How to estimate your opponents’ ranges
You may have seen Hold’em poker analysts writing about your pre-flop hand selection, and what “ranges” you should be entering the hand with in certain seats, early, late, on the button, etc.
Another consideration is what ranges your opponent may be holding, particularly when it comes to betting strategy.
Why is this important?
- Thinking solely about one’s own cards is considered Level 1 poker thinking. What do I have?
- Taking into account opponents’ possible cards is Level 2. What does my opponent have?
Incidentally, experts say there are a number of deeper levels you could go to. Further Levels might be:
- What does my opponent think I have?
- What does my opponent think that I think they have?
… and so on.
Thereafter lies a much more complex decision-making quandary we don’t need to dig into here.
In an ideal world, most opponents will follow a similar opening range to you, but there is an enormous variety of players and what they choose to play appears unpredictable. How can you narrow it down to a good estimate to help make better decisions?
Work with what you know and make notes! Even if you have never seen a player before, you should build a picture of their fussiness about starting hands fairly quickly. How they approach the game will give you a decent starting point to judge their hand range.
Here are some basic guidelines to build a range of their likely cards, based on their position and observed style of play.
The all-in player
If a player is constantly all-in pre flop, then their range is Any Two Cards (ATC). Your challenge here is to make your move when you are most likely to have the best of it.
First of all, remember bankroll management. You are best equipped to tangle with such players if you can take a few full stack hits if they get lucky. The best situation to exploit their recklessness is if you are in late position in the round of betting compared to the all-in player. Having players behind you can be dangerous. Try to avoid making a marginal call and finding someone else has a monster.
What can you call with, assuming you are late on or even closing the action? If they are making the same all-in move every hand, than you can probably afford to wait for at least an Ace or King high hand, or a pair of at least 6s or 7s. A-6 or even K-8 will be big winners against the ATC players. Playing along with 7-6 suited, a small pair like 3s or 9-8 through frustration is joining in the speculation with them.
Just like the ATC player, the limper plays everything and anything, but they are not so desperate to stimulate the action. They want to see a flop and make a hand before they invest more. A common trend among limpers and so called “Calling Stations” is that when they bet or raise, they like their hand. That gives you a big clue about what their range is.
Usually a player who habitually checks and calls has a draw or a pair of some kind, but when they want to lead the action, take them seriously. You can confidently put them on at least the top pair, possibly even an over pair or better, like two pair or a set. Their range of hole cards is now much narrower than before, and even if they rock up with trash like J-5 or 9-4, it will probably be a good fit for the flop in the particular hand they become active in.
The selective player, who generally only enters a pot in a late position — often with a raise
The earlier they are in the round of betting, the stronger their cards are. You should only stick around if you have decent-to-good cards yourself, and try to avoid being out of position.
As their position gets later and later, you can (gradually) reduce the chances their hands are stone cold premium. If they look like they’re choosing their spots, they may open their raising range quite considerably in later positions if they are trying to put pressure on the blinds, or “buy the button.” This does not mean they are prone to have Any Two, but their cards may be as ordinary as K-10 or 9-8 suited, giving them a chance to play some poker in position if their raise does not win the pot pre-flop.
One facet of playing a selective and fairly aggressive opponent is they are capable of making a continuation bet on the flop. This is where your Notes come in.
Take the time to see if they are prone to give it up after the flop. See how often they make another bet with overcards like A-K to represent they have connected, even if they miss the flop. You can add the possibility they are following through automatically and add this to their likely range. This allows you to make more accurate plays, like calls with a single pair, or set traps with strong hands and check raise.
If someone folds seemingly every hand and then begins to take an interest, they are likely to have a strong hand, regardless of position. That doesn’t mean you have to fold immediately. You can evaluate your hand equity and maybe play along to try to hit a disguised hand like a set or a powerful draw.
You should probably respect their post-flop action if they make further bets, but at the same time, keep an eye on their showdowns. They may be prone to using their tight image as a cover to run the occasional bluff. Just like with the more positional better and raiser, you might be able to fight back against their strategy by realizing their range is fairly narrow and be able to bluff them off when the board lends itself to low or middle cards connecting to make better hands than the top tier hands like AA or KK.
With some regular notes and an awareness of your opponents’ tendencies, you should be able to avoid turning up at the proverbial gunfight with a knife. You will also be able to pick off free chips by relying on solid hole cards doing their job, crushing reckless play by players who barely look at the hands they’re dealt before they raise it up.