Ranges can be confusing things. If you can imagine poker when Doyle Brunson first started playing, most opponents relied on only two options—call or fold. These players are the classic bad- passives we’ve already discussed. So, a very simple strategy was adopted to defeat them: value-bet thinly with a range stronger than your opponents’ and make a crying fold anytime they raise. This is the essence of what we’ll call a Strong Range (often referred to as a Depolarized Range).
However, the modern game dynamic makes overreliance on Strong Ranges a dangerous mistake. It turns out that when our opponents rely on raising or folding as their options, thinly value-betting runs into some problems. For example, we might 3-bet KQ preflop if we expected our opponent to play call-
or-fold. But, once they change to start playing raise-or-fold, our thinking needs to change about what sort of range would work well against them.
Before we get too far into the specifics, let’s make sure we understand the terms:
Polarized Range: The best and the worst, and nothing in between. Our opponent is playing 4bet-or-fold preflop, so we 3bet him with AA and J4s but never QJs. Polarized Ranges are best used against people who play raise-or-fold and not call-or-fold.
Strong Range: The best, the really good, the good, and the pretty good. Our opponent is playing call-or-fold preflop so we 3bet him with AA and QJs but never J4s. Strong Ranges are best used against people who play call-or-fold and not raise-or-fold.
In fact, there is one more type of range that can be played, though it can often be dangerous:
Everything Range: The best, the worst, the pretty good, the only so-so. This is the strategy taken by bad-aggressive fish. They don’t really know why they’re raising, they’re just doing it for fun. The only time that we want to raise everything is if our opponents are folding everything, but we have no better line to take with a value hand. A good example of an appropriate time to use an Everything Range: it folds to you on the button and both of the blinds are incredibly tight, nitty players. In this case you should raise everything as a bluff (our opponents are folding everything but the absolute nuts) and also raise AA for value (though in theory, under Either/Or Philosophy we should think about limping AA there).
After reading the description of Strong Ranges, some of you are probably wondering why we shouldn’t raise strong, high-equity hands into opponents who are likely to reraise us. This is a logical question; if he’s going to 4-bet with any Ace, and we hold Ace-Jack, why not 3-bet to induce a 4-bet? And guess what—it’s not wrong. One of the best ways to defeat a light 4bettor is to value hands like AJ and KQ more highly. This means 3-betting them and not folding.
Before we get there, though, we have to ensure that we don’t do the only thing that will kill us— never take a 3bet/fold line with a good hand if your opponent is likely to 4bet bluff you. I see this all the time from my beginning students (and particularly often from players who have played more tournaments than cash games). Here’s an example I might see from a new student: Villain raises to 3bb, we hold AJo on the button and reraise to 9bb, villain reraises to 20bb, we fold. In this example, AJo ends up with the exact same value as 72o. This is unacceptable (it would only be alright if our opponent calls our 3-bets lightly but never 4-bets without the nuts—not a common scenario in aggressive games but certainly okay for a more passive environment).
One of the most important things you can do at a poker table is figure out what type of range your opponent is using against you. Stats can be helpful for this. Someone who is opening 90% of buttons is using an Everything Range. Let’s say that you raise, a reg in the SB 3-bets you, a shortstacked fish in the BB calls all-in. At showdown, you see that the reg had 75s. Now, you know he is 3-betting with a Polarized Range. On the other hand, if you see that the reg had KJo, you know he has a Strong Range.
Before discussing exactly how to play against each range, it’s important to remember one critical concept—it’s hard to get dealt good hands and it’s easy to get dealt bad hands. If your opponent is 3- betting a Strong Range (let’s say nothing worse than QJo) then your opponent cannot be 3betting very often. It’s hard to get dealt QJo or better. However, if your opponent is 3betting a Polarized Range, their 3-bet percentage could be 40% easily—there’s just a lot more air than good stuff.
So let’s come up with plans against each type of range:
Villain is betting or raising me with a Strong Range. What do I do?
Call only with premium hands and fold everything else. If somebody is 3-betting you with a very wide Strong range (difficult to do given that it’s hard to be dealt good cards), you should always respond by reraise-bluffing and never to call unless you hold a premium hand. Strong ranges rely on capitalizing on their equity. They want to see flops. So, either just fold (their range is strong, after all), or see how they react to a reraise with hands that have good equity but not great equity (KQo preflop against a 4bet, for example). The only thing you cannot do is call lightly—this is exactly what a Strong Range is hoping you’ll do.
Villain is betting or raising me with a Polarized Range. What do I do?
Call widely and raise your weakest hands. If our opponent is at the top end of his Polarized Range (KK preflop, let’s say), he’s usually A) got our value hands beat and B) never folding to our bluffs.
So raising a value hand into a Polarized Range doesn’t really buy us anything. In fact, it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that you’re playing correctly when you reraise a strong hand (you 4bet AK preflop, for example) into a Polarized Range and your opponent snap-folds. Sure, you win the pot, but your opponent played perfectly by folding with the worst hand. In Fundamental Theorem of Poker terms, your opponent won the hand by playing correctly. However, if you flat your strong hands against Polarized Ranges, your opponent is often left trying to stay aggressive with a weak hand against you. This means that you’re likely to win a lot of money. An example: you raise AK to 3bb on the button and the BB reraises to 10bb witih A4o. You call (if you reraised, he would fold. Obviously, if he wouldn’t fold A4o to a reraise, you should 4bet for value). The flop comes down A87—you’re likely to stack him here and gain a lot of value (value that you would have lost had you raised into a Polarized Range).
Is it ever OK to raise into a Polarized Range?
Yes! If your opponent has a wide Polarized Range and your hand isn’t strong enough to call with (76s, let’s say), then you can rebluff anytime that you want. Plus, you can do it with any two cards, because your opponent isn’t likely to call you.
Villain is betting or raising me with an Everything Range. What do I do?
Whatever you do, don’t fold anything halfway decent. An opponent with an Everything Range can only respond to you in two ways. Let’s split these two up and discuss.
He’s opening 90% on the button but folding a lot to 3bets. What’s my plan?
3-bet bluff him all the time and flat preflop with your strong hands in order to keep his weak range in play. Essentially, give yourself a Polarized Range.
He’s opening 90% on the button but never folding to 3bets. What’s my plan?
Expand your value range and take the first train to thin value-town. Essentially, give yourself a very wide Strong Range.
Before we continue, there’s an important note that must be made. Nearly every example I’ve provided so far is based around preflop action. This is purely to help illustrate the concept; preflop has the fewest variables so a specific concept like range polarization can be most clearly displayed without other influences like board texture, multiple players, etc. clouding up the picture. However, this concept remains the same in postflop play. If you 2-barrel the turn with a big draw, you have a Strong Range (and accordingly, you hate to get raised there). If you bet for three streets of value with 2nd pair, you have a Strong Range. If your opponent overbets the river when all the draws miss, he’s representing a Polarized Range (though he doesn’t actually need to have one—if he thinks his representation of a Polarized Range will induce you to make thin calls, he may actually have a Strong Range and is thin-valuing). The point, though, is that despite our examples being overwhelmingly preflop-oriented, range polarization patterns exist throughout every street.
Now, let’s address some other problems. Here’s a hypothetical situation: Our opponent raises with any-two-cards and 4-bets with his entire range every time we 3-bet. He will fold to a 5-bet shove with everything but premium hands. The best plan against this type of opponent would be to 3-bet any- two-cards ourselves; 5-bet shoving all of our bluffs and flatting his 4-bet with all of our good hands. Now, let’s adjust this plan to a more realistic opponent. This opponent opens 80% on the button (pretty close to any-two-cards), and 4-bets us regularly (though nowhere near every time). Well, if we 5-bet shove, we can’t expect him to fold nearly as often as in the first example. So, we need to make sure we have equity if called. If we look way back to the basics of equity, we’ll remember that pairs and high cards have great equity. So, if somebody wants to 4-bet me a lot, they’re going to have to get used to me 3-bet/5-betting all pairs and Ax. In short, if we want to go to war with someone preflop, that’s the way to do it. And of course, I’ll keep flatting my strong hands (without intending to fold them very often).
Let’s explore a common example. An aggressive player raises in the cut-off and we hold AKo on the button. We decide to 3-bet for value (effective stacks are 100bb). This should be clarified—because most regs won’t call 3-bets OOP, the entirety of the value here comes from inducing bluffs from worse hands (we’ll include AQ in this category as well). Not only will he not fold anything better, we don’t want him to fold anything worse. If we thought he didn’t 4-bet bluff very often or call our 3-bets light we shouldn’t be 3-betting AK (though we should be 3-bet bluffing him at every opportunity). So, we 3-bet to induce a 4-bet, and our opponent obliges by reraising. Most players automatically shove all-in at this point. There is a lot of dead money in the pot.
I’m going to offer some reasons in favor of flatting:
- Most people 4-bet bluff with hands that include blockers to big pairs (Ax or Kx). So, if he’s bluffing, we have him severely dominated. If we both pair on the flop, we’re almost certainly going to stack him (he’s not folding top pair in a 4-bet pot).
- Most people can’t get away from a hand like QQ or KK if an Ace flops in a 4-bet pot (they might be able to get away in a 3-bet pot). So, we don’t risk losing value.
- Most players that are aggressive enough to 4-bet bluff will also be likely to bluff postflop. (i.e. they 4-bet with K4s and the flop is A73 they’re likely to bluff. Or, if the flop comes 652 they’re likely to fire flop and shove turn with their gutshot).
A key element of taking this line is that we are basically never folding no matter the board texture. Simply put, AK’s equity against a wide range is so strong even on a board without an Ace or King that folding to an aggressive player would be a mistake. There is one specific instance in which flatting with AK in this situation is bad: if the third premise above is false and our opponent is unlikely to bluff us postflop. If our opponent 4-bet bluffs us but never continues postflop unless he can beat AK we are letting him freeroll us. In that instance, my preferred play would be to make the minimum possible 5- bet (though shoving could be good in some circumstances).
Another benefit of playing with a strong hand in such large pots preflop is that position decreases in importance as more money goes in the pot (the relationship between position and stack sizes is discussed in the basic section—shorter stacks mean less positional value). So, you can think the same way about AK in this spot whether you 3-bet on the button or in the small blind.
This discussion is generally limited to hands as strong as AK, QQ, KK, and AA due to their dominating equity. Of course, the wider our opponent’s range, the more we could include hands like AQ, AJ, JJ, etc. Equity is relative, but AK dominates against virtually any opponent’s range.
As always, in poker, no plan is foolproof. Our opponent can defeat our “flat premiums against a Polarized Range” plan by never c-bet bluffing and never getting value-owned with a worse made hand.
In that case, flatting a 4-bet preflop gives my opponent a chance to play perfectly against me. Most opponents will never figure out how to do those two things, though (they’ll almost always talk themselves into c-bet bluffing or they’ll be unable to fold their weak top-pair with so much money already in the pot). However, in the event that they do figure it out, there’s a counter adjustment that we can make too. We’ll talk about that now.