Poker Strategy: How Opening Ranges Have Evolved And How to Adjust – Part One
If you’ve ever gotten your hands on any poker book from the last 20 years, the first section is almost always dedicated to pre-flop opening hand ranges. Sometimes they’ll give you a chart and tell you exactly what to play from where and sometimes they will loosely tell you how to decide what to play.
While the basics and hard rules these books preach are mostly correct, there are a lot of nuances that need to be taken into account. These nuances are a result of the way the game has evolved over the past few years and things these books have left out. People have come up with ways to exploit the hard and fast rules, and if you don’t adapt to them, you’re going to get left behind in the dust.
I want to take a few minutes today and run you through some of these basics and more importantly how they have evolved and what you need to do to evolve with them. The emphasis is not going to be on the basics, but more on the adaptations that have taken place and the nuances I feel are important.
Why Are Pre-flop Hand Ranges So Important?
There’s a reason that every book covers these first. Yes, it makes logical sense that they are the first thing that happens in a hand (teaching post-flop before pre-flop seems silly), but I think they’re there because they’re that much more important.
Pre-flop hand selection is the framework for your entire game. A mistake here can negate anything you do right for the rest of the hand. Imagine if you are a skydiver and you are going for a jump. You load up on the plane like a boss, hook up to the line like you are supposed to, jump with absolute precision from the perfect altitude, but then you crash into the ground because you didn’t pick a good chute to use.
Sorry for the morbid example, but the idea is the same. If you don’t make the right decisions from the very beginning, everything after that can be perfect and still be pointless. If you’re playing a hand that you shouldn’t be, you may have already set yourself up for failure.
Anytime I am coaching a player, I ALWAYS make sure that they have a firm grasp on their pre-flop ranges and are also well aware of how to adjust them to changing circumstances.
UTG is NOT the Same Anymore
Several years ago, if someone raised from under the gun (UTG), then you automatically assumed and knew they had a big hand. Due to the fact that they had every single player to act still behind them and they would probably be out of position the rest of the hand, this made a lot of logical sense.
However, smart players found a way to exploit this. They began raising with marginal hands from UTG because they knew it would get them a lot more respect. They knew the other players would assume they had much better hands than they actually did and they could push the table around a bit more.
Obviously, this would only work for so long until the players at the table would realize you were opening with lighter holdings from UTG. After that, though, it ensured that you would get paid off more with your big hands from UTG because players no longer just assumed you had a monster. This means when you did have a monster hand, it didn’t get the respect it earned. This balancing of your range would make you much more difficult to play against.
Armed with this knowledge, you need to be prepared to make adjustments in the way that you play and also in the way you react to your opponents play from UTG. First, you need to pay more attention to what players are opening with from UTG. This means watching when you aren’t involved in the hand and see what they show down. If you see them open light (with a marginal hand) from there once, you can assume they are going to be doing it again.
The phrase “UTG is the new button” could not be truer. The button has always been a place where everyone opens almost anything. Now, UTG is a spot where people are starting to open their full range at times because they think they can get away with it. Pay attention to what people are opening and adjust your game accordingly. Don’t just give them massive respect and make huge folds every time. Do remember, though, even though they open light from UTG, they can still have big hands from there as well.
In your own game, you may want to consider opening up your UTG range. Here is the most important part to remember. ONLY do this if you are very comfortable getting away from hands when you need to. If you struggle to fold top pair or even occasionally make some bigger folks, you are going to get yourself in trouble doing this from UTG. If you open up 87 suited from UTG and can’t ever fold on an 8-4-2 flop, you don’t need to be opening up your UTG range. Stay snug and play a little closer to ABC poker.
A lot of this will be dependent on the skill levels and stickiness of your table which I am going to cover in the dedicated Making Adjustments section at the end of the blog post.
Suited Connectors Are Everywhere
One of the biggest evolutions of the game of poker in the past decade has been the growing obsession with suited connectors. People will flat-out tell you that they are just as excited to get J-10 suited as they are to get aces. There are definitely some pros and cons to having these be more prevalent in your pre-flop opening ranges.
The pros are that they balance your range out and make it harder for your opponents to know what you have. If you only place big pairs and big broadway cards, it’s always easy to figure out what you have, and you probably won’t get much action on your hands. If you happen to play suited connectors as well, though, it becomes much more challenging to know what you have.
For example, let’s say you only play big pairs and big broadway cards. If the flop comes K-Q-10 and you bet, I am going to fold against you almost every time unless I have something good because I know this is all over your range. You’ll struggle to get paid on your hands. But, if I know that you also play suited connectors at times, I might be less likely to fold to you on this board because I don’t know with certainty that you actually have anything.
You also have the ability to snap off big hands and win huge pots as well. Big pocket pairs are going to lose a lot of money to you when you have 8-7 suited on like an 8-7-2 board. This is definitely one of the biggest pros.
The cons, though, are these hands are much more challenging to play, and you’re going to be in a lot of tough spots. People also have the tendency to bleed away too many chips with these hands just trying to hit a flop. I would say for the most part that they do more harm than good in a lot of people’s games. Most people are unaware of it because they usually just lose small to medium sized pots with them.
For example, let’s say you have that 8-7 suited against a big pocket pair again, and instead of the flop coming 8-7-2, it comes 8-3-2. Now you’re in a world of hurt, but you still feel pretty good with top pair. This is a recipe to lose a lot of chips and money if you aren’t good enough to get away from stuff post flop. I will tell you this. 100% of the people I coach and ask if they have problems getting away from suited connectors will tell me no. I can assure you that almost all of them were lying and didn’t even know it.
It’s a bit challenging to give blanket adjustments here as they are so situational dependent, but I’m going to do my best. Just realize that these are not catch alls and sometimes they are not applicable to certain situations.
First, be careful that you aren’t opening with these too much. There is a big difference between 6-5 suited and J-10 suited. They’re great to be mixed into your range to mix things up, but make sure that they don’t become the basis of your range. Also, remember that J-10 suited is better than J-9 suited, 9-8 suited is better than 9-7 suited…The bottom line is to make sure that you aren’t letting suited connectors take control of your range and get you into trouble.
Next, be aware of your position with these. If the cut-off opens and you are defending in the small blind all the time with suited connectors, you’re going to be putting a lot of money in and being out of position in a heads up pot. This isn’t the best recipe for making money especially with a hand that needs to hit usually to win you the pot.
I’m much more of a fan with defending these heads up in the big blind than the small blind for that reason. I also like calling with them to defend when I’m in position as long as I don’t have someone who likes to squeeze a lot behind me left to act.
Multi-way pots are also way more profitable to use suited connectors in as when you hit your dream flop, you have more customers that will be willing to pay you off. In a heads up pot, it’s much more likely that if the flop misses your opponent, the most you will get out of them is maybe a continuation bet.
Leading Into Part Two
These are a few of the ways I’ve seen opening ranges evolve over the past years in poker. As you can see, the basics are still important, but people are trying to find ways to exploit a strict adherence to the basics. In part two of this series, I’m going to talk about the table and situational conditions that you should be looking at to alter your opening ranges. Stay tuned that will be out soon!