Top poker strategists emphasize putting opponents on a range of hands and narrowing that range through each street based on their actions and what we know about their tendencies. Next level thinking considers what our range looks like to them.
More simply: What do they have and how will they play it? What do they think we have and how do they think we will play it? This is the essence of navigating through a difficult hand, especially when stacks are deep.
The higher an opponent’s bluffing frequency and the more prone he or she is to making non-standard plays, the more difficult it is to narrow their range. This is one attraction of a loose-aggressive (LAG) playing style.
Does it really work? Let’s see how it played out at a recent no limit hold’em game. It was early in the session, with effective stacks of 110 big blinds.
A couple of players limped in, and in the cutoff seat I limped as well with J♠9♠, a very playable suited one-gapper. The table had been fairly passive so far, the player on the button isn’t known for attacking limpers with medium strength hands, and there was good reason to expect to see a cheap flop. I like keeping the pot small pre-flop with this kind of hand in late position. With position on the other players, I can maximize profits when I hit the flop well, without feeling like I have an investment that must be protected when I whiff.
Foiling my plan, the small blind raised to 4.5 BBs. For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Ronnie.” He’s a college student and studies poker at least as much as he studies engineering, with a highly Game Theory Optimal approach.
Ronnie’s raise was curiously small. I like to up-size my small blind raises, to reduce both the number of opponents and the post-flop OOP stress. Ronnie’s raise seems to invite multiple callers. Ronnie’s range might look like this, although it shouldn’t be this wide as the following table represents 19% of all possible combinations and that’s too many given his position. In real time, I would have assigned a narrower range, but let’s start here.
One other player calls, and I call as well. I could have folded, but the button had folded on the first go-around so I’ll be last to act on every street post-flop.
The flop was 954 with the five of spades. This gives me top pair with a backdoor flush draw. Ronnie bets 11 BBs. Betting into two other players leads me to believe he has an over pair to this board, or top pair, or some gutshot or backdoor equity or two over cards. I can narrow his range, removing those combos now in red that lack any good reason to make a continuation bet.
The other player folds. Although I’m behind vs. his remaining range (36.4% v. 63.6%), it’s premature to fold and I’ll get more information on the turn. Raising is out of the question – Ronnie isn’t likely to fold any hands that beat mine, nor is he likely to call a raise with any worse hands either (maybe 88?). So I call.
The turn is the 8♠. I still have top pair and now have added a flush draw. That gives me 14 outs to improve to a flush, trips or two pair.
Ronnie bets again, this time 22.5 BBs. This is a strong bet, in the sense that he isn’t showing any particular fear of what I might have. This further suggests over pairs, while many of the hands in his flop C-bet range should be giving up or opting for pot control now. I can eliminate some more hands (in red).
Note that any suited hands with two spades likely also continue, but that’s only A♠K♠, A♠Q♠, A♠T♠, A♠4♠, A♠3♠, A♠2♠ for a total of six flush draw combinations vs. 45 remaining non-flush draws.
He also might be on a multi-barrel bluff, which I’ve seen him do previously. A GTO-oriented player can be bluffing as much as 1/3 of the time here if he believes there is a good enough chance that I’ll fold. I know Ronnie thinks that way, and is aware that his range looks like mostly over pairs. And he knows that I’m thinking about his range and willing to abandon the weaker part of my range in the face of pressure.
My limp/calling range pre-flop would definitely include low pocket pairs like 55 or 44 that would have flopped a set here, and also hands like 76s that would call the flop and made a straight on the turn. Overall, the board hits my range better than his range. So I decide to play poker! I raise to 55 BBs, which isn’t a huge raise in percentage terms and he should interpret as something I would only do with two-pair or better. Ronnie processes all this for a few seconds and calls.
A beautiful K♠ comes on the river, giving me the 3rd nut flush. Ronnie is first to act with about 40 BBs remaining, which he ships all-in. There are a few nut flush draws left in his range, although the weakest of these – A2s through A5s – in my mind these really weren’t in his range at all. Remember that he made a rather small pre-flop raise from the small blind. If he just wanted to steal the limpers’ money, he would make a bigger raise. If he just wanted to see the flop with a weak suited ace, he would complete the blind but not raise. A pot sweetener with a weak suited ace makes no sense when out-of-position.
It’s tempting to add some spade combos back into his range, like Q♠T♠. This is flawed thinking; if a combination wasn’t part of both his pre-flop raising range and his flop C-bet range, it can’t be in his range now. I’ve already included all suited aces, the K♠, 9♠ and 8♠ are now on the board and I have the J♠, so there wouldn’t be many such combos to add anyway.
On the other hand, in assessing my range, he would include few if any flush draws, perhaps only A♠9♠, J♠9♠, T♠9♠ based on my play through each street. A backdoor flush is perfect for me because he would rarely see it coming, which means he could be shoving his best non-flush hands for value, like 99 or 88, or turning his over pairs into a bluff.
With approx. 210 BBs in the pot and 40 more for me to call, I’m never folding. As I call, I quickly turn over my cards as a courtesy fast roll, while he turns his over just as fast to reveal Q♠4♠ for the 2nd nut flush.
[LONG PAUSE FOR DRAMATIC EFFECT]
There is both a lot and very little to say about this. I’m going with the latter approach.
Replay this hand forwards and backwards a few times and you’ll be speechless too.
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