5betting AA and KK 100% of the time, but only flatting AK 50% of the time. It’s important to account for this possibility where applicable in your range analyses.

- Calculating Weighted Hand Ranges: Usually, in poker software, when selecting hand ranges, you can accurately choose which combos you want to have included in your range, and the software can make the subsequent calculations automatically. If you’re doing this work in your head or on paper, you can make the appropriate changes by switching the number of hand combinations that would stay applicable. For example, in the last point, if villain 5bets AK 50% of the time, then in your equity/range calculations, you should only be including 8 combinations of AK in your maths, as opposed to the full and original 16 combos.

- Manipulating Hand Ranges: This concept refers to how you can manipulate your hand range to look either strong or weak and subsequently try to get a desired outcome from your opponent. For example, perhaps against less aware players, you’ll use larger bet sizings with your bluffs to try and scare/intimidate them into folding by looking strong. On the flipside, perhaps if you have a read that your opponent has more of a medium strength hand, maybe you’ll use a sizing of around ¼- or 1/3rd-pot with all your value hands to induce a crying call. Manipulating your own ranges this way comes down to knowing your opponents well and correctly assuming how you think they’ll react to particular courses of action, so that you can get a desired result.

- Keeping Your Opponents Range Wide (Intentionally): There are many situations in poker where you’ll want your opponent to call with the majority of his hands. It could either be when you’re making a thin value bet (and want to be called by as many worse hands as possible) or are holding the nuts and want him to continue enough of the time to try and make a futile effort of improving to a very strong, second-best hand. For example, imagine using two pot-sized bets on the flop and turn when you have second pair, top kicker. Using this betting strategy, you’re likely only going to be keeping villain in the hand (if he continues) with better hands than you, even if there are draws on board. Instead, checking one of these streets or using smaller bet sizes on both streets can entice villain to continue with some worse hands and/or draws. This concept goes for all hands in your range (not just second pair) and in a sense deals with manipulating villain’s range, too. Do keep this point in mind for how you will bet on future streets and how wide you want villain’s range to be then, as well.

- Optimistic vs Pessimistic Ranges: As previously mentioned, it’s always important to think both optimistically and pessimistically about the possible range(s) of your opponent(s), specifically on later streets of a hand. In your study time away from the table, get to know what the tipping point will be in certain situations on borderline calls (i.e. which additional hands your opponent would have to be value betting or bluffing within his range for it to be +EV for you to call). That way, your in-game decisions will, naturally, become more profitable.

- It’s About Winning in the Long Run: Through range analysis, simulations, and study away from the table, perhaps a situation will arise where you might correctly deduce during a hand that you have about 70% equity vs your opponent’s range. Even though it will ALWAYS be a winning play here to get the money in, it’s also important to realise that you’ll still lose 30% of the time (which is actually a decent number of times – about 1 in 3). Always do your best not to let the bad beats affect you, or river calls when your opponent actually beats you the rare percentage of the time after you call. You don’t want this to put you on tilt and cause you to make tilt calls or emotionally charged plays/decisions. Just remember: the variance in poker goes both ways; in the long-term, things will even out, and in the short term, it’s important to continue making +EV decisions whenever you can.

- The Importance of Post-Game Analysis: Putting in study and review time away from the table is going to be one of the most significant factors of boosting your win rate when at the table. This process not only includes refreshing yourself on strategic concepts or learning new ones; it also should involve reviewing past “trouble” hands that you’ve played. If you play online, with the use of a HUD, it’s quite easy to tag/mark your hands to easily locate and review them later on. Study these hands, take notes on what you discover about your opponents, and then implement the knowledge you gain from this into future sessions to boost your profits.

Improving Your Hand Range and Hand Reading Abilities

Understanding the concepts behind hand ranges is one thing, but actually, experimenting with them and practising with their use is another.

Thanks to various software that have been developed, the process of playing and practising with poker hand ranges has become much easier over the years.

Poker player behind a computer using range analysis software

 

For Windows users, recommended programs that can help you with hand ranges include Equilab (equities vs ranges) and Flopzilla (simple, yet comprehensive post-flop program). Additionally, poker solvers have been developed over the past few years that run many simulations and calculations within the software to help illuminate what ideal play strategies would be in various situations. The most notable and well-reputed solvers are PokerSnowie and PioSolver.

For Mac users, the software options, unfortunately, aren’t that comprehensive. Luckily, one developer created PokerCruncher for MacOS/iOS users, which doubles similarly to the Window version of Flopzilla. Additionally, at the time of writing this article, PokerSnowie has announced plans to develop their software on the MacOS platform, and currently have a less-comprehensive mobile app available for use, as well.

In Conclusion

One of the most significant factors that separates the biggest winners from the rest, in poker, is their ability to assess their opponents’ ranges more accurately. With more precise range analyses, they can make better +EV decisions at the poker table and reap more profits. Such players have also done enough studying away from the table with ranges and seeing how those fair on different board textures to better and ideally know when they should bet, call, raise, or fold.

Remember, the work you put in away from the tables will infinitely help you with your gameplay and intuition at the felts!

About the Author
By
Matthew Cluff is a poker player who specialises in 6-Max No Limit Hold’em games. He also periodically provides online poker content for various sites.
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