Oddly enough, what inspired me to write a strategy article on range balancing was an intricate question asked by, who else, my mother. While she’s certainly not a poker professional, she does possess a general knowledge of the game of poker. And surprisingly enough, after watching a recent episode of Poker After Dark, posed a question regarding Tom “durrrr” Dwan. She simply asked:
“Why in the world do people consider Tom Dwan so good? I just saw him play 7-2!”
My initial reaction was pure laughter. I KNOW Tom Dwan is good. In fact, I believe he’s one of the top 10 best poker players in the world. I’ve watched Dwan play countless hands, and yes, he does continuously mix up his play to throw off his opponents. But it’s for a purpose. In my OWN head, I completely understood the reasons behind why he makes the moves he makes, and plays the cards he does. It’s almost standard knowledge to those who play poker frequently, and against good opponents. On the other hand, I had to consider the experience of who I was explaining this to. My mother, who when she sees someone playing the worse hand in poker, automatically assumes they’re horrendous at the game.
While I thought this wouldn’t be difficult, as I tried to explain the concept of Dwan’s ability, and his range being extremely balanced, I soon realized, I was talking to my MOTHER. She didn’t even know what a “range” was. So this is where I decided, I needed to explain this important concept to all poker players, who wish to take their skill set to the next level.
In poker, a “range” is simply the variety of cards that you would be most likely to hold, in a given situation. To be more specific, it’s the types of hands that you play from any position at the table, “under-the-gun,” middle position, or the button — and how LIKELY you are to be playing that pair of distinct cards.
To use an example, let’s refer to Dwan’s hand, 7-2 off-suit. Let’s say that you consistently fold 7-2 off. (I hate to say that we ALWAYS do anything, not only because we probably don’t, but because we also want to be BALANCED.) But we’ll roll with it for the sake of simplicity. Now, if you can never hold 7-2 at any time (since you always fold it), then the pair of 7-2 off-suit isn’t a part of your “range.”
In another situation, let’s pretend that you always raise your big pocket pairs (10-10 through A-A) when you’re directly left of the big blind. So any time that you choose to raise when you’re under-the-gun, you’re very likely to hold a big pocket pair. The hands 10-10 through A-A are now a big part of your range any time that you make that particular move.
So hopefully, after a few explanations and examples, you have a reasonable grasp of what a range is. If not, I apologize, I tried my best. 😉
Now comes the complicated part. What every great professional poker player knows, is that it’s often in their best interest to have a “balanced range.” What this means, is that often, while we do make the same moves and play the same cards over and over at the poker table, we want to be able to show up with any two cards in any situation, so that our opponents have difficulty putting us on a particular hand. In other words, if we play our 7-2 off-suit, in the exact same manner we play our A-A, how can our opponent know which of the two we’re holding?
Showing up with a different variety of cards, in similar situations (whether it be through betting, checking, or raising) will consistently give us an edge over our opponents because they will often have to guess on whether or not we have the best hand. Since we can show up with bluffs, just as often as we will show up with the goods, their poker propositions become much more complex. Being versatile with the cards you play, however, is in essence only a tiny aspect of how your range is dissected. The WAY you play those different cards, is just as important as the cards themselves. Let me give another example.
You’re playing in a $1/$2 No-Limit Hold’Em game at your local casino. You’re currently on the button. You hold . There are 2 players who limped from middle position, and you decided to make the call. The blinds both call as well. 5 players to a flop of . Everyone checks through. Turn . You picked up a pair. Everyone checks again, including you. River . Everyone checks again. They all flip over air, and you win the pot with your pair of sevens. Not a bad result right? Let’s reconsider.
Let’s say that you decided to call again from the button, this time with . A similar situation occurred, where you completely whiffed on the flop, so you decided to check. However, you picked up a pair on the turn, and continued to the river only to win yet again. It’s at this point, you may be saying to yourself, “this range balancing stuff is easy! I’m playing hands that I normally don’t play, AND I’m winning with them! Cakewalk!” So you continue to do more of the same. And the same. And the same.
Unfortunately for you, it’s not until you notice that every time you’ve checked the flop, a particular gentleman to the left of you always bets against you in position. And he does this again. And again. And again. You begin thinking to yourself, “he can’t ALWAYS have something! This isn’t fair! I’m calling him next time!” So you do. And you lose. And you lose. And you lose.
Although the keen observers surely picked up on this earlier, what you may have failed to realize, is that your range was never truly balanced. while your bottom line was increasing, your range was shrinking faster than isildur1’s bankroll. (Sorry isildur1, you’ll bounce back in no time.) What you should’ve noticed, is although you are varying the cards that you play, the WAY you play them is almost ALWAYS identical. A great player will be able to pick up on this information, and use it to exploit you. If you look at the example above, you’re consistently checking the flop, only when you’ve completely missed. This tendency could cost you dramatically in the long run, because you’ll rarely be able to show up on the river with cards that connected to the flop. Of course he’s going to bet you on the flop after you check. You almost ALWAYS have nothing. (I really do hate that word.) On the other hand, if you bet your bluff on the flop, but made a pair on the turn, not only have you managed to disguise your range, but now you can bet your premium hands that actually hit the flop in the same manner. You’ve become more balanced.
What makes players like Tom Dwan outstanding, is that at any given time, in any position at the table, and for any particular monetary figure, Dwan can either have the best hand, or the worse hand. And whether he plays 7-2, or pocket aces, it looks EXACTLY THE SAME. (As I stated earlier, it’s probably hard to be exact, but you catch my drift).
Being creative with all of your holdings in poker is going to bring your game to a different echelon, one that will often be ahead of the curve of a lot of your opponents. Dependent upon the stakes and games you play regularly, it may even be required. Knowing when to mix up your play in certain situations can take you far when you’re at the poker felt, and will certainly be a characteristic that will separate being good from being great. Remember to balance your range.
(P.S. In my last strategy article, I had a hand that I played, in which I had A-K, and had to make a tough decision on whether to three-barrel in position. Fortunately enough for me, I decided to check back, because I didn’t believe there would be many hands in my opponent’s range that didn’t connect with that board. It saved me a good chunk of change. My opponent held J-10, for two pair.)
Good luck, and hopefully I’ll see you at the tables.