Putting Your Opponents on Hand Ranges

Poker would be a much easier game if you could only see your opponent's cards - but, unless you're a cheater or a superhero (or both), there's a pretty slim chance you'll ever be able to see exactly what cards your opponent is holding.  Good players, however, don't let this dissuade them from attempting to ascertain what their opponents might be holding.  It's called "putting someone on a hand," and is considered by many to be the fundamental skill required to succeed at any form or poker - live or online, cash or tournament.

Being able to accurately put someone on a hand isn't an ability you're going to magically acquire after reading this article.  It takes time, experience and work to develop the tools necessary to pull off one of the neatest (and most profitable) tricks in all of poker: Knowing what your opponent holds without ever seeing their cards.  What we're aiming to do with this page is to introduce you to the basics of the skill, a starting point that will help you to improve your hand-reading talents more rapidly than you might otherwise. 

We'll break down hand reading, explain how to use math and logic to narrow down the potential holdings of your opponent and finally provide some tips for what you can actually do with that information when you get it.

Aim for a Range of Hands Instead of One Hand

This is a simple, but critical, concept.  Of course there's an appeal to being able to exactly call out the two specific cards your opponent is holding, but the truth of the situation is that you simply won't have enough information in the overwhelming majority of hands you play to really know for sure.  What you want to shoot for is a "range" of hands that your opponent might hold in a given situation.

So, for example, let's say a tight player re-raises you preflop in a no limit hold'em cash game (full ring).  You might be tempted to immediately put the player on two aces.  Now, it should be first noted that even two aces represents a range of hands (there are six different possible suit combinations).  Further, we can assume our tight player would also re-raise with two kings, and could possibly re-raise with queens, jacks or even ace king depending on how their night is going and what their image of you happens to be. 

The point is simple: While you might feel a strong desire to pick one hand and go with it, the optimal strategy in almost all situations is to allow your opponent a potential range of hands - a range that you will continue to adjust and narrow as the hand progresses.  It's both a more flexible strategy and a more honest reflection of what you're actually capable of knowing in a particular hand. 

Use Information to Continually Narrow the Range

Don't make the mistake of starting with a range and then just sticking blindly with it through the end of the hand.  Your range should be dynamic, and you should always be willing to take new information and incorporate it into your process of putting your opponent on a range of hands - even if it means rethinking your initial range altogether.  Let's continue with our earlier example and say that you put in an additional raise preflop against the tight opponent.  The tight opponent folds.  What do we think now about our original range of JJ+ and AK+?  We might start to suspect that our opponent had a bluff or two in the range as their hand was obviously weak enough to fold.  Perhaps our opponent just calls the raise, but you've seen them re-raise all in with AA in a similar situation.  As you go to the flop, you can make a mental note that AA and KK are likely no longer in our opponent's range (or are heavily discounted) and adjust your play accordingly.

Not All Hands are Equally Likely

When you're constructing a hand range, it's very important that you remember a basic fact of the process: You (generally) should not give equal weight to all hands in the range.  Part of this comes down to math, and part of it comes down to logic.  The math:  Some hands are easier to hold than others.  For example, in a deck of 52 cards there are 16 ways to make Ace King but only 6 ways to make AA.  If you have concluded that your opponent holds one of the two hands, you must remember to give more weight to the part of the range made up of AK.  In this case, you have 22 possible combinations your opponent could have, and aces account for just about 25% of those combinations.

You should also employ a bit of logic based on what you know about player types in general and about a given opponent specifically.  For example, if a tight player raises in early position and then shows a lot of strength on a board of 7s 5d 5h, you can safely assume that there are very few 5's in the range of hands that person is likely to raise from early position.  In fact, tight players fold almost every hand with a 5 in it from early position, with the possible exception of 55 and A5s (and maybe a 65s ever now and again, but usually not from a tight player).  If you've rarely seen this given player raise at all in early position, you can further discount (or even eliminate altogether) hands containing a 5.

Put Yourself in Your Opponents Shoes

The easiest way to both establish a hand range and to exploit that information is to try your hardest to see the hand from your opponent's point of view.  What sort of hands would lead you to behave how your opponent is currently behaving?  If you had those hands in the current situation, what would you be wishing for your opponent to do?  While tricky opponents are good at telling a deceptive story with their bets, calls and raises, the majority of players are actually telling a very honest story about the strength of their hand - and the more you develop your hand reading skills, the easier it will be to understand that story.

Each poker hand is a bit of a puzzle - some worth a good deal more money for solving than others.  Just remember that the central mystery you're trying to solve is what's likely to be hidden on the other side of your opponent's cards, and that cracking that case with just a touch of math and logic is the quickest way toward putting a nice-sized addition on your stack at the expense of theirs.