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Defining a Range

by Gavin Griffin |  Published: Apr 13, 2016


Gavin Griffin“Do you have a straight?” he said to me. We were all-in on a flop of AHeart Suit 4Club Suit 2Club Suit in a raised pot with only 100 big blind stacks and I was in the small blind at a full table. Of course, I didn’t have 5-3 for a raise in the small blind. I had flopped top pair and a flush draw, the preflop raiser was last to act and bet. I called knowing I was super far ahead and, not really worrying about being drawn out on when the first limper check-raised, the preflop raiser called, I shoved, the limper shoved, and the raiser folded. His first worry was whether his top two was beat. I obviously could have him beat in this situation but never with a straight. However, we often define our opponents’ range in terms of our range. Since he could have a straight in this situation, why couldn’t I?

Range is a very popular term these days. Everyone except for the most stubborn seems to know what it means. Just to be sure we’re all on the same page though, your range is a list of all of the hands that you could have played in the way you have played it. For instance, in a somewhat normal nine-handed no-limit hold’em game, the under the gun raising range is K-Q, K-J suited+, A-J offsuit+, A-10 suited+, J-10 suited, Q-J suited, and pocket pairs 7-7 and higher. The later our position preflop is in a hand, the larger our range gets. Before the term “range” existed, poker players would try to put their opponent on a hand. One hand. Singular. This is a very difficult proposition without a ton of information. What it ends up doing is focusing way too much on feel and intuition and not enough on logic and math. When we attempt to narrow our opponent’s holdings down to one hand, we are so often wrong that the effort spent getting to that point is wasted. If we instead focus on finding a group of hands that our opponent would play this way, we find much more success and we can leverage our math skills in calculating our expected value (EV) versus that range with both our particular hand in the situation and our range in that situation.

Of course, there are some situations where we can narrow our opponent’s range down to one specific hand through logic and deduction given a certain set of assumptions we make about them. For instance, if we know our opponent never raises the river as a bluff, would only call with the third nut flush if we bet, and would raise with the second nut flush or better, we can bet the river and fold to a raise with the second nut flush pretty easily. Obviously our assumptions can change, but that’s a situation where logic dictates making a fold that seems exploitable. However, if our opponent can only have two hands and we have the worse of those two hands, we can fold all day.

If we go back to our opening hand example though, we’ll see that our opponent was worried about a hand that could never be in our range. So, how did he come to such a poor conclusion? Well, he started with an assumption that lots of poker players make and that is almost always wrong. He assumed that everybody else plays like him. In fact, it’s very unlikely, except for some very specific circumstances where the game has been solved, like heads-up with 10 big blinds or less, that anybody else in the world plays exactly like you. Poker is a game that can be played so many different ways with so many differing levels of success and failure that though you and another person might play some hands exactly the same, you could still be vastly different in your approach to the game and your execution.

This little thing, the fact that people can play so differently and disagree about individual plays and execution, is what makes the game deeply complicated and interesting. Think about it. If there was one specific way to play every hand that was profitable, would the game be interesting? No chance. One of my favorite things at a poker table is when I make a play that I think is profitable but doesn’t work. It’s important to me for a few reasons. First, it shows that I’m willing to trust my reads and instincts to do something slightly unconventional. Second, since most people think their way of playing poker is correct, anything that deviates from that is therefore wrong. If it’s wrong, it must be bad and therefore, I must be bad. This is one reason why I always show my cards when I get caught bluffing. I want people to think poorly of the way I played a hand. It is always to my advantage.

So, a range is a scientific thing. Its definition is clear. How we reach the conclusion of what someone’s range is, though, is much less clear. We have to use our logical skills, our psychology skills, and occasionally our physical reading skills to put it all together.

Poker is both a science and an art and it will help everyone to remember that. ♠

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