In the old days of poker, no one ever talked about ranges. Does this mean that ranges did not exist? Nope! All it means is that people were figuring range calculations and they just didn’t have a fancy name for it. What they called it was “What do I think this feller might have in his hand?”
A range is the potential holdings that a player might have in a given hand. It’s also the potential holdings that you might have in a given hand. But wait, don’t you know exactly what you have? Why would you need to know what potential hands you could have if you know exactly what you do have? If you don’t know the answer to those questions yet, stay tuned. We’re going to walk you through everything you need to know about ranges, why they’re important, how you calculate them, and how you put all of that together to improve your bottom line.
What Is a Range?
Let’s talk about what a range is, so we’re all on the same page. By definition, a range is the potential cards that you or your opponent might be holding. In poker, a lot of people think that the professionals are putting their opponents on exactly one hand. They think that at any given point in the hand the pro is thinking something like, “This guy must have AK of hearts. That is my read.”
Thank you to television and movies for that one. In reality, great poker players are not trying to put their opponents on an exact hand, but they’re trying to put them on a range of possibilities. This ensures that they make their decisions based on all of the possibilities and not just one specific guess. If that one specific guess is wrong, then all of their decisions are going to be wrong. But if they cast a wider net, they have some more leeway to figure out what decisions are optimal.
For example, the pro is not going to say that they think their opponent has exactly AK of hearts unless there are some very special circumstances that allow them to say that. Instead, they’ll probably say something like, “I would guess my opponent has AQo+, JJ+, and maybe AJs+.” For those curious, the little “o” means offsuit, and the little “s” means suited. The plus sign means every hand including that hand and better. So, AQo + would include AQ offsuit and AK offsuit. AJs+ would include AJ suited, AQ suited, and AK suited. JJ+ would include JJ, QQ, KK, and AA.
Notice that they are trying to encompass all of the possible hands that their opponent may have. From this, they’ll make their decisions based on this range. This ensures that they aren’t trying to be too precise on their hand reading, which could leave them vulnerable to a mistake.
Pretend that you are defending a flag in a game of paintball of laser tag. You’re in a structure that has five different doors leading into where you are. If you are pretty sure that your opponents are going to enter from door one and you know for a fact they won’t be coming through door five, are you going to send all of your people to guard door one? Probably not. You’ll probably still want to guard all of the doors that you think they might come in from so that you’re protected in case your precise prediction is not 100% spot on.
As we also stated, not only do your opponents have ranges, but you do as well. Your range is the specific hands that you would play in a certain spot a certain way. Basically, imagine your range as being what an expert opponent would think you had based on what actions you have taken. You may be asking why this is important if you know exactly what you’re holding already. It’s important because your opponents do not know exactly what you’re holding and are going to be making their decisions based on what your perceived range is. This means that you need to know what they think you’re holding so you can know what sorts of decisions they are going to make.
Balancing Your Range
It’s also important to know what your range of hands is so that you stay “balanced.” This means that you should have an array of hands that you play in all situations so that you are not too predictable and easy to play against. For example, if all you play from under the gun is pocket aces and pocket kings, your range is not going to be balanced. Your opponents will know that 100% of the time that you raise from UTG, you have aces or kings. But if you occasionally mix in a few other hands that your opponents see, they won’t be able to immediately put you on such a tight range, as your range is going to be more balanced.
Why Are Ranges Important?
Hopefully it’s already becoming clear as to why ranges are important. If you aren’t trying to figure out what your opponents are holding, or aren’t utilizing what they think you might be holding, then you’re not really playing poker. You’re just waiting to hit a hand and then trying to get paid. You have to start expanding your game and paying attention to ranges. Let’s talk about a few reasons why this is so important.
As an overall catch-all, knowing what your opponents may be holding is going to help you to make better and more informed decisions. If you have no idea what they have in their hand or might be holding, you can never expect to have any success at the tables. A lot of the other reasons we have on this list will fall under this one, but we wanted to present it as the overall reason why this is so important.
Getting More Value
Let’s say you have a big hand and obviously want to get paid. How much do you think you can bet and get paid off by your opponent? Well, that’s going to depend on what they’re holding. If they have a super-strong second-best hand, then you should bet a lot, because they won’t be able to fold. If they have a very marginal hand, you probably want to bet less to try to get them to make a crying call. How do you know this information? You have to know what their potential range of holdings is.
Yes, your range calculation might have some strong and some weak hands they might have. But if there are a lot more strong hands they could have in that range, you’ll lean towards betting more. If most of the potential hands they might have are on the weaker side, you should bet smaller. Notice how you are not trying to make your bet size based on putting them on a specific hand. You won’t always choose the right amount, but this way you are going to be right more often than you are going to be wrong.
Knowing When You Can Bluff
As you already know from our expansive guide to bluffing, you have to tell a story with your hand for your bluff to work. Your opponent has to believe that you could very well have the strong hand that you’re representing. The more likely it is that you have that strong hand, the more likely your opponent will be to fold. How do you know all of this?
You have to know what your potential range is. This is why it’s important to know more than exactly what you’re holding. If you have a small pair but your opponent’s perception of your range is that you also have a lot of big aces, you can get away with bluffing on ace high boards quite often with a lot of success. That’s just one example, but the same holds true for most situations. When you start bluffing and “playing the man,” it’s much less about what you’re actually holding and more about what you could or should be holding according to the information you’ve given off.
Knowing When to Call or Fold
Not only can you use ranges to know when to bluff and when to get paid off, but you can also use them when you’re making decisions on whether or not you should call or fold. If you’re stuck with a tough decision, you can come up with all of the potential hands your opponent might have in the situation. If you beat more of the hands they could be holding, you can make the call. If more of the hands they are holding beat you, then you can make the fold. The more dialed-in you can get someone’s range, the more correctly you can make these decisions, and the more often you will be right.
How Do You Calculate a Range?
Hopefully by now you realize just how important it is to calculate ranges. What we want to cover now is just how you go about doing that. There will be a lot of strategy tips in this section, but you will have a lot of homework. Calculating ranges is basically ALL poker is about these days. Yes, there is a lot more that goes into a successful strategy, but if you can crush dialing in someone’s range, then you’re going to do amazing in the industry no matter what.
Have you ever played the kids game Guess Who? In the game, you start with a bunch of cards flipped up that have people’s faces on them. Your opponent has one of those people, and you’re trying to guess which one it is. To figure out who the person is, you ask questions and eliminate people that you know are not the person they have on their card. For example, you’d ask if their person had glasses. If they say no, you flip down and eliminate everyone that is wearing glasses.
This continues until you guess who their person is. As you flip more and more people down, you have a much better idea of who the person is. Every question you ask, the net shrinks, and you have a better idea of who the person might be. Figuring out ranges follows the same premise.
You start with every single hand possibility in the deck. When the cards are dealt, your opponent can have literally anything. Let’s say your opponent is under the gun and they come in for a raise. You can now immediately start crossing hands off the list. If you know that your opponent is a straightforward player and only plays the top 10% of hands from under the gun, you can start erasing all the non-premium hands from their potential range.
This means that in one swoop you’ve already eliminated 90% of the possible hands they could have. How do you know they only play the top 10% of hands? This is what you’re going to have to pick up from playing with them. You’re going to have to observe what they play from each position and how they play. Do they raise different amounts with different levels of hands? Are there certain conditions where they only play the top 10%, but others where they play even tighter and only play the top 5%? It’s up to you to observe all of this and make assumptions based on the information you have.
For those curious, the top 10% of poker hands includes roughly 88+, A10s+, AJo+, KQo, and KJs+. After the flop, you have to assess how your opponent proceeds based on the board that comes out. Let’s say your opponent is predictable and never bets an ace high board without an ace. If the flop comes A-x-x and they check, you can now erase all of the ace hands from their range. You’re left with 88+, KJs+, and KQo. This practice continues based on every little piece of information you have on the person.
The more things that you can observe and pick up on, the tighter you can dial down your opponent’s potential range.
Are you always going to be right? It depends on how well balanced your opponent is. For example, let’s say in the above example that your opponent bets half of the time on ace high boards without an ace and checks half of the time without an ace. You no longer can erase all of those Ax hands from their range because they are balanced. A balanced opponent is harder to play against and leaves you guessing much more often than you’d like.
This should show why it’s so important to pay attention to hands you’re not involved in. If you’re playing online, using a heads-up display to track your opponents can help immensely with this. In fact, there is a lot of software out there that can help you to dissect your personal ranges and your opponent’s ranges. We highly recommend taking a look at some of the tools that are out there, so you’re not falling behind the curve.
When talking about your personal ranges, there are two different things that you are going to want to figure out. The first is going to be your actual ranges. These are the hands that you are actually going to be playing in each position and situation. This is information that you NEVER want to share with anyone else. This is not the same as your perceived range. This is ACTUALLY what you are playing. We put this entire article together to try to teach you how to figure out your opponent’s range. Can you imagine if they just gave it to you?
When building your own range, you want to figure out what hands you’re going to play in every situation and how you’re going to play them. You’ll want to focus on being balanced and not doing the exact same thing every single time. This means that you’ll want to assign percentages for how often you will play certain hands or take certain actions. This can always be tweaked, but this will help you to know exactly what you’re going to do in every situation. It may be a challenge to come up with your own ranges, but once you do, the game gets a lot easier because you’re just following your system.
The second thing you’re going to want to be aware of is what your perceived range in a hand is. This refers to what your opponents think you are holding. The way to do this is to do what you did to find their range, but in reverse. Look at what information you’ve put out about your hand and your history with that player. Do you think they’ve paid attention to your history? Are there certain hands they’re going to remember that play into the situation?
It’s not about what you actually have or what your actual range for that situation is. It’s only about what your opponent thinks you are holding and how you can use that against them. Obviously, you can’t see into their minds, but you’re going to have to try. Are they a really good player who reads hands well? Are they a player who always just assumes you have the best hand? Do they think you’re tight or loose? This is just the tip of the iceberg of the questions that should be going through your head.
After you have this perceived range figured out, you have to work on using it to your advantage. Does your opponent think that most of your holdings are weak, but you have a really strong hand? If that’s the case, you can bet a lot bigger and get paid. A great example of this is if you are someone who 3-bets a lot on the button. If your opponent opens and you have pocket aces on the button, they are going to think your 3-bet is full of crap. This means that you’re going to get paid off nicely and should take advantage of that. This would not be the time just to call and try to trap.
On the flip side, if you’re someone who never 3-bets and you decide to do it with a speculative hand, you can represent a lot of strong hands, because your opponents are going to think you normally have a huge hand. Basically, you need to know what your opponents are thinking and then use that to your advantage. If your opponents perceive your range incorrectly, you can stand to make a lot of money.
Your opponents can perceive your range correctly and still be in trouble. Pay attention to situations where you are at the very top of your range. For example, if they think you could have any pair from 22-AA, but you have AA, you have to take advantage of that. They are going to undervalue the strength of your hand even though they do have your hand in the range correctly. The problem is that most of the range they beat, except for the top parts of it. This means you should be in store for a payday.
Putting It All Together
You’ll find as you ascend the ranks of the poker world that calculating ranges is the key to being a successful player. Yes, other things like bet sizing, bankroll management, tilt control, and things like that are important, but you can’t succeed if you can’t successfully figure out what your opponents are holding in their hands. Calculating ranges is probably something that you’ve already been doing on at least a basic level if you pay attention to more than just your cards. What we’re suggesting you do is take our strategies and move them to the foreground of your strategy.
You won’t be an expert at hand reading and building ranges overnight. But if you get in enough time on the felt and work on your skill set, you’ll find that your abilities will improve quickly. Make sure that you’re not trying to tighten down ranges too quickly with too aggressive of assumptions. This is a common mistake that newer players make, and they quickly find themselves back to trying to put their opponents on an exact hand.