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Hand Reading Series Part 1- What is “a Range”?

| August 28, 2017 12:00 am PDT
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Home, home on the range…where the deer and the antelope play…Ok, so the “range” we are talking about today has absolutely nothing to do with this childhood song. Before I get into what a range is and how it applies to poker, I want to briefly mention what is going to be included in this blog series and what you can expect to get from it.

I’m going to be outlining everything about exactly how my thought process goes to identify what my opponent may have and how to proceed accordingly. This first post won’t have any hand histories in it but more the general idea of how the process works to set the tone and groundwork for the upcoming posts. The posts after this will have specific hands that we break down and use what we talk about in this introductory post one.

The idea is that this series will help you to think more like a professional player and understand that it’s a lot more complex than only worrying about your cards or trying to guess the exact hand your opponent has.

What is a Range?

A range is a fancy word for an entire list of possibilities of something. For example, if I run a sporting event that is only for teenagers, what is the range of possibilities of ages of the people that might come? They could be 13,14,15,16,17,18, or 19. So the range of ages would be 13-19. If I said, I was bringing you home candy from the movie theater and asked you to guess what type of candy I was bringing, what would be the first thing you did? You would start by figuring out all of the possibilities of candy types they have at the movie theater. That list would be the range of possibilities that could be correct.

In poker, the range is all of the different possible hands your opponent might be holding. If I ask you in a certain situation to tell me what your opponent has, I wouldn’t be expecting you to tell me one exact hand. I would expect you to give me a bunch of possible hands. This list of possible hands would be the range.

It’s important to note that a range at the beginning is all inclusive. This means that it starts with every single possibility and is only shrunken down by making assumptions. For example, let’s say the dealer deals out the cards, and I ask you before anything happens what my range is. The answer is my range is literally any hand combination in the deck. I could have 7-2, 8-9, pocket kings; I could have anything.

It’s very important that you start your range calculations with the full and complete list of possibilities or else you will run into some trouble.

Narrowing The Range With Assumptions

Obviously, a range that includes gagillions of different things is not going to help you very much to make educated decisions. So what do we do? Well, we have to make assumptions to start to narrow the range a bit. Let’s look at our movie theater example again. The possible list of candies I could be bringing you include the following:

  • Sour Patch Kids
  • Sweet Tarts
  • Junior Mints
  • Dots
  • Nestle Crunch
  • Skittles
  • Twizzlers
  • Chocolate Covered Raisins

Now, if I asked you to guess what I was bringing you, this helps a little bit, but not much. So how do you get closer to making a better guess? The answer is by making assumptions and the process of elimination. You know that I know that you despise Skittles and Sweet Tarts. You also know that I have to stop somewhere on the way home and its 100 degrees out so I probably won’t be bringing you chocolate because it would melt. So you take these assumptions and start crossing things off the list.

  • Sour Patch Kids
  • Sweet Tarts
  • Junior Mints
  • Dots
  • Nestle Crunch
  • Skittles
  • Twizzlers
  • Chocolate Covered Raisins

You’ve now been able to narrow it down to three different choices. This is the process of narrowing a range. Is it possible that I bring you something that is not in the range? Yes, but very unlikely. The nature of assumptions is that they are not absolute so in rare occasions they are wrong. I could have a brain fart and forget you don’t like Sweet Tarts or that I plan on taking the chocolate candy in with me where I stop.

Unfortunately, you can’t be 100% positive, but you must make assumptions to try and get closer to an educated guess. If this were the world of medicine and we were doctors, this might not fly. But when we’re trying to guess movie theater candy or poker hands, we can take some risks to try and be correct.

Now With Poker

The same process holds true for poker. For example, at the beginning of the hand, I could have any possibility of cards under the sun. But as things progress in the hand and actions occur, you can start to make assumptions to narrow my potential range.

Let’s say you know that I am really tight. I decide to open for a raise from under the gun. Now is my range still every hand under the sun? Nope. You can cut out a huge percentage of hands that you know I’m not playing because I’m opening under the gun and I’m insanely tight. You assume I probably have 88+ (which means pocket eights or better…88,99,1010,JJ,QQ,KK,AA) or AQ+ (AQ, AK) or AJs (the little s means suited).

Is it possible that I played something outside of this range? Yes. Is it likely? No. You can’t be 100% sure here, but you need to make assumptions and do your best as you will never be able to be 100% sure unless you saw my cards.

A lot of people ask here how I came up with those hands? Well, that’s where the skill in poker comes in. I have to guess based on our history together and what I’ve seen you play and how I think you play. I put together all the information I have to try my best to get as close to correct as possible. You might think that I only play 99+ from under the gun. That’s totally fine. It’s up to you to figure out how to turn your assumptions into potential ranges/ways to eliminate hands (though my goal is to help you with it through this series).

So you have my range now at 88+, AQ+, and AJs. The flop comes out 7-8-9. I make a decent sized bet, and now it’s time for you to plug that into your range assessment. If you’ve never played with me before or haven’t been paying attention, this probably doesn’t help you at all. Or if I’m the type of player that continuation bets 100% of flops when I raised pre-flop, this doesn’t help you either.

But as you know I’m tight, and we’ve played together for a while, you have noticed a few things. On super coordinated boards, I usually won’t continuation bet with over cards that missed the board. So because of that, you can most likely rule out the AQ+ and AJs. This leaves my range now at 88+.

What’s funny is that a lot of people at this point in the example will say, “But you could have two pair or a straight or suited connectors here too!” If you said this, you have some poker fear problems you need to work through. Just because something is on the board does not automatically mean your opponent might have it. Remember, we confidently said that I am super tight and only raising premiums from under the gun. This means I’m almost NEVER raising with hands that would make a straight or two pairs. You can’t add things back into the range later because the board got scarier.

So we now know that our opponent most likely has a set or an over pair. At this point, we would see how that fits with what we are holding and proceed accordingly. If we continue with the hand, this process continues for every action or tell we pick up from the player.

For example, let’s say the turn comes out a 10 and the board now reads 7-8-9-10. You know that I am terrified of straights and flushes and will almost always shut down unless I have them. If I bet this turn, you can almost certainly cut my range down to only pocket jacks. While this is an oversimplified example, this should give you an idea of how your mind should start thinking.

Why It’s Not QUITE that Easy

The process from a macro/birds-eye will never be more complicated than that. It’s basic process of elimination. However, the little nuances of how you handle certain assumptions will be different. There is an endless list of nuances, but I want to look at just a few to get your mind thinking in this direction. The rest will come up as we go through certain different hand histories in the follow-up blogs.

Balancing

The better a poker player is, the more challenging it will be to make these assumptions properly. For example, weaker players might always do the same thing in a certain spot making it easy to be right with your predictions. Good players, on the other hand, will mix up what they do in certain spots to keep you guessing. They might do something most of the time but do the complete opposite a few times just to throw you for a loop.

This is known as balancing your range. At some point, I would like to talk about doing this from a “defensive” stand point, but for the course of this discussion, we’re really going to be looking at it for determining our opponent’s range.

History

A lot of the times, you will be playing with players that you have never seen before or never played with (especially if you are a tournament poker player). This is going to make your assumptions much more difficult to make. If you notice in our examples from above, we had history with the players that allowed us to make our assumptions. In the absence of this history, things can be more complicated.

You will be required to make more general assumptions and be moving much closer to educated guessing. This does mean that you’re going to be wrong more, but that’s part of the game. The better you can get at these generalizations, the better poker player you will be.

What’s Coming Next

As I’ve stated, this is only the intro blog for this series. Hopefully, you do have a general idea of how we go about reading hands and trying to nail down our opponent’s range. In the upcoming posts, we are going to talk about exactly what we want to do with these ranges and how that fits into our overall winning strategy.

We’re specifically going to be using hand histories to walk through the decision making process. Some of the hand histories will be ones where we had some history, and some will be blind completely. Some we will make the right decisions and some we will make the wrong decision (results oriented). While the results may be wrong, the decision at the time with the information we had will be right.

I plan on having a lot of fun with this series and hopefully giving you all a good insight into my head and what goes through it during a hand. While it will be range based, we will also talk about strategic concepts that help us to make our decisions. Stick around for part two coming soon!

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