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The Poker — Polarized Hand Ranges

by Rep Porter |  Published: Dec 09, 2015


In my last article, I wrote about using your chips as weapons on paired boards. The best cases are situations where the flop has come with a pair of high-ish middle cards and a small side card, like 9-9-4. I suggested that when you check-raise the flop, your opponent has a very tough time playing against you. Your range is polarized. If they hold a hand like K-K, you are either way ahead (trips or full house) or way behind (an ace, spiking a set, or runner runner). This is an interesting idea, because it comes up a lot in poker. I think we should explore it further.

So what does it mean to be way ahead or way behind? There are several components. You have to have a hand that is reasonably strong, yet stagnant in value. Second, the board has to not have many obvious draws. Lastly, your opponent has to have a range of hands that includes a significant amount of hands that will beat you, as well as a lot of hands that are behind.

I know when you read that, it sounds complicated. But it really isn’t. Let’s look at the kings on the 9-9-4 rainbow flop. There were three requirements. First, kings are a reasonably strong hand. They are stagnant in value, meaning that they can’t improve easily; you have to catch one of two remaining kings to improve. Second, the board is very dry, only running straights and flushes. Third, if your opponent has check-raised you, he can easily have you beat, but can also have hands that are worse than yours.

Another way this can happen is if you defend the big blind with a hand like A-8 suited. On a flop with an ace and two off suit little cards, like AHeart Suit 7Spade Suit 4Diamond Suit, all the requirements are met. You have top pair, aces. The board is relatively dry. And there are a lot of hands in your opponent’s range that are both better than yours, and worse than yours. This kind of hand happens all the time. King-high flops can create the same type of situations.

The question becomes, what do you do in these situations? In limit hold’em, you would just choose to get to showdown cheaply. You would do this either by check/calling, or maybe betting the last street if your opponent has checked at some point. This is harder to do in big bet poker. Each bet presents the opportunity for your opponent to escalate the pot size.

Let’s go back to the K-K hand for a minute. If you made a normal sized preflop raise to three big blinds and were called, the pot is probably about eight big blinds preflop. Now suppose you bet four big blinds on the flop and your opponent check-raised to 12 big blinds. If you call, the pot is now 32 big blinds. If your opponent makes a half-pot sized bet on the turn, the bet is 16 big blinds. If he does the same on the river, it is 32 big blinds. Suddenly, you are looking at 60 big blinds going in after the flop in a situation where you are easily beat. Early in a tournament, that is likely more than a third of your chips. Late in a tournament, you will usually end up all-in. The worst part is, as each bet goes in, your opponent’s range becomes stronger and stronger. This is why it is so horrible when your opponent check-raises you. Some players choose to call once and represent that they have something, planning to fold on the turn. Some players call down and lose, justifying the calls by saying my opponent is capable of bluffing there. But that is really the crux of the situation. Against an opponent who is unpredictable, your decision is tough. Against a straightforward opponent, folding the turn is pretty easy.

So how can I get to showdown against my trickier opponents while trying to keep their hand range as wide as possible? I think the best answer may be to check behind on the flop in situations where you are either way ahead or way behind. When you are winning, you are giving your opponent two or three cards to beat you. But you are also underrepresenting your hand. This will allow you to put money in on one or both of the remaining streets while keeping your opponent’s range as wide as possible. When you are losing, your opponent only gets to put in bets on two streets. If they truly are tricky, there will almost certainly be some bluffs in there as well that you will pick off. In these situations, it is okay to try and get a couple streets of value from your straightforward opponents. That is, as long as you can fold if they raise you…And against the more unpredictable players, play with some pot control and try to get to showdown cheaply. ♠

Rep Porter is a two-time WSOP bracelet winner and is the lead instructor at, whose mission is to help poker players achieve better results through better decisions and that is done by teaching poker in a way that makes learning easy and enjoyable with high quality courses taught by professional players.

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