Learn all about range construction, polarised vs condensed ranges, live poker ranges, and GTO strategies.
- We think it is imperative you always think in terms of range construction, and never just react to what happens.
- Learn all about poker ranges with this definitive guide.
What is range construction?
Construction of poker ranges involves dividing all the hands in your range into separate actions. For example, if you are in position to your opponent and you are checked to on the flop, you will have a checking back range, and a betting range. Your betting range will also be further divided into a bet-fold, bet-call, and bet-3bet if your opponent raises.
Why is construction of poker ranges necessary?
Weaker player play in a close to 100% reactive fashion. They make their decision mainly based on the exact hand they are holding, and what has come on the board. For example, they think that’s a great card for the exact hand that I have – I bet. Or, they may say that’s card doesn’t do anything for the hand that I am holding, I check. Or, I have a draw but it’s not made yet, so I’ll just call or check until I make it, in which case I’ll put in money into the pot.
When you play in this reactive way, rather than having a plan that involves range construction, you are likely to:
- be giving off a multitude of tells. This could include timing tells, or physical tells.
- not be maximising the EV of your entire range.
- not be protecting your actions. For example, you may unknowingly always be betting your strong hands when checked to. This means when you don’t bet you must have a weak hand, that your opponent can put pressure on.
How do you construct poker ranges?
The way you construct your hand will depend on any information you have. For example, the board texture, and (if looking to exploit) your opponent’s tendencies and frequencies.
- You will need to think about exactly how many combinations of hands remain in your range at the start of each street. This will be your combinations from the previous street, minus any combinations blocked by what has come on the board.
- You will need to think about how many combinations you want to carry forward to the following street. And, your value to bluff ratio for this street.
- If you were the preflop raiser, and your opponent checks to you on each street, and you are constructing for a pot sized bet on each street or a check at equilibrium you would be looking at betting approximately 70% of the hands remaining in your range on each street. This is on average across all board textures. You would be betting slightly less on worse board textures, and slightly more on better board textures). On the flop you would look to have a 1:2 value:bluff ratio, on the turn a 1:1 value:bluff ratio, and on the river a 2:1 value:bluff ratio.
You must remember to protect your actions, during range construction. This means you cannot just be betting all your best made hands, and checking all medium strength hands/draws/give ups. This is easy for your opponent to counteract, once they know what you are doing. Instead each action should be balanced.
What is the difference between polarised and condensed ranges?
These two types of poker ranges are opposites of each other. Being able to spot when your opponent has polarised and condensed ranges is important to your hand reading skills.
What is a polarised range?
A polarised range consists of mainly (or only) strong hands AND weak hands. The range has little (or no) weak hands.
You could describe a range as ‘top end polarised’ if it doesn’t contain the weak hands. An example of this is when a weak tight player 3 bets preflop. He might only be doing this with premium pairs, and AK.
2 common examples of polarised poker ranges
- When you are facing a bet on the river, you are often up against a polarised range. Why? If your opponent has a hand a perceives to be stronger than yours, he will consider betting for value. If he has a hand that is weaker than yours, he will consider bluffing to get you to fold a better hand. However, your opponent is unlikely to bet medium strength hands (unless he is range merging), as these are already beating your weak hands (which you will likely fold), and are behind your strong hands (which you will call, and he will lose).
- 3 bets preflop, from a balanced player. A balanced player won’t just be 3 betting their premium hands, as it will be easy for savvy opponents to put them on these after a while. 3 betting weak hands is good, as they can fold if 4-bet, and they win the pot if their opponent folds. 3 betting their medium strength hands is less good, as it is unclear if they want to fold if they get 4 bet.
What is a condensed range?
A condensed range consists mainly (or only) of medium strength hands. This range has little (or no) strong or weak hands. You may see condensed poker ranges, referred to as depolarised ranges.
A typical example of a condensed range
- Lets say your opponent has just been taking passive actions (i.e. checking or calling, not betting out voluntarily, or raising), especially over multiple streets before the river where card(s) could come that are bad for the strong hands in their preflop range.
- Let’s also say with his initiative and range advantage on a particular board texture, he could reasonably cbet hoping to win the hand immediately with his air (or later by barrelling with his weak draws).
- You might suspect he has neither strong, nor weak hands in his range. If you have taken over the betting, and he check called out of position, you can remove the weakest hands from his range.
Live Poker ranges
There is a wealth of info available to you at the table that you can use for ranging live poker opponents. Ranging live poker opponents will help you increase your expected value and winrate. However, you have to remember to look out for it (remember to take notes). You must actually use the information to arrive at the correct conclusions.
Ranging live poker opponents before even seeing a hand
Right from the moment you sit down, even if you have never played with any of your opponents before, you should already be able to anticipate how they might play via profiling techniques. You will then refine this information based upon each piece of evidence you pick up as you play. These things may also be useful, if a new player comes to your table that you have no information on so far.
- The general player pool frequencies, and tendencies should be known to you, if you have played these stakes before.
- You can use these as a default, until you have further information.
- For example, the majority of low stakes live games are generally loose and passive. Many of your opponents will be playing a lot of hands, and doing so without aggression. You can tell this if your game has a lot of multiway limped pots.
6 easy ways to start profiling opponents, without even seeing any hands.
- In a cash game, how many chips are they sitting with? Winning regulars often sit down for the table maximum. However, recreational players might be short stacked or sit with a random amount.
- How old are they? You might expect an old player to play tight passive. A young player might play either tight aggressive or loose aggressive. Of course, this won’t always be the case.
- How are the dressed? Do they have headphones, or sunglasses on? Can you conclude anything from this?
- Are they watching the game intently, or every time they fold are they watching something else entirely (such as sports)? If they are not watching the game intently, you may suspect they are only interested in playing their own cards. Note that they could also be playing a quasi-GTO strategy, but this is unlikely at low stakes.
- If they are talking, can you read anything in what they are saying about their poker experience level. How about their current mindset?
- Are they doing anything that could cause them to play sub-optimally (drinking, obvious tilt)?
Info you need to get, from gameplay
The more accurately you understand each villain’s frequencies, and tendencies, the more accurately your ranging of your live poker opponents will be.
How do I get this info?
There is a goldmine of information you can use, that is freely available to you during the game. That is if you decide to watch out for it, and use it correctly.
Most people understand that if a player does something, that is information you can use. However, when a player does not do something that is often equally valuable information that you can use.
You should aim to watch 100% of showdowns – the information here is really valuable. If you are playing low stakes live poker or micro stakes online, there will have to be many showdowns. This is because the games are loose and passive. So, more hands go to showdown than if the game was tight and aggressive. Remember, you need to watch even if you are no longer involved in the hand. Once you see a showdown, you can go back through the hand from the start. For each player that showed their hand, you can build a picture of what they are doing.
What you need to watch out for at showdown
- For every player that has shown a hand, the list of things you could look out for are endless. Examples are:
- Were there actions preflop, and on each street postflop, optimal?
- Did they take a passive action anytime in the hand, when an aggressive action (or vice versa) would have been better?
- Was their bet sizing optimal at all times, and if not where was it not?
- Do you see any tells that you can take advantage of later (or at least look for confirmation in future)? Look out for betting tells (e.g. large with strong hands, small with weak hands). Also, timing tells (e.g. taking a long time in marginal spots, quick actions when strong).
- What is each player’s skill level? Are they a thinking player with a solid theoretical understanding of the game? Do they have weak fundamentals?
- Are they just concerned about their own cards, or are they thinking in terms of poker ranges?
- Are they attempting to be deceptive (and if so when and how), or are they playing their own hand straightforwardly?
- If they flopped a draw, did they play it aggressively or passively? Did they double or triple barrel? Did they consider their opponent’s range, when they did or didn’t do this?
Valuable information, even without showdown!
- Regardless of whether a hand gets to showdown, you are still getting useful information. Examples of things to be aware of:
- How often do they get involved preflop? If so do they seem positionally aware? This is to say, are they are generally playing the least hands utg, and the most on the button?
- Are they mainly betting/raising or checking/calling. If it’s the former they are aggressive, if it’s the latter they are passive. Perhaps, it’s a mix (good players will do this, and bad players will do this, for different reasons)
- How often do they continuation bet as the preflop raiser? Does this seem to change in position, or out of position? Does this seem to change based on how their range (and their opponent’s range if they are thinking about it) interacts with the board texture?
Extrapolate to build a bigger picture
When you see a showdown you often will be able to extrapolate. And, thus build a far bigger picture of their range than directly from the hand that was shown. Let’s say you saw a player limp pocket fives utg, and then the cutoff raised, and it was folded to the limper who just called. You could assume that this player might limp all small pairs in early position. Let’s say you have witnessed this a few times.
- So, let’s say later in the session he open raises utg, and this time you have KK in the CO. You 3 bet, and he calls. The flop comes 6s3s2c. He checks to you, you cbet and he raises. As he open raised preflop you can remove 66,33,22 from his range, meaning he has no sets. This is an example of a forked range.
Hopefully, you will also realise, that one thing you really don’t want to do is show your hand unnecessarily. What you might think is an innocent hand to show, might contain a ridiculous amount of information. Any thinking opponents can use this against you.
Even if you want to show your hand to one player (who you think doesn’t have the tools to use the information against you), don’t show! Someone else on the table might be able to take advantage.
If you can gently coax your opponents to show sometimes (when you think it might be useful) that can prove valuable.
Considerations when ranging live poker opponents
If you are playing a hand, and want to put your opponent on a range, remember the following:
- Think about poker ranges continuously, starting from from preflop (don’t wait for the flop). Put him on a range preflop, based on the picture you have built of him so far. What hands would they be playing in the way they did from their position, given the action before them? Also, possible action after them (if they are likely to consider this). If you have no information use general observations of the player, and player pool tendencies.
- You are only allowed to remove hands from the poker ranges you assign. Never add hands to the poker ranges. Thinking in this way, will avoid monsters under the bed thinking later in the hand. This is a situation where you give your opponent credit for a hand they do not have in their range. Beginner players often look at their own hand, and look at the board to see what hands have them beat, without understanding whether those hands are actually in villains range. This can cause them to fold the better hand. Or, not get the maximum value (by not betting large enough, or not re-raising, or not betting thinly).
- At each decision point (including preflop) think what hands do you expect your opponent to have, given the action? After each action on each street (including any check/bet/raise) or bet (sizing) which hands can we remove from the preflop range? Are there any hands we think are more likely than others?
Tip to help you improve ranging
The best way to get better at ranging opponents during a hand, is to do it as much as you can whilst you are NOT actually in the hand also. For example, each hand that you are not involved in pick one player involved in the hand. Try and put him on a range throughout the hand. If he has to show his hand, was the hand he showed in the range of hands you had for him at showdown? If not, think about what changes you need to make to your assumptions about his frequencies and tendencies.
Doing this has many advantages.
- It keeps you focused on the game
- helps improve your hand reading skills
- helps you more accurately range your opponents.
What is GTO strategy?
A Game Theory Optimal (abbreviated as GTO) strategy has the highest expected value, versus the complete gamut of strategies taken as a whole available to opponents.
Importantly, a GTO strategy does NOT necessarily have the highest expected value versus any particular given strategy that an opponent is choosing to use.
When all players in the game are playing a GTO strategy, we can say the game is at equilibrium. That is to say we have reached a Nash Equilibrium. When all players have reached a Nash Equilibrium, one player cannot unilaterally change their strategy to the detriment of the any other.
- A GTO strategy is unexploitable, however not all unexploitable strategies are GTO.
- This is because there might be a different unexploitable strategy for different possible bet sizes.
- The best of all these is the GTO strategy.
- This is because there might be a different unexploitable strategy for different possible bet sizes.
What are poker solvers?
Just like you would use an equity calculator, to explore equities of hands/ranges, you can use a solver to think about GTO. There are various companies who produce this type of solver software, and we won’t recommend any one over another. Most have some free limited functionality. Thus, we suggest you try this out before committing on purchasing any of these (as they are certainly not cheap).
Solvers make Nash equilibrium calculations, to find unexploitable strategies. If there are multiple unexploitable strategies, it compares these to find the best one. Solvers work by iteration. For a given set of assumptions, its keeps constantly changing each players strategy, until no player has any incentive to deviate (i.e. we have reached equilibrium).
You can also use a solver to lock one player’s strategy. Then, find the way to best exploit that particular strategy.
Why no one is playing true GTO in NLH
They can’t be, as no one knows what this is for no limit Texas Holdem. Because of complexity of the game tree in No Limit Holdem solvers need to work on assumptions which simplify the game tree. For example, what the preflop/postflop poker ranges are, what the available bet sizes are. So a solver only finds the best unexploitable strategy, based on the assumptions it is using. So, infact the solver has only found the GTO strategy for the starting assumptions we give it. Solving for the GTO in deep stacked situations is especially difficult, as the possible range of bet sizes is massive.
Even if one day a computer program, such a solver, did solve No Limit Holdem, and gave you the perfect set of GTO strategies – i.e. you would know exactly what to do at every decision point (regardless of bet sizing etc.), it would be impossible for you to memorise. Live poker could still exist, as long as such tools were banned at the table.
If a computer program existed, where you could enter the decision you face in a hand, and get an answer instantly as to what the GTO play would be, that would be the end of online NLH.
So, why study GTO strategy?
Despite all this if you want to become truly good at poker, we suggest you study GTO. This is even if you plan on playing an exploitative game.
For the time being, solvers are useful to finding the GTO solution, for a given a set of assumptions which are often limiting. The better you get at providing the solver with accurate assumptions, the closer to the full GTO solution you will get.
Regular use of solvers will help you build up an idea of what a GTO solution might look like, which you can then use in your games to play a quasi-GTO strategy when needed.
By being able to think in terms of GTO, you will be able to:
- construct poker ranges that are balanced, for all lines
- make your opponent not care whether they call or fold etc.
Learning to approximate GTO, is useful even if you only plan on playing exploitable poker. Once you can approximate a GTO solution for a given situation, you can see how your exploitable opponents are deviating. This will help you find the best way to beat them. Equally, you can see how you are deviating from the GTO solution. Then, spot ways your opponents may be looking to exploit you so you can anticipate them.
When to play a quasi-GTO strategy
Using solvers, you will start to get an idea of what a quasi-GTO strategy looks like.
When you have absolutely no information (and don’t think player pool information, or live observations) can help you find an exploitable strategy on your opponents, you should look to play a quasi-GTO strategy as a base, whilst always being on the lookout for opportunities to deviate if their is anything you can exploit in your opponent’s play. This prevents tough opponents exploiting you.
Whenever you are playing a quasi-GTO strategy, it is important to always be on the lookout for any weakness in your opponent’s strategy that you can take advantage of by playing in an exploitative way.
In a raked game such as poker, if one day everyone at your table was able to play a GTO strategy no one would win in the long run except for the house. That is not to say, you should not play a GTO strategy if you believed all your opponents were. In fact, you have to play a GTO strategy, if you want the highest expected value. You should probably quit the game and find another one, if that was the case!
When to use an exploitative strategy
If you have the opportunity to exploit your opponent you should take it. That is provided you are ready to react if they exploit you back.
Remember your goal in poker is to make the highest EV decisions versus the strategy any opponent is employing. This highest EV line is not necessarily the GTO strategy.
If you are playing low stakes live cash games, or microstakes online, you should almost always be looking to use exploitable strategies from the get go. At low stakes live cash games (or the lowest stakes online) your unstudied opponents are likely to be making a ton of errors, and studied players in these games are likely to be making a lot of errors too. You need to use observations about their tendencies, as well as their frequencies, to come up with the best exploits.
Warning about exploitative play
As soon as you deviate into doing anything exploitative, you face a problem – your strategy is no longer unexploitable. This means your opponents can exploit you too. They may be able to do this more effectively than you can to them (depending on their skill levels). They might even be exploiting you totally accidentally! Of course, you can re-exploit them (and they can exploit your re-exploit, and so it goes on).