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Range Wars – Part 1

October 12, 2020
by Dave Roemer

As poker continues to evolve over time, so does the strategies and tools we use to learn and understand the game.  Included in that evolution has been ranging opponents, and an understanding of ranges is an essential component to successful poker in today’s landscape.  As this has come more and more into the fore front, terms revolving around ranges have become more common speak in poker circles. This has also led to the misuse of terms and misunderstanding of the application of these concepts by less experienced players who’ve picked up on the basics but don’t yet really understand how to apply them. In this article series we’re going to dig into some ideas behind ranging and playing your own range vs. an opponent’s range, what we’ll call range wars.

Many players in today’s game understand their opponent isn’t just playing a hand; they have a range of hands that might make sense for the action choices they’re making.  What is still less commonly grasped however is that we are also playing a range of hands ourselves. It makes sense this isn’t a natural conclusion… we don’t know our opponent’s hole cards; thus we have to work from the basis of a range that we try to narrow as hands and actions unfold. But we do see our own 2-hole cards, so beginning and even intermediate players can get stuck in simply playing their own 2 cards and not considering the fact that they are actually playing a range of hands themselves. Thus, a more sophisticated way to approach situations is actually range vs. range, our range vs. our opponents range. A few terms you’ll need to be familiar with in these discussions:

Range: A grouping of hands that a player can have in a situation. Example: A very tight and conservative player opens for a raise from UTG at a 9 handed table.  A range of hands such a player might do this with might be 99+, AJs+, AQo+, KQs. We would not expect this player to hold 73o in this situation.

Range Advantage: When one range has a distinct equity advantage over another range.

Nut Advantage: When one range has a distinct nutted hand advantage over another range.

We will see examples of both range advantage and nut advantage later in this series. But for now it’s important to understand when it’s actually appropriate to consider range vs. range in a situation and when it’s actually not. Once players start re-training their poker brain to think in this way, they sometimes fail to dial back the thought process when appropriate. Let’s define this by levels of thought our opponents operate on. Of course, this assumes we have some reads or can infer where an opponent might be at mentally.

Level 1: Just playing their hand. This is a very basic, unsophisticated recreational player. They have 2 cards, and they are playing those 2 cards while considering how those 2 cards connect with the board. They aren’t considering what you have, and they certainly aren’t aware of what their own range is. This is the most typical level of thought for beginners and pure fun players.

Level 2: This player is playing their hand, but also thinking about what you might hold. This could be as simplistic as “you raised preflop, you might have a big ace or big pair” to ranges for specific situations based on position, previous action, stack depth, etc, as well as what actions you take in the hand molding refinements to that range. This is the most typical level of thought by more studied recreational players and intermediate players, and where much of the poker playing populace lives today.

Level 3: This player is not only ranging you, they are also aware that from your perspective, they are playing a range of hands themselves. They will be considering how their range looks to you as the play of a hand progresses. This is the start of more sophisticated play.

Against Level 1 Type Opponents

Thinking about your range and what it looks like is wildly inappropriate against these basic players.  Who cares what your range looks like? They don’t, they aren’t even considering what it might be. So, you shouldn’t either. Against this type of player, you really should devolve your thought process into considering your actual holding while trying to narrow their range, and play your 2 cards accordingly.

Against Level 2 Type Opponents  

Against this player type you should be considering your range… what your range looks like in a given situation (or at least, what you think it should look like to your opponent who is in fact trying to range you), and how your range interacts with the texture of the board. When we are thinking in this manner, it’s natural to consider how our opponent’s range interacts with the board as well and think about things like which range if any may have an advantage on a certain texture.  But don’t overdo it yet… remember that this player, while trying to range you, is still just playing their own cards mostly.  So while one range may have an advantage over another on certain board textures, this player is unlikely to be aware of that simply because they aren’t thinking in those terms.

Against Level 3 Type Opponents  

Against these more sophisticated opponents, playing range vs. range is appropriate and makes sense.  They are aware of the fact they are playing a range, and considering how their range interacts with boards in comparison to how your range does. If one range has an equity advantage over another on a certain board texture, or if one has a nut advantage, this is the player type who will be cognizant of those things and adjust their in-hand strategies accordingly.

In part 2, we’ll present basic examples of what range advantage and nut advantage means in practice to help you get your head around these concepts, and prepare you for the 3rd part in this series where we’ll look at some more complicated but common situations in terms of range vs. range.

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