An old saying goes that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. This is particularly true when it comes to poker. To become a better poker player, you need to have a strategy for improvement. One of the approaches that pros recommend is to work with poker ranges. Whether you’re looking to move up from the micro-stakes or to improve your performance in online poker tournaments, thinking in ranges can help you up your game. Keep on reading for an introduction to this important topic.
What Are Poker Ranges?
So, what exactly are poker ranges? In simple terms, a poker hand range is the combination of cards that a player can have in any specific situation.
Suppose you’re playing a six-handed game of Texas hold’em. The cards are dealt, and you’re sitting with a pair of jacks on the button. What cards do your opponents have? With 169 potential starting hands and 1,326 unique combinations in Texas hold’em, there’s no way you can figure it out. But then the preflop betting round begins, and an opponent raises from under the gun.
There’s only a narrow range of cards with which it makes sense to raise from that position:
- Pocket 5s to aces.
- Suited aces (ace-10 and better).
- Suited kings (king-10 and better).
- Suited queens (queen-10 and better).
- Suited jacks (jack-9 and better).
- Suited connectors from 10-8 and better, down to 7-6.
- Ace-jack off suit.
- King-queen off-suit.
Knowing this immediately makes it possible for you to put your opponent on a hand range that includes these combinations. As a result, you can compare your hand strength to their holdings and tailor your actions accordingly. Should you raise, call, or fold? Say, the action folds to you — all the other players between you and the UTG (under-the-gun) player fold. Your opponent’s range includes pocket queens, kings, and aces, so there’s a chance you’re already beat. But jacks in the hole have too much value to let go of just like that. You need more information, so you’ll want to see the flop. If you see the flop, you’ll want to be in position, so raising is the way to go here. How do they respond to your raise? If they call, it suggests their hand is in the lower end of their range. But if they three-bet, they’re representing massive strength, which should give you something to think about. And so it goes, on the flop, turn, and river, all the way to showdown.
Bottom line: your opponent’s range is all the combinations they could be holding as suggested by their actions so far. It’s a dynamic phenomenon that you should be attentive to on every street when you play online poker.
Talking About Ranges
As you can see, to understand even this basic example, you have to at least have a solid grasp of preflop opening ranges. If that sounds like a headache, don’t worry. There are many great tools to ease the pain, and it all starts with being able to talk about hand ranges.
The Poker Matrix
A good place to start is with a poker hand matrix. Also known as a poker hand chart, a poker matrix displays all 169 possible starting hand combinations on a 13×13 grid. The pocket pairs are on the diagonal, with unsuited combinations on the bottom left and suited combinations on the top right.
The matrix will color-code a range of hands depending on the problem you want the matrix to solve. For instance, when it comes to starting hand ranges you can chart poker ranges by position, the number of players at the table, the effective stack size, and more.
Another way to represent poker hand ranges is in percentage. Poker tools like Holdem Manager and Poker Tracker do this all the time. A good way to use percentages is to look at your opponent’s poker stats. Say, they have a VPIP (Voluntarily Put In Pot) of 18 from middle position. This means they’re raising or calling 18% of the time. That enables you to estimate their range by building the top 18% of hands in that spot.
Another way to talk about ranges is in the form of range combos. Remember that the 169 potential starting hands covers 1,326 possible combinations.
Suppose you’re looking at a range on a poker matrix that includes pocket 7s. This is simply one cell (77) on the matrix, but there are in fact six possible combinations of pocket 7s:
- 7♦ 7♥.
- 7♦ 7♠.
- 7♦ 7♣.
- 7♥ 7♠.
- 7♠ 7♣.
- 7♥ 7♣.
In the above example, you’d say that your opponent has six combos of pocket sevens in their range.
With unpaired hand combinations, there are four suited and 12 unsuited combos for each one.
Range strands represent hand ranges in text form. It’s a kind of shorthand you’ll often see in poker forums when players discuss hand ranges. For example, 22+ – means the player’s range includes all pocket pairs, while 77+ – means they have pocket 7s and better. The range strand ATs-AQs means their range includes all suited ace-10, ace-jack and ace-queen combos. The combo before the hyphen (ATs in this example) is the low end of the range, while the combo after the hyphen is the high end of the range.
Putting Ranges to Use
Knowing how to talk about hand ranges will enable you to train with poker solvers and improve your theoretical knowledge of the game. In card-based casino table games like blackjack and baccarat you don’t need to worry about other players, but poker requires you to consider their skill level, style of play, their actions, the stakes, the effective stack size, their position at the table, and the game dynamic. If that sounds like a lot to process, it is. It’s what makes the difference between pros and casual players. The good news is that the more you play, the more intuitive you become at bringing these factors into play.
To begin with, it’s enough to look at things from a preflop and postflop perspective. Preflop, the way to go is to put your opponent on the same range of hands as you would open with from the same position. If you have stats on them (for example, VPIP), you can finesse their range even further.
The same principle applies after the flop. Suppose you have 7♠7♦ on the button. The UTG player raises. The action folds to you, you call, the blinds fold, and the flop comes A♥ 6♥ 5♣. Your opponent checks. Assuming you raised from UTG, ask yourself what your checking range (all the combinations you would check with) is in their place. Eliminate all the combinations you would raise with (sets, flush draws, most top pairs, combos that don’t connect).
This process of elimination leaves you with pocket aces, underpairs, and weak ace-rag hands. So you bet, and they call. Now you have to ask yourself which hands you would use to check-call in this situation, and then put them in your opponent’s range. In this example, a poker solver would suggest calling pocket 7s and better, ace-jack off-suit, and ace-10 suited. This range outguns your pocket 7s, so you won’t want to keep adding money to the pot.
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