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Range Building

by Gavin Griffin |  Published: Jan 07, 2015


Gavin GriffinI have a few students that I coach on a one on one basis and, during a recent session, one of them asked me an interesting question that I hadn’t thought about in a while because, truthfully, it’s become such a part of my thought process that I don’t have to think about it anymore. If you’ve read Jared Tendler’s book The Mental Game of Poker, you’ll know that he talks about the four stages of learning and the concept my student asked me about has been in my unconscious competence stage for a long time. He asked me, “How do you put someone on a range of hands?”

Then, not much later, another person I’m mentoring asked me a similar question, though from a different angle. He was telling me about a hand where he used a physical tell to call off on the river with second pair while facing a bet of ten times the pot. He asked me how I developed that part of my game, and I responded that it was something I hadn’t really worked on much over the course of my career, that I had a pretty good feel for people’s body language after having played so many hours, but couldn’t pinpoint more than a couple of clear tells that I look for on a regular basis. He asked how I ever called anyone’s bluff without having spent lots of time studying tells. My response was to tell him that tells are only a part of how you define someone’s range in a given situation. In fact, you should use it last to get a final read, not to get your initial grasp of the situation. He was a bit taken aback by my comment and I was surprised by this.

So, why do my two acquaintances have this same problem even though they approach it from a different angle? Simple, they never sat down and thought about how to create a range for your opponent. I see this quite often when I’m playing and there’s a tell-tale sign for someone who hasn’t thought about how to construct an opponent’s range. The first hand they always think about when trying to put an opponent on a hand is the nuts, no matter how unlikely.

Instead of waiting until you’re facing a tough decision and then trying to figure out what your opponent has, your view of their range should be constantly in flux. From hand to hand, session to session, your opponents will continually give you more information that helps you define their range in each situation and you need to take that into account when you assign them a range. So, let’s take a look at an imaginary tournament hand and see what that process looks like:

Both players start the hand with around 23,000 chips with blinds of 200-400 and a 50 ante. You raise from the button with KClub Suit 10Heart Suit to 1,000. The big blind, who seems to play well, defends. So, what types of hands do we expect opponents to defend with a call in this situation? Pairs, though most players would three-bet their best pairs, say tens or better, so we can say he most likely has 22-99 (This, by the way, is what we call a capped range. If we can automatically remove some of the best hands possible from an opponent’s range it makes things way easier on us), suited connectors, suited gappers like 10-8, 10-7, 9-7, 8-6, and unsuited Broadway cards.

The flop is JHeart Suit 10Club Suit 9Diamond Suit. Our opponent checks to us and we bet 1,400. He calls. We don’t really gain any information from our opponent’s check, because almost every similar situation in a heads-up pot gets checked to the raiser. We can, however, gain some information from our opponent’s reaction to our bet. What types of hands does our opponent call with? I think we can safely say that he’d fold 2-2 through 7-7 and we’ve removed tens or better, so he can’t have top or middle set, leaving only bottom set, though I think he’d probably be looking to raise with bottom set on this board since it hits our range pretty squarely and lots of ugly cards can peel off on the turn. That means it looks like he probably doesn’t have a set. He could have a straight and is looking to play it slowly, especially since we’re pretty aggressive and will likely bet this board on lots of turns and rivers. We can keep that in the range. I’d say his most likely set of holdings are pair and straight draw or two pair-type hands. Things like K-J, Q-J, Q-10, Q-9, K-10, J-10, 10-9, 9-8, J-8, 8-8, and so on.

The turn is the KHeart Suit, putting a one-card straight out and a heart flush draw. Now, our opponent leads out for 3,350 into a pot of 5,250. Weird. This is an anomalous bet and one from which we can usually gain some good information, and it definitely helps to have a history with this player when things get weird. Would they lead out with two pair here? Perhaps they would, looking to get some money in the pot when they still have the best hand or even as a bluff to get a bigger two pair to fold. Would they do this with a queen in their hand like Q-J, Q-10, etc? Again, perhaps they would because they expect us to check back the scare card. Would they bet 8-8, J-8, 9-8? Those seem like really good bluffing hands to me. Not much showdown value and still some equity in the case that they are called. So, now we’re looking at hands with an eight in them, two pair, and hands with a queen in them. I think a set is too strong to try to bluff, but has too many outs to improve to bet for value and fold to a raise, so I think we can take that out of our opponent’s range as well. We call.

The river is the 7Club Suit and our opponent checks. Weird again. Okay, it’s now incredibly unlikely that they have a king-high straight, as our turn call is pretty strong looking and they would be trying to get value from our hand with the king-high straight. However, since we didn’t raise the turn, it seems unlikely that our opponent would check an eight that made a jack-high straight on the river, so we can probably rule that out. That leaves two pair hands, of which only K-J beats us, but do they call? It’s probably the most likely hand in their range and I think they fold it often enough to make bluffing profitable. In addition, betting here does wonders for balancing our betting range in the future. I like a bet. We do, and he folds what he later tells us is 9-8.

You may recognize this hand as one that takes place between Jorryt van Hoof and Andoni Larrabe from the WSOP main event final table. I think it’s a good example of Jorryt clearly using his opponent’s actions to narrow his range and taking advantage of the fact that Larrabe’s range is so out of whack in this situation. I think if you asked Jorryt, he’d probably say he was either value betting or merging and I think he’d be right. The fact that he got Larrabe to fold 9-8 in this situation was just icing on the cake and surely unexpected. ♠

Gavin Griffin was the first poker player to capture a World Series of Poker, European Poker Tour and World Poker Tour title and has amassed nearly $5 million in lifetime tournament winnings. Griffin is sponsored by You can follow him on Twitter @NHGG