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A range of different poker hands.

You’ve seen it time and time again.

You’ll be watching a poker TV show and out of nowhere someone like Daniel Negreanu or Patrik Antonius will guess their opponent’s exact cards. It’s uncanny sometimes and makes you wonder if they are, in fact, psychic.

The reality is that there’s a great deal of work that goes into reading an opponent and it begins before the cards are even dealt.

While most poker players aren’t going to make incredible soul reads like the pros, it’s still possible for amateurs to get a good idea about what their opponent is holding.

The trick is called putting your opponent on a range of hands and we’ll discuss it below.

The Value of Hand Ranges

You might wonder how poker pros seem to be able to guess the exact hand of their opponent.

That’s actually unusual (it’s shown a lot on TV) but the reason poker pros can get close is because they put their opponent on a range of hands.

The idea behind ranges is that you’re grouping hands that essentially have the same effect on the game together.

For instance, one of the simplest ways to think about ranges is simply ranking strong hands to weak ones. You could also group hands together like this:

  • Premium pairs: A-A, K-K, Q-Q, J-J
  • Middle pairs: T-T, 9-9, 8-8, 7-7, 6-6
  • Lower pairs: 5-5, 4-4, 3-3, 2-2
  • Ace-X: A-K, A-Q, A-J… A-2
  • Middle connectors: 9-8, 7-6, 6-5

Now instead of thinking of all 1,326 possible Hold’em starting hands, you are thinking of just five different categories.

It’s much easier to put someone on a middle pair rather than trying to guess exactly 8c-8s.

Putting Someone on Range

Now that you understand what a range is, how do you use it?

The idea behind putting someone on a range is that you’ll be able to figure out roughly what they have by process of elimination.

For instance, let’s say you’re playing against a very tight player who almost never bluffs. That means if they raise early in a hand, they would be at the very top of their range. We’re talking A-A, K-K, Q-Q or A-K.

That may seem like a large number of hands but think about all the hands you’ve removed. No small or middle pairs. No small connectors.

Now let’s take it a step further.

Let’s say the flop comes 6-5-2 rainbow. Your opponent checks. Standard poker strategy dictates they’re going to bet with A-A, K-K or Q-Q so if they check, that actually narrows their range all the way down to just one hand: A-K.

That’s a very basic example but for many players, hand ranges are their “aha!” moment. It suddenly becomes much clearer how some of the top players are able to make such accurate reads.

How it Actually Works

People often think that poker is all about physical tells. For instance, if a player itches his right ear, he has pocket aces.

The reality is that the best information we get at the tables is actually voluntarily given by each opponent. Every time a player checks, calls, bets, raises or re-raises, they are telling a story. It’s up to you to figure out if the story makes sense.

The longer and more complicated a story gets, the more it defines a player’s range of hands. For instance, the average poker player isn’t going to check a flopped set if there are straight and flush draws on the board. It’s simply too dangerous and it’s giving their opponent a free chance to hit.

Once you’ve put your opponent on a range of hands, you can decide whether you should call, bet or fold. If the majority of hands in their range have you crushed, then you should probably fold.

Thinking About Your Own Range

You can take the concept of ranges and go one step further by understanding that your opponent will think about you the same way.

If you’ve been playing pretty tight and you suddenly make a big re-raise pre-flop, then your opponents are probably going to think that you have a premium hand like A-A, K-K, Q-Q or A-K.

You can, of course, switch things up by making huge raises with mediocre hands to truly confuse your opponent. No-Limit Hold’em offers plenty of room for creativity.

The important thing is to stop thinking about exact hands and start thinking about a range of hands.