Poker is a technical game, and becoming proficient at it requires a careful learning process. You cannot beat the game, for example, without having a solid understanding of which hands are playable from different positions at the table. But that is just the starting point, both literally and figuratively, of success in a multi-street game.
Fortunately, poker has been subjected to sufficient analysis that these days a beginning player has access to a number of learning short-cuts. Charts of opening hand ranges are commonplace, and simplifications of in-depth computer analysis of postflop play are available to players willing to put in a little work.
Poker fundamentals are a necessary, but not sufficient condition to become a winning player. And if you ask experienced players and coaches where the first big improvement can be made beyond starting ranges, the majority will give the same answer: hand reading.
We’re not talking about some TV pro correctly identifying their opponent’s exact hand, then calling a bet anyway despite being beat. Hand reading is a much broader topic than that, and it is intertwined with the critical concept of range.
When you play poker, you know your two hole cards. If you get into a heads-up pot, you might argue all you know about your opponent’s hand is that it is made up of two cards. But is that really true? Your opponent entered the pot somehow. If they open-raised preflop, that limits the hands they can hold unless they’re a complete lunatic.
This limiting process of the hands your opponent can have is the essence of hand reading. As the hand progresses and various actions are taken, the possible hands they can hold shrinks. And the cards they can realistically have at any point in the hand is their current range.
A more sophisticated and less intuitive aspect of modern poker is that you and your opponent are both playing a range of cards. Yes, you can look down and see the two specific cards you hold, but your opponent can not. More importantly, perhaps, your range impacts how you play the actual hand that you hold. In the rest of this article, we’ll explore how that works in the context of range advantage.
What Is Range Advantage?
When first introduced to range advantage, many players are puzzled. If we’re all playing the “correct” opening hands, how can one player’s range have an advantage over another?
To make this idea more concrete, let’s look at the 6-max starting hand ranges given in Red Chip Poker’s PRO course on the topic.
Here is the opening range for the UTG player:
In this image, all the red cells are hands that should be open raised.
Contrast this to the range for the player in the BB when facing an UTG raise:
Here, the red cells are recommended 3-bets, whereas the blue ones represent the BB’s calling range.
Immediately we notice something interesting. As one might expect intuitively, the BB should 3-bet their strongest hands (along with a handful of bluffs). So if we raise from UTG and the BB just calls, we can see that their range looks very different to ours, notably missing the very strongest hands. Moreover, the fact that the BB called rather than taking some other action is the first critical element in our hand reading as we move postflop.
We can take UTG’s open-raising range and BB’s calling range and see how they stack up against each other using a tool like Equilab. Looking at the equity of one range against the other, we find UTG has about a 55%/45% preflop advantage. That is, if we ran out the board a large number of times, UTG would figure to end up with the winning hand about 55% of the time. Thus we say they have overall range advantage.
However, the real fireworks go off when we look at specific flops. You may have heard people saying “that board really hits UTG’s range”. Let’s look at what that means in more depth.
Consider the flop AhKs9c. If we again let Equilab run its magic, we find that the equity edge now enjoyed by the UTG player is a whopping 65%/35%. We haven’t changed the original ranges at all; this is simply a consequence of UTG’s range interacting better with the flop than BB’s range.
A related concept is “nut range advantage”. In its simplest terms, this just means which player can hold the current nuts on this board. We can see by inspection that only UTG can hold AAA, since BB would’ve 3-bet AA preflop had they held it. Thus on this particular flop, UTG has both overall and nut range advantage.
You might argue we’ve skewed this whole problem simply by giving UTG the stronger range to begin with. So let’s run Equilab again on the board 7c6c5h. Now we discover that it’s the BB who has significant overall range advantage at 56%/44%. Note too that only they can hold the current nuts (with 98s) on this board.
Why Does It Matter?
So what do we do with this information? How can we play better postflop poker now we have a rudimentary understanding of range advantage?
Given that this topic is so central to much of modern postflop analysis, we can barely scratch the surface in this article, but here are a few ideas to get you started.
First, when you determine that you have clear range advantage, that is invariably a license for you to play aggressively. Other factors come into play, of course, but in general you should be betting and raising. With nut range advantage in particular, you might also size your bets larger.
Contrariwise, when you find yourself in a spot where your opponent has range advantage, you need to play much more cautiously. This is particularly the case when you’re out of position, even as the preflop raiser. Simply c-betting into a bad board for fear it might get worse is a recipe for disaster. Check frequently. Your opponent has the power of position and range advantage, and unless they butcher the hand, the odds are you’re not winning this pot.
Note that in this general advice, we haven’t mentioned explicitly what cards you actually hold, just your range. This again is motivated by poker analysis over the last few years. There are frequent cases where your actual holding matters, but starting from the question of how you play your range of hands is often preferred.
This does raise an important corollary. Against an opponent who is versed in the nuances of range advantage, and who will respond accordingly, you have far more liberty to play your range. For example, if your opponent recognizes that you have significant range advantage, you can probably bet them off their hand even if your specific holding is weak.
Flipping this around, if you’re up against someone who thinks range advantage has something to do with a golf course, you have to tread a bit more carefully. In such situations, your specific hand will usually take on more importance. But even here, if you can range such an opponent accurately, you at least have a good idea of how strong they are likely to be, and can plan your postflop line more effectively as a result.