Essential No Limit Holdem Strategy: Hand Ranges
Welcome to Poker Copilot’s Essential Strategy series, where we take a look at tactics, techniques, and concepts you’ll need to understand if you want to become a winning poker player.
Today’s post is about basing your decisions on what you estimate your opponent’s hand range to be.
In poker, it is extremely unlikely that a player would be able to accurately guess their opponent’s hole cards. There are very few, if any, poker gurus or coaches that would advocate even attempting to speculate on the exact two cards your opponent is hiding.
Instead, the strategy of choice has become to think about your opponent as if they were holding a number of possible cards. Effective hand range estimation comes down to constantly considering your opponent’s actions and attempting to narrow down the selection of cards they could be holding to as small a range as possible.
But effective hand range estimation doesn’t end there. The most valuable aspect of this strategy comes in when we compare our opponent’s estimated range to the cards on the board and our own cards to calculate our percentage chance of winning the hand using an equity calculation app like Equilab.
Deciding whether to call, fold, check, or bet is a lot simpler when we can see a percentage figure representing how far ahead or behind we are at that given moment in the hand.
Constantly thinking about your opponent’s possible cards and how these affect your chances of winning a particular hand should be the foundation for all your decisions in a tough spot.
While the complexity of this approach means that most players won’t be able to apply it while playing a hand, it forms the cornerstone of your post-session hand analysis and discussions.
Pre-flop Hand Range Estimations
Pre-flop action is obviously the first point at which a player will get the opportunity to gauge his opponent’s possible cards. The two main variables taken into consideration here are your opponent’s position and the read you have on their playing style.
While the former is easy to pin, the latter is dependent on your use of a poker head-up display (HUD) like Poker Copilot. For the remainder of this article, we will assume that the hero has one installed, has at least 100 hands recorded on each opponent, and is able to read the basic statistics which indicate how loose or tight their opponent is preflop.
A loose player open raising from a late position is going to have the widest expected hand range. Expect such a player to make this raise with the following range: 22+, A2s+, K2s+, Q4s+, J7s+, T8s+, 97s+, 86s+, 75s+, 64s+, 54s, A2o+, K7o+, Q8o+, J8o+, T8o+, 97o+, 87o, 76o, 65o, 54o.
You will then be able to narrow this range down towards the upper end as the player’s position becomes less advantageous and your read of their playing style determines them to be lighter.
For instance, a tighter player on the button or the looser player from an earlier position may only raise with the following range: 22+, A2s+, K9s+, Q9s+, J8s+, T9s, 98s, 87s, 76s, 65s, 54s, A8o+, KTo+, QTo+, JTo, T9o, 98o.
Pre-flop action is not limited to one bet, though and additional moves from your opponents can help you narrow the ranges down even further.
What do you expect the loose player’s three-betting range to be? From a good position, expect such a player to three-bet with this range: 88+, AJs+, KQs, AJo+, KQo. A tighter player in the same position or a loose one in an earlier position may only re-raise with: JJ+, AKs, AKo.
An additional round of betting obviously narrows the hand ranges down even further, with loose players, or tight ones in a good position, only four-betting with the very top end of their ranges: QQ+, AKs, AKo.
Another factor to bear in mind is that in some cases, it is possible to eliminate the top end of an opponent’s range as well. Let’s take a look at scenario where a loose player open raised from mid position and we three-bet him from the button with AsJh. If this player flat calls our re-raise, what information have they given us about their hand?
Aside from the fact that we can eliminate the bottom of their range, which they are likely to have folded to our three-bet, we can also safely assume that they are not holding a hand which a loose player would ordinarily four-bet with: JJ+, AQo+, putting our hand range estimate of our villain at: TT-99, AJs-A9s, KJs+, QJs, JTs, AJo-ATo, KJo+
According to Equilab, our AsJh is winning against this range 53% of the time. See the screenshot below for Equilab’s illustration of this scenario. The bottom-window indicates the likelihood of the three different outcomes: hero win, villain win, or tie.
Knowing how far ahead (or behind) we are against this range is an enormous help for us as we assess this hand after the playing session.
Flop Hand Range Estimations
Let’s continue using the above example and see how our hand range estimations change as we assess our opponent’s subsequent play.
The flop comes: Ah7c9c. This is an excellent outcome for us because, even though an Ace is certainly within our opponent’s three-bet calling range, a higher kicker may have resulted in a pre-flop four-bet, meaning AQs+ AKo+ was eliminated from their range before the flop.
Equilab confirms our excellent standing here, saying that, with this flop, we are winning the hand 72% of the time.
In this situation, we know the right move is to bet for value. We’re hoping that our opponent is drawing, or has hit top-pair with a weaker kicker than ours. We’re also hoping that the opponent recognizes our aggression and lays his cards down.
Fortunately, we’re in position here and might be able to immediately reassess his hand ranges based on how he acts. He opts to fire off a continuation-bet. What does this tell us about his range? Are we going to alter what we estimate him to be holding based on the c-bet?
Unfortunately, we can’t since most players would c-bet quite wide here, hoping that our pre-flop three-bet was “light” and that we’d lay the hand down.
This is one of those spots where a flat-call would be wrong for several reasons:
- We’re comfortably ahead against his range and want value.
- We want to give him the opportunity to re-raise, should he have us beat.
- We want to give him the opportunity to fold if his c-bet was a bluff.
So, we fire off our raise, and he opts to flat-call. Now we’re in a position to adjust our estimates of his range, asking the following two questions:
Which hands in his current range would have resulted in a four-bet here?
- A9 would give him two pairs.
- 99 would give him a set.
Which hands would have resulted in a fold to our three-bet?
- KQo-KJo, KQs-KJs, QJo, QJs, JTo, JTs
- TT, if he is concerned about the Ace on the board.
Based on the flat-call, we can eliminate these hands from his range, leaving him with the following range: AJs-ATs, AJo-ATo.
Up against this range, Equilab puts us at approximately 48% favorites to win this hand going into the Turn, with a 45% chance of a tie.
Turn Hand Range Estimations
Let’s make things interesting and assume the turn comes Tc and we see a 3/4 pot-sized bet from our opponent. Does this play cause us to eliminate any hands from the opponent’s hand range? No, we won’t since AJo/s is also betting in this scenario. We’re forced to leave our estimated hand-hand range as is.
Equilab has us comfortably behind in this scenario, with our opponent winning this hand 42% of the time and a 50% chance of a tie. We only have an 8% chance of winning this hand.
This brings us to an important concept underpinning the use of hand ranges: consistency. There is little point in going through the effort of estimating and adjusting your opponent’s hand range if you are not basing your decisions on it.
The scenario above is a great example of a situation where a player could easily have been tempted to discard their assessment of the villain’s hand range simply because they enjoyed being ahead before and after the flop.
This is a mistake that good players have eliminated from their game. It is critical that you use the information that you build on the hand. If you apply your reads and range estimations consistently, you will become increasingly accurate and make your decisions off a stable, logical model.
This a scenario where we’re laying our cards down. Our critical assessment of our opponent’s play has us concluding that the best we can hope for is a 50% chance of a split pot.
The main points to take away from this discussion on hand ranges are as follows:
Don’t feel too much pressure to apply this level of analysis while you’re playing. Using Equilab in the middle of a session is going to be difficult, if not impossible. What you should be doing, however, is thinking about hand ranges during a game and making your own estimates of your comparative strength against it.
While you’re learning how to do this, avoid the temptation of multi-tabling. Play one or two tables for a while and get into the habit of thinking about ranges. Take as much time as you need; this is not a time to be getting impatient. Learning this skill will elevate your play to a level you hadn’t thought possible before.
Make decisions on your analysis. This is crucial. If you’re behind, get out of the hand, or control the pot to the showdown. As your assessment of your opponent’s range gets more accurate, you might go from being in the lead to being dominated. Become comfortable with this concept and act on information, not emotion.
Get a read on your opponents using a HUD. Poker Copilot gives you all the information you will ever need to define how tight or loose your villain is. This is arguably the most critical aspect of getting as narrow a pre-flop hand range estimate as possible. Use all the tools at your disposal.
See you at the tables!