Hand ranging – the process of putting your opponent not on a specific hand, but rather on a spectrum of hands – is a critical skill in poker, no matter what format you play. While there will be some (precious few) times you can call your opponent’s hand exactly, the majority of the time the best you can do is narrow their possible holdings based on their actions, and act accordingly.
There are some pretty complex extensions of the hand ranging concept, but at the core it remains a simple process of deduction. You take what you know about poker players in general, then what you know about your opponent in general, and then incorporate game-specific information such as your image, past confrontations with your opponent, their mood, and so on. While that seems like a pretty transparent process, there are some basic facts about how we process information that can really skew the range estimates of players, especially beginners or people who are just starting to seriously incorporate ranging into their play.
Below is a quick list of things to think about if you’re having problems putting people on proper ranges. Not everything below will apply to everyone, nor is it an absolute guide to becoming Totally Excellent at hand ranging – it is, after all, a skill that can take a lot of time, experience and patience to fully develop. Rather, think of this as a starting point for diagnosing potential flaws in your process.
So, what are some factors that can lead you to put people on inaccurate ranges?
Optimism: While this isn’t necessarily the first word that comes to mind when you think of poker players, the fact remains that most people would prefer to believe that they are winning a hand than losing it. That fact leads some players to craft ranges for their opponents too heavily weighted by hands that are inferior to their own hand.
Negativism: The converse to the above. Some poker players play in a near-constant state of fear, seeing every flop, turn and river as chock full of scare cards, and every bet from an opponent as an attempt to milk them with the nuts. Players like this tend to (obviously) construct hand ranges insanely skewed to favor hands superior to their own.
Projection: One of our basic strategies for understanding why other people do what they do is to look inward. We think about why we might do something, and we then (often correctly) assume other people do similar things for similar reasons. While this isn’t a terrible starting point for understanding a lot of human choices, it can be a poor one for understanding poker opponents. Unlike, say, Monopoly, poker is a pretty dynamic game, and player styles, motivations and logic can vary wildly from individual to individual.
Presentism: Presentism refers to our deeply ingrained tendency to draw disproportionately on the most recent information we have when we make decisions. When applied to poker, it suggests that we’re likely to let the last few hands we’ve seen an opponent play exert an almost irrational influence on the hand range we construct for them in the present hand. This is an especially dangerous flaw when you consider that one of the most basic adjustments in poker is to abuse your opponent’s expectations by deviating from recent behavioral patterns.
Cognitive dissonance: This psychological concept basically asserts that once we’ve made a decision, we’ll willfully ignore / spin evidence that contradicts that conclusion rather than have to deal with the tension created by the opposing truths. In terms of hand ranging, CD comes into play primarily when you’ve already drawn a conclusion about your opponent’s hand range on an early street and then refuse to update that range in the face of new information on later streets.
Face-up … ism: This is a concept that probably has a formal parallel in psychology (and a far less bust-ass label). Anyhow, the basic idea is that we often forget (to varying degrees) that our cards are concealed. It sounds a little goofy, but it makes sense when you think about it. Hand ranging is about putting yourself in your opponent’s shoes, and one of the toughest things about really seeing the hand from your opponent’s perspective is ‘forgetting’ what you have – or at least taking into account that your opponent is, at best, putting you on a range of hands. If you’re ranging based on the assumption that your opponent knows exactly what you have, you’re bound to craft a myopic range for their holdings.
Hopefully the above list has given you a little food for thought and provided a starting point for you to critically evaluate your skill as a hand ranger. Remember, the tendencies listed aren’t really correctable in the purest sense of the word – they’re more or less part of how we’re wired to think. However, the hope is that the more you’re aware of the flaws in your process, the more able you’ll be to account for them, adjusting your ranging process until it gets you as close to knowing what you’re up against as logic will allow.