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Head Games -- Polarization 101 And Beyond

Determining When A Player's Hand Is Either Very Strong Or Very Weak


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Sometimes it’s hard to get a straight answer from a professional poker player. Ask three players a question and you’re liable to get three different answers. Why? Because, the answer depends. It depends on the situation, opponent, stack sizes, table image, tilt, metagame, and so on.

Head Games will peer deep inside the complex minds of today’s top players. We’ll reveal why they do what they do in sticky situations, especially when it comes down to making a critical decision for a major tournament title or calling a check-raise all in on the river holding only ace high for a $500,000 pot. Let the games begin.

The Players: Shawn Buchanan, Shannon Shorr and Galen Hall

Shawn BuchananCraig Tapscott: When a player’s hand range is polarized, it means they are acting in such a way that their probable holdings are divided between two options — either very strong or very weak. Can you share how you polarize an opponent’s hand range preflop in terms of your decision to flat-call, three-bet, and so on?

Shawn Buchanan: Preflop three-betting is becoming more and more common in tournaments, and as such, knowing which types of hands to three-bet is becoming increasingly important, as well. In the current state of tournaments, very few of my opponents are flat-calling when I three-bet them — instead, they are either four-betting or folding.
Because of this, I recommend having a polarized three-betting range, and only raising very strong hands that I’m happy to get all in with preflop and very weak hands that are not good enough to flat raises with. This way, if my opponent does indeed four-bet shove on me, I can easily release my very weak holdings and happily call with my very strong ones. I prefer flat-calling over three-betting with good (but not great) hands like K-Q, J-10 suited, and medium pairs.

Shannon Shorr: Preflop, there are a number of things that should be considered when deciding whether or not to three-bet a player. Good opportunities to three-bet bluff arise when a player continually open raises preflop into the big blind of a weak or nitty opponent. Obviously the later the position a player is in when he opens, the more likely it is he’s stealing. So, many three-bet bluffs are in order in something like a cutoff/button situation. If we’re both deep-stacked and a player opens under the gun, and I find something like two jacks on the button, I can make a very good case for just calling instead of three-betting preflop, as his hand is fairly polarized. He’ll often have a huge hand, and I can control the pot by calling as opposed to three-betting and having to potentially play a monster pot if I get four-bet. Other times, I’ll find a call with big hands preflop if I get a bad feeling when a fairly nitty player opens. Preflop is largely about feel and dynamic when determining whether or not to call or three-bet.

Galen HallGalen Hall: The concept of polarization isn’t usually that important until the river, when hand strengths are aligned along an exact, linear scale — in which hand A is greater than hand B, which is greater than hand C — and you are generally betting or raising clearly for value or as a bluff. Hand values preflop, on the flop, or on the turn are much more complex and can’t be described just by their raw equities against given ranges, because player tendencies, flexibility on different board textures, blockers, and things like that are really important, as well. I bluff so much more frequently than other players that I need to have super wide value-ranges on almost every street to balance it out against opponents who are willing to call me down light. A lot of players get used to always pot-controlling their medium-equity hands and then bombing away with their strong and weak hands, but I am always firing lots of barrels and postflop raises of drastically different sizes, and really getting my hands dirty with the middles of my ranges. I think that’s where a lot of my edge comes from; many regulars aren’t used to that style of play, and they make a lot of mistakes that I can observe and exploit very quickly.

Craig Tapscott: Please share how you use the concept of polarization in terms of postflop situations to determine your actions.

Shawn Buchanan: Being able to recognize when your opponent is representing a polarized range postflop is very important. In these situations, it is often correct to call your opponent down with the majority of your hands that have showdown value. Since your opponent is only representing the nuts or a bluff, his range will consist of very few combinations of value hands, and as such, his range will be weighted toward bluffs. Recently in a six-max tourney at the WSOP, I was dealt Q-Q and raised in early position. A good, aggressive player called in the big blind. The flop was 9-9-5 rainbow, and after my opponent checked to me, I made a standard-sized continuation-bet. To my surprise, he check-raised me. I called, the turn was an offsuit 2, and my opponent barreled into me again. At this point, my opponent’s range was extremely polarized. He either had a near-nut type hand — any 9, or pocket fives — or a bluff. I decided to call again on the turn, and then called his bet after the river brought a 3. He knuckled the table and muttered “nice call” under his breath. Even though I was quite confident I had the best hand, in these situations there is very little merit to raising my opponent on any street. Raising wouldn’t accomplish anything positive for me — if my opponent did, indeed, have the nut type of hand he was representing, all raising would do is allow him to win a bigger pot. If my opponent was bluffing, raising him on the flop or turn would end the hand immediately, and I would miss out on value from him bluffing into me on further streets. However, it is important to remember that against some opponents, no matter how polarized their range is, and how few combinations of value hands they are representing, they almost always have it when they bet three streets.

Shannon ShorrShannon Shorr: The concept of polarization in poker hands is much more interesting as it pertains to postflop situations, particularly on the river. At times, you’ll have two pair or a set and get raised on the river of a board like 10Club Suit 9Spade Suit 3Spade Suit 2Diamond Suit KClub Suit. Those are spots in which your opponent is representing a very tiny range, almost exactly Q-J for the nut straight if there has been significant action on the other two streets. Those are the spots in poker that really separate the men from the boys, as you need to be able to ascertain which of your opponents are capable of bluff-raising or turning a pair into a bluff on that river. Additionally, in order to make the right decision, it’s important to know which of your opponents might be absolutely clueless and raise something like K-J. Also, some players will go for a thin value-raise with K-10 or K-9 depending on the action. To sum up postflop polarization decisions, it’s more about putting the pieces together in order to make the correct decision rather than simply making a feel decision preflop about whether to three-bet or not.

Galen Hall: There are almost no board textures on which my continuation-betting range is always polarized, but there are some specific spots — according to texture, opponent, or stack size — in which I may have extremely polarized ranges for putting in a raise. I do think that many good players play somewhat similarly with both ends of their range, but that the interesting play comes from the types of hands that they choose to merge with against particular opponents in particular spots. For example, after flatting a mid-position open on the button, a lot of good players might raise a C-bet on a JClub Suit 9Spade Suit 8Spade Suit board with the top of their range (sets and two pairs) and also with all of their complete air balls. However, the really interesting plays are how they decide to play 10-8, Q-J, 7-7, 5Spade Suit 4Spade Suit, or ASpade Suit 2Spade Suit against different opponents, which types of hands they chose to merge into their raising range, and which hands they choose to flat with and play turns. (Not that flatting with a super strong hand or floating here would be a bad idea, either.)