Strategy Snacks #3 – Thinking About Ranges

4 min read

Language is important. You’ll hear this more and more from me over future strategy articles. That’s what happens when you hire a poker coach who is also a writer; the lessons frequently involve the proper use of words and language. 

Strategy Snacks dog
This poor pup never gets a snack. Just ask him, he’ll tell you all about it. (Image: Chris Wallace)

A good example of this is how we think about ranges. When putting an opponent on a hand, many coaches speak in terms of “constructing a range.” But that isn’t the right way to think about ranges. That makes it feel like your opponent starts with a very tight range and you add hands to it. As we know, that’s not how poker works. 

Start thinking about ranges the right way

Your opponent starts with any two cards. Everyone does. So when we are thinking about ranges, we narrow down that range, rather than adding hands to it. Instead of thinking of defining someone’s range like you’re molding a statue out of clay, think of it as chipping a statue out of a block of marble. They start with a block that contains all the possible hand ranges, and then we chip away at it every time they make a choice. 

If a typical player limps under the gun preflop, we can remove hands like 94s and J5o. Big hands are still possible if they’re planning to limp and then reraise, and weaker hands that can hit a big flop are also still possible, but the real junk is gone and we have narrowed their range down to less than half of all possible hands. If you know the player well, you may narrow the range down even further, but at least you’ve chipped away at some of that marble. 

If you’re trying to “build a range” in this spot, you would be hunting through all the possible hands, adding whichever hands make sense. And if you miss a few, you can easily be surprised later. You never want to be surprised by an opponent’s holding because that usually means you were shown a hand you didn’t expect, and a lot of your chips are being pushed across the table to someone else. 

When two other players limp, the button makes a small raise, and the under the gun limper calls, we can narrow down their range even further. Now a big hand is very unlikely. They can’t afford to have three other players see a cheap flop against a big pair, so we can remove those big hands from their range when they choose not to reraise. 

Narrow it down

Now we’re down to suited connectors and one-gaps, suited aces, and small pairs. Your knowledge of the player may make this range even narrower. This makes it much easier to play against this opponent, and it took very little mental effort to get to this point. You can be focused on other players’ ranges, watching for body language and other things that can provide you with more information about how to play your hand instead of building a range.

Every time your opponent has an opportunity to act, you should be using their behavior to either confirm your range assessment or updating it with an even more narrow range. And thinking in those words — in terms of chipping away at a range instead of building one — helps you think about it in the right way and makes it a simpler process. 

These little tricks pile up over time. Everything that can save you some time and mental energy, and make your process more efficient gives you more time to think about how to attack those ranges and how to make the most, or lose the least, on a hand. 

So change your language and change the way you think about ranges. I’ll be back with more about how to think about ranges and how to save some of your mental energy in next week’s strategy snack. Now get back to the tables, dinner will be ready in a few hours.  

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