Josef Rantamaki, blogger for PartyPoker, has made two very good articles (guides) on relative poker strength and hand ranges that we believe many of you will find very helpful! Instead of bringing you highlights from these articles, we recommend that you read through them here below. Feel free to discuss these articles (or poker strategy in general) on our forum... and don't forget to check out our freerolls and bonuses at PartyPoker!
The Ultimate Guide to Hand Ranges
The days are gone when you'd see great poker players put an opponent on an exact hand and adapt their strategy accordingly. Fact is, this never happened consistently because it's often impossible to estimate your opponent's range that accurately and therefor this method leads to more big mistakes than successful guesses.
Over the years the players emerging as the best in the world found a better method. A method consisting of assigning a range of hands to an opponent and develop a range of your own which plays optimally against the range of the opponent.
In this article I'll explain how this can be done.
A range consists of a combination of hands. As you know there are 4 variations of each card in the deck. This means that a combination of two cards (AK for example) consists of 16 hands, you calculate this by simply taking 4*4 (four aces time four kings). If one of these cards are on the board or in your hand you can deduce the number down to 12 (4*3). If the possibility of 2 pairs are on the board the remaining combinations are 9 (3*3).
Suited combinations of a hand are naturally 4 since there are four colours in the deck. So if one of these cards are on the board or in your hand there are only 3 suited combinations left. This tells us that when an opponent's off-suit hands are still in his range they make for three times as many hands as suited combinations.
There are 6 combinations of each pocket pair and if a card is on the board or in your hand you can narrow it down to 3 combinations.
Being aware of these basics will allow you to estimate hand ranges more accurately and find spots when you opponent has an unbalanced range (too many bluffs or too many value hands).
Player Type and Tendencies
You need to have and understanding of the player's style and tendencies in order to accurately estimate the player's range.
A wide range of hands means the player is loose and a narrow range of hands means the player is tight. If the player plays his hands aggressively or passively is important to take note on too.
Pay attention to hands which goes to showdown and take notes based on how your opponent plays different parts of his range. The most important things to take notes on are:
• How your opponent plays top pair-top kicker
• How your opponent plays draws
• How your opponent plays the nuts
• How your opponent plays weak pairs
This will allow you to take notes on both the basic player style and the players tendencies.
As in the example we used in our video about how to play against loose aggressive players, where we saw a player at our table call a re-raise out of position with 24 suited and check raise the flop with a draw. This gave us the opportunity to identify this player as a very loose aggressive player, who calls re-raises out of position with a very wide range and plays draws aggressively.
Knowing this will allow us to change our strategy and for example start re-raising this player with all our strong hands and not be afraid to get it all in on most boards, even if we just hold top pair.
Another important factor when assigning a range to your opponent is the player's position.
Generally you should assume that the earlier the position, the tighter the range, and vice versa.
Normally players only open raise or call with very strong hands from early position. You need to keep this in mind through-out the hand as you continue to narrow down you opponent's range.
Action and board texture
Paying attention to how your opponent plays different parts of his range is key in estimating an accurate range of hands. Consider position, board texture and look for pivotal points pre-flop or post flop which allows you to discount large portions of your opponent's range.
For example if you open on the button and the big blind calls. Knowing your opponent is an aggressive player you can confidently deduct hand like AA-QQ and AK-AQ from his range. So if the flop comes￼ Ax Qx 8x, you can put your opponent in a very difficult spot by betting three streets since he can't have AA, KK, QQ or AQ while these hands are definitely still in your range.
Another example is when your opponent calls a draw-heavy flop where you know he normally re-raises two pairs, trips and draws. This will allow you to deduct these type of hands from his range and perhaps bluff him off a pair on later streets.
Number of players in the pot
The number of players in the pot also affects player ranges. If UTG opens and three players call; you and any opponent left to act should call with a wider range than normally since they are given great odds to call and flop a strong hand.
The same applies if there is a very weak player at the table. Other players will start to call and raise with wider ranges pre-flop in order to play more hands versus the weaker player.
Street by street
Your evaluation of an opponent's range should be reconsidered for every street you play as previous action, board texture etc. will shape which parts of your opponent's range make it to later streets.
For example: if the flop is ￼ ￼1062 rainbow and a tight aggressive opponent calls a pot sized bet on the flop. If he had a wide range coming to the flop, once he calls such a big bet he will get to the turn with a much stronger and more defined range.
Balance is a complex subject in poker but unless you are a high stakes professional you don't need to worry about deep diving into this theory but you should still try to have some sense of balance when building your ranges. This is also when counting hand combinations can really help.
Basically you want to avoid spots where you only ever have strong hands, weak hands or bluffs. If you have this type of extreme imbalance, good players will easily exploit you.
For example, if you only three-bet (re-raise) AA, KK, QQ preflop you have a three-betting range only consisting of very strong hands and no bluffs. This makes it easy for your opponents to fold any hand weaker than ￼ ￼Qx Qx or AK if you three-bet them. So by adding a few bluffs to your three-betting range you will keep you opponents guessing and force them to start calling a wider range against your three-bets.
In the same sense you want to be able to identify spots when you opponent has an unbalanced range. For example:
Your opponent who is a loose aggressive player opens on the button and you call from big blind with the ￼ ￼A8. You assign you opponent to a wide range of hands due to his style and since he is opening in late position.
The flop is￼ Q108, you check and you opponent checks behind. When he checks the flop you can safely discount all strong top pairs, two pairs, trips and draws from his range. This the pivotal point in the hand which plays a big part in defining your opponents range.
The turn is the 5￼ making the board read Q1085.You check and your opponent bets half pot. You call expecting your 8 with top kicker to be good often enough to make this call.
The river brings the 3 ￼completing the board as Q10853. You check again and your opponent bets half pot.
If you call the river you will most often lose against a ten or a weak queen so calling is out of the question. But since you know he can't have a very strong hand here, while you can still represent a made flush and you have the ace of hearts which means you opponent definitely can't have the nut flush. This is actually a good spot to turn your hand into a bluff and check-raise the river.
Make sure you take notes on players at all times. Using abbreviations will speed up the process and allow you to maintain your focus on what's happening at the table.
For example: ace-king suited is usually written as "AKs", while ace-king off suit is written as "AKo". The same applies for all cards.
Other common abbreviations are:
• Top Pair Top Kicker - tptk
• Top Pair Medium Kicker - tpmk
• Top Pair Weak Kicker - tpwk
• Flush Draw - fd
• Straight Draw - sd
• Check - x
• Call - c
• Raise - r
• Check raise - xr
• Loose Aggressive Player - LAG
• Loose Passive Player - LP
• Tight Aggressive Player - TAG
• Tight Passive Player - TP
• Button - btw
• Small Blind - sb
• Big Blind - bb
• Under the Gun - utg
• Early Position - ep
• Middle Position - mp
• Hi-jack - hj
• Cut off - co
Accurately estimating you opponent's range allows you to more easily adapt your own range and strategy for optimal play. When estimating your opponent's range you look at his style, tendencies, position, board texture and let the action through-out the hand further define the player's range.
The Ultimate Guide to Relative Hand Strength
One of the first things you learn as a poker player is understanding the absolute strength of hands. You study the hand rankings chart and make sure you remember in which order the hands are ranked. This is a good start but the mistake that usually happens thereafter is that you use this information as the only base when estimating the strength of your hand during play. This will give you a massive disadvantage and the punishment for making this mistake is usually very harsh, meaning it will lead you to lose big pots.
Understanding absolute hand strength is like understanding that a person that is 200cm is tall and someone who's 150cm is pretty short. If you are in the competition for the worlds tallest man the only thing that matters is how tall you are in comparison to your opponent. You might both be tall, but only the tallest man will win.
The same applies to poker and this concept is called relative hand strength. For example; although the absolute strength of a flush is strong it should not be considered as such in a spot where if your opponent only raises you with a full house or better.
Relative hand strength is described as the equity of your hand versus your opponents range.
In my previous article I talked about the theory behind hand ranges and understanding this is key in accurately estimating the relative strength of your hand.
Avoid thinking in terms of "Drawing" or "made" hands
It's very common to consider your hand as being a made hand or a drawing hand. A common misconception is to think that a made hand is when you have a pair or better and that a drawing hand is when you are drawing to make a hand, such as a straight for example.
The fact is that a made hand is these terms only have meaning relative to an opponents hand. The player with the best hand is the one with the made hand, even if's just ace high, and a player can be drawing, even if he has two pairs as long as he has the worst hand.
Think in terms of equity
A lot of players tend to play draws passively based on the fact that this is not a made hand. Since a drawing hand can have more equity than a made hand this type of thinking leads to sub-optimal play.
Instead, if you consider the equity of your hand versus your opponents range you can identify spots where you are a favourite in terms of relative hand strength, or in other words; equity.
A simple, but not completely accurate, way of calculating the equity of a drawing hand is to look at the number of outs and multiply it by two for each street. So if you have 10 outs on the flop you have 20% equity by the turn and 40% by the river.
Calculating the equity of a made hand comes down to comparing it to your opponents range on a particular board. Using free tools such as "Poker Stove" is a great way to get an understanding of the equity of hands versus different types of ranges on different types of boards.
When you play a draw aggressively you get the chance to make your opponent give up on his equity share and fold out marginal hands. This is called "fold equity" and it's a way of adding equity to your hand by playing it aggressively.
Let me give you an example
You pick up ￼ ￼3x 3x and call a raise on the big blind from a tight player in early position. The flop is 7￼79 ￼. You put him on a tight range of hands, something like AJs+, KQs, AQo+ and 77+.
You check the flop and your opponent makes a pot sized bet. You think your opponent bets his entire range like this and versus a pot sized bet you need 33% equity to call.
The value in dominating your opponents drawing hands
A lot of players would call here with ￼ ￼3x 3x since they consider themselves to have a made hand while the opponent can still be drawing. At the same time they will fold a hand like ￼ Ax Kx￼ in the same spot.
If you would calculate the equity of 3x 3x versus the opponents range it would be about 32%, while the equity of Ax Kx ￼is 40%. This is because the hands that 3x 3x beats are overcards which have 9 outs, while ￼3x 3x￼ at best has three outs versus the hands that are ahead.
Ax Kx on the other hand is ahead of the opponents unpaired range and has 6 outs agains the opponents pair.
The value of having outs versus your opponents made hands
Apart from the stronger equity of ￼ ￼Ax Kx here it also plays much better on later streets. If you call a bet with a low pair like ￼ ￼3x 3x you will never know where you stand versus bets on later streets and you are often forced to fold. But with a hand like Ax Kx￼ in this spot, although you might still face some tough decisions you also have a good chance to start value betting on later streets or call of two more big bets if and ace or kings hits on the turn.
Another benefit of having more outs versus your opponents made hands is that your have better implied odds. Meaning if you hit a card which improves your hand and there is still money behind you can win a big pot.
Last but not least it's important to consider which hands the cards you hold block. If you hold the￼ A you can safely discount a portion of draws from your opponents range if you face a raise on a two-club flop. This can allow you to make a big fold if you think your opponents range has few bluffs or to push your opponent of a hand since you can represent a nut flush when the third club hits and you know your opponent can't have the nut flush.