Balancing Ranges And Varying Your Play

I’m a tournament player (loldonkaments… yeah, I know). One of the great things about being a tourney pro is that I rarely play long enough with the same players for them to figure out how I play. What this means is that I can play a very exploitable strategy. For example, there are some spots where I will make certain bets only with the nuts, and other spots where I will only make certain bets as a bluff.

Recently I’ve been watching my friends play high stakes cash games online. The first thing I learn from watching and listening to them is that they play with the same guys so much that they all know the intricacies of the others’ styles of play. They are constantly aware of how balanced their ranges are in certain spots so that they can’t be easily exploited.

Perhaps the most basic example of this is three-betting, or reraising before the flop. In tournaments, there are players that love to call so much that I will only reraise them with the nuts, and others that raise then fold so much that I will only three bet them as a bluff. In cash games, it is important to balance your range so that the guys you play with every day cannot tell easily when you have it and when you don’t.

A hand came up recently where this concept was in the back of my mind. It was a $5,000 tournament at the Bellagio. The blinds were 400/800, and Jonathan Little opened to 2,200 in the cutoff. I was next to act on the button but was very aware of the small blind. He was a player that had already squeezed a couple of times, and even called a raise of mine with 6-4 off-suit once. I had a stack of about 28,000, and both John and the SB had me covered. I looked down at K-K, and had my first decision to make.

Many players see this spot and immediately think to reraise. Personally, with these stack sizes, I don’t like to reraise as a bluff very often, especially against a player like John that is used to playing games on the internet where raising with a weak range and folding a remotely strong hand to a reraise are both bad strategies. As a result, I generally just call with the vast majority of my range. The fact that there is a loose squeezer in the small blind means I am even more likely to just call with my big hands than I normally am. Obviously there is no better result than just calling with my kings only to have the small blind make a big raise. Also, since John knows that I’m calling with weak hands like J-T suited, it is important that I balance my range here with some strong hands like K-K. Normally, this isn’t a major concern against unknown players in tournaments, but I do actually play with John and other players he discusses poker with all the time.

So I called his raise with my K-K and unfortunately both the blinds folded. The flop came 9-7-5 rainbow, and there were now 6,500 chips in the pot (including the antes). John made a very small continuation bet of 3,200. The stacks are small enough here (about 35 BBs) that I am automatically just thinking about playing as big of a pot as possible. Basically, I want to get as much money in the pot as I can, ideally my entire stack if possible. The question is, what’s the best way to do that?

If I call, I’m basically representing a hand that has roughly the strength of a strong 7 or weak 9 or possibly just two strong overcards. John’s play becomes relatively easy on the turn after this point. I can also make a small raise, and represent a range of pure bluffs, very strong hands, and semi-bluffs that I will call off my entire stack with (i.e., 7-6 suited, 8-8, etc.). I expect John to stick it in with basically any hand 7-6 or better.

My other option is to just move all in. It’s a big raise, almost twice the size of a pot-sized raise, so instinctual you might think it will scare him away. The truth is that it really looks like I have some kind of weak semi-bluff hand or combo hand such as any pair plus a gutshot, or maybe even two strong overcards like K-Q. Despite the fact that it’s a bigger raise, my range here looks weaker, so I’d expect John to get it in with virtually the same range he would stick it in against a small raise with. Additionally, I’d expect him to call with virtually any hand he would continue on the turn with if I had just called.

The plays are actually close enough in equity that thinking about range balancing has some merit. Normally, I would rarely advocate making a sub-optimal play for the sake of range balancing in a tournament. An all-in move in a spot like this is a range balancing play that I actually will go slightly (and I really only do mean slightly) out of my way to make. The main reason for this is that my all-in overbets like this are generally strongish semi-bluffs. By throwing in some very strong hands, it often becomes incorrect to make a hero call against me. Also, since my range is perceived as so weak, in some cases it actually becomes the best way to get action on my big hands.

So as you may have guessed, I decided to move all in rather than try to make a cutesy raise or slowplay. Jonathan made the correct decision in my opinion when he instantly called me with 9-8 off-suit. In the case that he’s beat, he’s likely to have nine outs twice. Unfortunately, he hit one of those nine outs, and I was out of the tournament.

A better example of range balancing comes up often in cash games when a raise is called out of the big blind. Let’s say a player in late position raises, and only the BB calls. The fl op comes A-8-3 and the BB checks. The preflop raiser is the first person that should have a balanced range here. Many players will make the mistake of virtually always continuation betting here. In fact, it might even be the correct strategy against a weak opponent. However, any good, observant player will notice if you are c-betting 100% of the time and will take advantage of it. Basically, if you c-bet every time, your range here is so weak that you can easily be called lightly, or even bluffed off your hand. It is important to check sometimes so that your betting range is still somewhat respected. And don’t only check your weak hands, because that would leave you with a weak and unbalanced range on the turn. You should check with hands that you don’t want to build a big pot with, but might still be willing to call a turn bet with if your opponent decides to bet, as well as hands that are likely to improve to one worth calling a bet with on the turn. This can mean hands as weak as Q-T off-suit that might turn a pair. When you absolutely miss, both betting and checking are fine options, and of course the best option depends on who your opponent is and how much you can get away with. A balance of both plays is needed against an expert player.

The BB must also be aware of how balanced his range is. Let’s assume there was a continuation bet from the preflop raiser. Some players will look at this fl op and say, “Fit or fold! If I don’t have at least an ace here, this hand is not worth continuing with.” Continuing with this range is so unbalanced that it is just blatantly obvious to bet every time against this player and to put the brakes on with any hand that can’t beat a medium ace if he so much as calls the flop bet.

Other players will look at this flop and say, “If I checkraise here, my opponent has to fold all hands that don’t have an ace in it. I read in some book that continuation betting is a good play with any hand, so I’m going to checkraise here as a complete bluff all the time!” This can actually be a fine strategy in very specific cases, but against a good player, it won’t work quite as well. The biggest problem is that when you check-raise bluff this fl op, what are you representing? Sure, you could have two pair, or even a set, but is there anything else you are raising here? What if you have A-J for example? Are you really trying to build a big pot out of position in this spot? (This is not a trivial question by the way. In some cases, an answer of “yes” to this question is actually fine, particularly in extremely aggressive games. However, for most of the people reading this, “no” will be a much more reasonable answer.)

The important thing to keep in mind here is that if you only check-raise as a bluff or with the nuts, your bluffs have to be very infrequent in order for them to have any fold equity (assuming you have an observant opponent of course). If you prefer to check-raise often, you will need to include more weaker hands such as A-J that you may want action with. Or, another approach many players will take is to almost never check-raise in this spot. If you think about it, just calling with an ace here can make the pot the easiest to play, and just calling with two pair or a set might end up getting you the most action. Exactly how you decide to balance your range is actually a very complicated question and is a little out of the scope of this article. Either option can be fine, and it really depends on your opponents.

There really are countless of examples of when and how you can balance your ranges, but before I end this article, I want to clarify one thing. Your range does not always need to be balanced. For example, if your opponent has an unbalanced range in a certain spot that consists of way too many hands he will fold, then bluffing every time might be the correct strategy. What you need to pay attention to is how observant your opponents are. Are they taking advantage of your consistent tendencies? If so, you really need to start throwing curve balls and making your overall game harder to play against. Just make sure that you aren’t making very weak plays just for the sake of “mixing it up.” A bad play is still a bad play no matter how unpredictable it was.

If you are able to really get the hang of balancing all of your ranges, you will find that you are constantly putting your opponents to tough decisions. They will consider you a very tough opponent to play against as they will constantly be forced to play guessing games without adequate information. Naturally, this can only lead to your opponents making bad guesses and you making lots of money.

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December 2008