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Upswing Poker Lab: How To Assign Ranges To Players

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The Upswing Poker Lab is a poker training course taught by Doug Polk, Ryan Fee, and other top poker pros. The Lab is updated regularly with in-depth learning modules, theory videos, and a wealth of information to make you a better poker player.

By Mike Brady

The ability to put your opponent on a range, otherwise known as ‘ranging’ or ‘hand reading,’ is one of the most important skills needed to crush your competition at the tables.

In this article, I’ll show you how to think about hand reading and how to be more confident in your decisions both preflop and post-flop.

What Are Ranges?

A range represents all the hands a player can have in a specific situation. There are two types of ranges:

  1. Polarized range: A range that contains both strong hands and hands that you could classify as bluffs.
  2. Merged range: A range built from the top up with the strongest and/or highest equity hands that a player could have in a situation.

For example, here are examples of polarized and merged betting ranges on a KDiamond Suit 10Spade Suit 6Club Suit flop:

  • Polarized: K-K, 10-10, 6-6, K-10, A-A, A-K, Q-J, Q-9, J-9, 9-8, 9-7, 8-7.
  • Merged: K-K, 10-10, 6-6, K-10, A-A, A-K, K-Q, K-J, K-9, A-10, Q-10, J-10, 10-9, A-6, Q-J.

Notice how the polarized range contains some weaker draws, and the merged range contains some medium-strength and weaker made hands.

The Ranging Process

Ranging an opponent is not easy. When you are playing poker, there is an awful lot of information to think about in a very short time-span before you can make a good read on your opponent’s range.

Let’s start by laying out the fundamentals of hand reading:

  1. An opponent’s range will progressively get narrower from preflop to the river.
  2. An opponent cannot have a hand that was not assigned to his range after a previous action.

With these in mind, let me show you how to think about hand reading an opponent street-by-street.

Ranging Preflop

Here are the main preflop factors to consider (in order of importance):

  1. Your opponent’s tendencies.
  2. The player pool’s tendencies.
  3. The “correct” preflop ranges.

Note: The word “correct” is in quotations because the theoretically correct preflop ranges for no-limit hold’em are not yet known. If you’d like some solid preflop ranges to work with, get free preflop charts here.

The first factor to consider is your opponent’s specific tendencies. You’ll want to adjust your strategy if your opponent is loose, tight, or somewhere in between.

For example, suppose you see a player raise with K-8 suited from middle position in a live game. This loose raise means his range is probably wider than a conventional player’s when he raises. Therefore, you can probably play looser against this player’s raises (both by calling and three-betting more frequently) to punish his loose play.

If you don’t have enough information about a specific opponent, you can make your decision based on the tendencies of the player pool for your game. You’ve probably noticed certain poker games just feel different from others. For example, you might play at a casino with a lot of loose and crazy players, which warrants a tighter and more value-heavy strategy than, say, a casino with a lot of tight and weak players.

In the rare cases that you lack reads on both your opponent and the player pool, you can estimate your opponent’s preflop range by assuming he plays solid and reasonable ranges, aka the “correct” range.

Ranging Post-Flop

The factors to consider post-flop are very similar to preflop:

  1. Your opponent’s tendencies.
  2. The player pool’s tendencies.
  3. Poker game theory.

There are other, more subtle factors that are beyond the scope of this article that you can use to sway close decisions (such as tells), but they can be quite misleading and thus should be used carefully.

Regardless of your opponent’s action, you should always start the process by thinking about your opponent’s tendencies. In absence of those, the player pool’s tendencies. Only in absence of that information will you base your opponent’s range strictly on what he should be doing from a game theory perspective.

Hand Reading Example

Let’s say we’re playing in a $1-$2 live cash game and our opponent in the cutoff position, who we know to be a solid and fairly tight player, raises to $6. It folds around to us in the big blind and we make the call with KHeart Suit 8Heart Suit.

Before we ever see a flop, we can eliminate a ton of hands from his range based on his decision to raise. Obviously trash hands like 7-2 offsuit, 10-3 suited, and K-4 offsuit can be eliminated, but it’s a good idea to get even more specific. Let’s estimate that he is raising with all pocket pairs, all Broadway hands (A-K through J-10), all suited aces, strong suited connectors (7-6 suited+), and some strong suited hands (K-9 suited, Q-9 suited, 10-8 suited, etc.).

After seeing a KSpade Suit 5Spade Suit 4Diamond Suit flop, we check and our opponent checks back.

He probably would have bet if he had a strong made hand (like A-K, K-Q, 5-5) or a strong draw (like 10Spade Suit 8Spade Suit or 7-6 suited), so we can eliminate those hands from his range. It’s tough to know for sure what he would have done with a medium-strength hand like 8-8 or A-5, so let’s say he might have those hands. Ace-highs and total nothing-hands (like 10Club Suit 9Club Suit) are almost certainly in this check back range. Top set (K-K) is one monster hand that he might check back here, but that’s very unlikely since there are only two kings left in the deck.

Now, the turn comes the 7Heart Suit. We decide to value bet $8 with our top pair and our opponent calls.

Since he called a bet, we can eliminate those total nothing hands from his range, as well as the weak ace-highs. That leaves us with some medium-strength hands (A-5, 8-8, etc.), strong ace-highs (A-Q, A-J, etc.) and draws that he decided to check back on the flop (perhaps ASpade Suit 10Spade Suit or similar). It’s also possible he checked back on the flop with a hand like K-10, but that’s not too great of a concern with only two kings remaining in the deck.

Finally, the 2Club Suit falls on the river.

Considering the range we estimated for our opponent on the turn, which contained many medium-strength hands and very few hands that have our K-8 beat, this is a pretty easy value bet. So, we bet $18 into the $28 pot. Our opponent calls and, after seeing our hand, tables 8-8 and says, “you got lucky on the flop!”

He’s right that we got (a bit) lucky on the flop, but it was our accurate ranging that allowed us to extract some great value from that luck.

Conclusion

Poker is a game of incomplete information, and the best you can do is make the best decision possible with the information available to you.

I hope this article has helped you improve your skills! If you aren’t done learning, check out the poker tips and quizzes on the Upswing blog.

Ready to take your poker skills to the next level? Get your access to the ranges and strategies used by world-class poker pros when you join the Upswing Lab. You can also learn to make quick, high-quality, profitable poker decisions in 30 seconds or less with the $7 Post-Flop Game Plan Mini-Course. Learn more now!