Most of everything in poker really comes down to two things. What your opponent thinks your range is, and what you think your opponent’s range is. Based on those two things, it’s a matter of properly selling or deceiving what your range is to your opponents, and properly reading what their range is without getting deceived. Becoming a master of convincing your opponent that you have a heavily weighted strong range when you are bluffing, and a weak range or bluff when you are strong can become quite the art in no- limit poker. With some practice and thoughtful execution, it’s an aspect of poker that can separate you from the other regulars in the games you’re playing.
A big part of your perceived range is going to depend on how you’d play a given range of hands in a particular situation. When you’re first playing someone at your stakes, there’s going to be a given “normal” way to play a range hands for the board that’s in play. There will be some general assumptions made about your opponent until you can glean what their likely skill level is, and what level they are thinking about poker on. Then, based on the history that you build with that opponent, and how you’ve seen them play past situations, you’ll start to alter what their likely range will be in a particular spot.
That’s where making reads and taking good notes on your opponents really comes into play. For example, if you’ve seen your opponent call two streets on a dry board, and then turn a small pair or bottom pair into a bluff on the river, then you’re going to know that when you reach the river you’re going to want to check/call a good portion of your medium strength hands to your opponent on the river, or bet small on the turn and river to induce a bluff.
Balancing Your Range
When you can play a variety of different hand ranges in roughly the same ratios, and in the same manner, then you’ve balanced your hand range. You’re doing this in order to make it difficult for your opponent to narrow down your hand range. The wider and more balanced your range is, the more likely that your opponent will make a mistake versus your play.
If you have an unbalanced range, then your opponent will be able to narrow your hand range down easier, and consequently make the more optimal decision versus your play. So, for example, if you only check-raise flops when you hold an open ended straight draw or flush, then you’d have an unbalanced range. Your opponent will be able to narrow down your range well enough to make good decisions. Now if you added in sets to your check-raising range, and roughly 50% of the time you check-raised with a draw, and 50% of the time you check-raised with a set, it will make your opponent’s decision more difficult. But now let’s say 25% of the time you check-raise in a given spot with top pair, 25% of the time you check-raised with two pair, 25% of the time you check-raised with a set, and 25% of the time you check-raised with a draw. Your opponent is going to have a lot of hands they’ll have to consider before continuing.
In the example above, in a full ring cash game with 100 BB effective stacks, you open 88 for 3 BBs from early middle position (MP1), and the table folds to the small blind who calls. The big blind folds and you see the flop heads-up. The flop comes: Td9c4d. Your opponent checks, and you bet 2/3rds of the pot and your opponent check-raises. Let’s take a look at how an unbalanced range to a more progressively balanced range affects equity, and should in turn affect your opponent’s decision if they understand your range.
1. Your opponent only check-raises open ended straight draws and flush draws. Your equity versus this
range is going to be roughly 55%. With the money already in the pot, you should either look to get it in, or call and shove a blank turn card when your opponent’s equity will really drop.
- Now your opponent check-raises OESD’s / flush draws 50% of the time, and two pair 50% of the time. Your equity is going to drop all the way down to 45.5% versus your opponent’s range. With the money already in the pot, this will typically be a very narrow +EV spot to get your money in against that kind of range.
3. Let’s now add top pair to your opponent’s range, and say that 33% of the time they are check-raising top pair, draws, and two pair. Your equity is going to drop all the way down to 38.3% against your opponent’s range, making it a clear fold.
4. And finally, just to round it out, let’s add that 25% of the time your opponent is check-raising sets, draws, two pair, and top pair equally. Your equity is going to drop down to 33.9% against your opponent’s range. The wider and more diverse the range gets, the more difficult the decision is going to be for your opponent.
So the bottom line is that the more competent your opponent is, the more diverse and balanced your range needs to be in an array of situations. The weaker your opponent is, the more unbalanced your range can be simply because they won’t be placing you on a range of hands well enough to make good decisions to begin with. This consequently means that if your opponent isn’t thinking much beyond their own hand strength, you won’t need to worry about balancing your range. Most players in small stakes games and above today will be thinking about ranges, but may not know how to properly balance their own ranges. Micro stake players mostly won’t understand either concept, except for the most competent of regulars in your games. For that reason you can keep a mostly unbalanced range against those kinds of opponents, and play as exploitative as possible.