Ranging

In poker, each hand tells a story. It is your job as a poker player to become a master both at story telling, as well as at calling bullshit on the stories your opponents will attempt to sell you.

As described in our poker dictionary, this is known as “ranging” your opponent.

The way to do this is to worry less about your cards and more about the story you are trying to sell your opponent, as well as the story they are trying to sell you.

To paint an overly simplistic example, if you raise preflop and are trying to convince your opponent you have a pair of aces on an Axx flop, betting the flop, checking back the turn and then making a big bet on the river can often get you called by a relatively weak hand because your story seems incongruent.

From your opponent’s perspective, if you really had a pair of aces, wouldn’t you bet the turn too? And if there was a valid reason for you not to bet the turn (perhaps a card that completed a possible flush came), how could you suddenly be confident enough to make such a big bet on the river as opposed to a smaller value bet?

Of course, some of the time you will check back the turn as a trap or will overbet the river after hitting a good card, but for the majority of situations, your story just doesn’t add up.

If you are an intuitive and perceptive player, you may have experienced a situation where you made a big call with a weak hand and were right, even though you might not have been able to quite explain how you “knew” your opponent was bluffing.

 

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Not Sure If Bluffing…

And while we don’t want to make decisions at the poker table based on feelings or hunches, situations such as these do come up from time to time for recreational players and one possible explanation for it is that their mind had subconsciously evaluated the story it was being told and couldn’t quite make sense of it.

The key then, is to bring that analysis out of the field of the subconscious and to begin evaluating each action taken in a hand as one piece of a complete puzzle. And while this may sound a little vague or cryptic, I’m going to share with you a simple “trick” that will instantly make the process of ranging your opponent (aka assigning them a set of hands they are likely to have in each particular spot) much easier and more effective.

At each and every stage of the hand ask yourself one simple question:

What hands can my opponent have, and not have, in this situation?

And while you may be thinking to yourself “well, duh!”, the key is not just to ask the question, but to remain congruent with your answer throughout the hand.

Congruent Ranging

Let’s consider a very basic example.

You are heads up in a Jackpot Sit and Go tournament with blinds of 20/40 against an aggressive opponent who has 10 big blinds left behind. You decide to limp 7s5h and your opponent checks.

The flop comes 732 with two hearts. You now have top pair and a couple of weak backdoor draws.

Your opponent checks and you decide to bet 60 into a pot of 80, which your opponent quickly calls.

The turn brings the Q of hearts, completing the flush, and your opponent checks again. You are fearful of the over-card and flush possibilities now present so you decide to check as well and reevaluate on the river.

The river brings a dreaded offsuit ace, putting another over-card to your pair on the board. Your opponent quickly shoves his entire stack into the middle (300 into a 200 pot) and you sigh and fold as you mumble to yourself something about your opponents always “getting there”.

Now, let’s go through the hand again, but this time let’s observe what happens when we use our magic question throughout the hand.

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You are heads up in a Jackpot Sit and Go tournament with blinds of 20/40 against an aggressive opponent who has 10 big blinds left behind. You decide to limp 7s5h and your opponent checks.

What hands can my opponent have, and not have, in this situation?

Since there are quite a few hands he can have, let’s first look at what he can not have.

We know our opponent is short-stacked and aggressive, so once he doesn’t go all in preflop against our limp at such a short stack-depth, we can quickly eliminate all pairs, Ax hands, most (if not all) Kx hands, all broadways (two cards ten or higher), and probably some percentage of “pretty” suited connectors such as 78s and maybe even some suited gappers like 96s or T8s.

The flop comes 732 with two hearts. Your opponent checks and you decide to bet 60 into a pot of 80, which your opponent quickly calls.

What hands can my opponent have, and not have, in this situation?

Well, once again we know what he can’t (or is highly unlikely) to have. He can’t have 7x both because we’d expect him to check-raise a weak top pair, and because we hold one of the 7s in our hand, which reduces the odds he has one as well. He is also extremely unlikely to have a flush draw since, as we already analyzed, he shoves some % of them preflop and almost assuredly check-raises the rest on the flop.

The turn brings the Q of hearts, completing the flush, and your opponent checks again.

What hands can my opponent have, and not have, in this situation?

This time we didn’t pick up any additional information so we maintain our range where we left it on the flop.

The river brings a dreaded offsuit A putting another over-card to your pair on the board. Your opponent quickly shoves his entire stack into the middle (300 into a 200 pot).

What hands can my opponent have, and not have, in this situation?

Well, based on our previous analysis we know he is highly unlikely to have the ace (since he would have shoved it preflop), a better 7 or the flush (since he would have check-raised the flop), and based on the quickness of his shove and the fact that it was 1.5x the size of the pot, probably not a Queen or two-pairs either since he would most likely either check, try to make a smaller value bet or, at the very least, need to take a couple of seconds to decide on the sizing of his bet or whether he wanted to check and let us bluff the river ace.

With all that in mind the million dollar question now shifts from “What hands can my opponent have, and not have, in this situation?” to “What hands can my opponent have here that beat my hand?”

By now it should be obvious that based on the range we assigned our opponent on each street, there are very few hands that we could be losing to. Perhaps some very small % of two-pair hands, a slightly larger % of flushes and maybe a trapping pocket Aces some insignificant percent of the time. So while we definitely can, and will, get shown a better hand every now and again, our opponent’s range is weighed much more heavily towards busted draws like 54 or 64 or a small pair like 28o or 93o that our opponent decided to turn into a bluff. Therefore, if we are confident with our ranging abilities, this is the perfect opportunity to call BS on the story our opponent is trying to sell us, make a bit of a “hero-call”, and fist-pump as we take down the hand and win the match.

Poker Strategy Tip

One final but crucial thing to note when it comes to the concept of congruent ranging and story-telling – and this is where the majority of recreational players falter with it – is that we never ever reintroduce hands into an opponent’s range once we have already eliminated them. This means that once we dismiss an Ax hand from our opponent’s range preflop, we should no longer concern ourselves with it at any point of the hand. The mistake many amateur players make is that they wait until the river to begin their analysis of their opponent’s story and then think to themselves “well, I lose to an ace, a queen, a flush, 2 pair….so what the heck can I beat here?”

If you avoid this common ranging trap and work hard both on analyzing your opponents’ stories as well as telling convincing ones yourself, you will soon have an astronomical edge on your recreational opponents, be they in a live $1-$2 game or in an online Jackpot Sit & Go tournament.

 

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