Ranging live poker opponents

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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), and 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).
  • You should be able to start profiling opponents, without even seeing any hands. For example:
    • In a cash game, how many chips are they sitting with? Winning regulars often sit down for the table maximum, whereas recreation 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, and a young player to 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 (of course 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, and 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 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. The great news is if you are playing low stakes live poker or micro stakes online, there will have to be an awful lot of showdowns (this is because the games are loose and passive, which means 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, to build a picture of what they are doing:

  • 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 hands), such as betting tells (e.g. large with strong hands, small with weak hands), 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 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?
  • 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 (i.e. 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 realize after reading this, 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 you are giving out that your thinking opponents can use against you.

You might want to show your hand to one player who you think doesn’t have the tools to use the information against you, but someone else on the table might be able to take advantage. Just, don’t show! Of course, 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 hand 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 (and 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 range you assign. Never add hands to the range. 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?

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, and 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. (1) keeps you focused on the game (2) helps improve your hand reading skills (3) helps you more accurately range your opponents.