By Andrew Brokos | Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Two Plus Two Magazine
In the May issue of this magazine, I introduced a simplified system of hand-reading that works quite well against the majority of no-limit hold ‘em players. The idea is not to put an opponent on a specific hand but rather to put him on one or two of three possible broad categories of hands: monsters with which he wants to play a big pot, moderate-strength hands that figure to be best but that he will generally try to showdown cheaply, and draws or other weak hands that will rarely win without bluffing.
This month, I want to demonstrate one way of using this information to guide your play. On the turn or river, it is often possible to determine, based on how he has played on earlier streets, that your opponent will rarely or never have a monster hand. This is sometimes called a “capped range”, meaning that there is an upper limit to how strong your opponent’s hand can be. If you are able to determine this limit, you can both value bet all of your better hands strongly and represent better hands when you need to bluff, putting your opponent in a very difficult spot.
Often, there are two ways for a bluff to go wrong. Either your opponent happens to have a very strong hand, maybe even the one you are trying to represent, and can easily call you, or he guesses that you are bluffing and calls you down with a weak hand (or re-bluffs you, for that matter). When you are able to cap his range, though, you can all but eliminate the first possibility and put your opponent in the uncomfortable position of never having cards stronger than those you are representing. The best he can hope to do is guess at your bluffing frequency and call you down accordingly.
A Simple Example
We’ll start with an example, probably oversimplified, to illustrate the point. Suppose that you are playing in a $5/$10 9-handed NLHE game. The player first to act opens with a $40 raise. He is extremely tight and predictable, and you know that he would only raise from first position with a big pair, probably tens or better, or a big Ace. Because you have such a precise read, and because the effective stacks are $2000, you call on the button with a suited JT. The rest of the table folds.
The flop comes 982, all different suits, giving you an open-ended straight draw. Your opponent bets $70, and you call. The turn is an off-suit 6, and your opponent bets $150. At this point, just based on his very tight pre-flop raising standards, you are able to identify a clear upper limit on your opponent’s range. He cannot have a hand stronger than one pair, albeit a good pair. You, on the other hand, could have a set, two pair, or even a straight. You raise to $500, and your opponent calls.
The river is a 4. Your opponent checks, and you move all in for a little more than the size of the pot. He scowls at you, fiddles with his chips, mutters something about garbage hands and bad beats, and folds.
A Trickier Example
In a 6-handed $5/$10 NLHE game, the player one off the button opens with a $35 raise. The action folds to you in the big blind, and you call with T [spade] 9 [spade]. The effective stacks are $1000. The flop comes 7 [club] 5 [club] 4 [diamond], missing you entirely. You check, prepared to fold, but your opponent checks behind you.
What can you determine about his hand so far? Many players will open a wide range from late position, so you have very little information about his hand pre-flop. When he checks the flop, though, he is telling you a good deal.
This is not a flop that gets slowplayed very often. If your opponent flopped two pair or a set, he has a lot of incentive to bet. For one thing, there are scary cards that could come on the turn. From his perspective, they may improve you to the best hand, and even if they don’t, they may scare you away from paying off with a second-best hand.
Similarly, because of the coordinated nature of the board, there are a lot of ways you could have flopped a second-best hand. Anything from a worse two pair to a pair and a straight draw to overcards and a flush draw will be willing to put a fair bit of money into the pot on this flop. Thus, if your opponent flopped a strong hand, he would have a lot of incentive to bet it. When he checks, you can be fairly sure he does not have two pair or better.
What could he have? Anything from total air (which in most cases will still beat your hand) to something like Ace-high that has a little bit of showdown value to a strong pair that nevertheless fears a check-raise. Significantly, though, he will very rarely have anything stronger than one pair, possibly with a draw to go along with it.
The turn brings the A [spade]. You could bluff now, but even if you follow it up on the river, this will only put so much pressure on your opponent. It wins nothing more from his bluffs, and many players will call down with a pair after checking the flop. Note that your opponent’s pot control line on the flop has made it difficult for you to bluff him in a conventional way.
If you check, though, your opponent will very often bet. If he has nothing, this is a good card for him to represent. If he hit the Ace, he’ll probably bet for the same reasons that a strong hand would want to bet the flop. Even with a weaker pair, he may feel more confident in his hand, now that you have checked twice, and not want to give a free card. Unless he has A4, A5, or A7, though, it is very unlikely that he will have better than one pair.
You check, and your opponent bets $60 into the $75 pot. You can now make a large raise to represent a strong hand that missed a check-raise on the flop and decided to go for one on this turn.
You make a pot-sized raise to $255. This raise will often take the pot down right away, but suppose that this player makes a stubborn call. It is now more likely than ever that he does not have a strong hand. Given the coordinated nature of the board and the fact that you seem to like your cards, a strong hand would almost certainly put the rest of the money in on the turn.
Thus, you can follow up with a big bluff on most if not all rivers. Your opponent’s flop call probably either represents a skeptical pair that needs a little more convincing or a pair with a draw. Another big bet on blank rivers should show a nice profit.
Bluffing at 8’s, 3’s, and clubs will be a higher variance play but will probably still show a profit. Sometimes you will end up bluffing into a rivered monster, but you may also have better fold equity against pairs that fear you hit the draw yourself.
In this case, your opponent calls the turn raise, and the river brings the K [spade]. You bet $450 into the $585 pot, and he folds. Whereas leading out on the turn may have enabled you to steal a small pot, check-raising the turn and following up with a river bluff won you a much larger one. Essentially, you tricked your opponent into putting a lot of money into the pot when you knew he could not defend it.
Your potential fold equity here is so high that you might choose to make this play even when you have some showdown value, such as when you hold 43. Your pair could be best, but often it won’t be, and you may get outplayed on the river anyway. Turning a weak pair into a bluff like this will often prove more profitable than trying to catch bluffs with it.
Defending Against These Plays
If you are in a game with a player who reads hands this well and has the cojones to makes plays like this, you might do well to find another table. But if you do choose to stay, you should know how to protect yourself.
The first and best strategy is to practice avoidance. When playing with a very competent hand reader, you must go to great lengths to disguise your hands and change up your play. This will require some unconventional play, such as occasionally raising 98s in first position at a 9-handed table or checking back a set on a coordinated flop. These are risky plays, but they are safer than enabling a tricky player to eliminate strong hands from your range altogether.
You may also need to resort to game theory and refuse to fold the best hands in your range, even if they are not objectively all that strong. If you were the Villain in the second example, you might have to call down when you turn a pair of Aces. Sure, your opponent could have a stronger hand, but since you very rarely will, folding a pair of Aces is highly exploitable.
Thin Value Bets
What if your opponent reads this article or just figures out that he’s getting exploited and decides to start calling down with his strong one-pair hands? Believe it or not, you don’t need to stop bluffing him. The occasional tricky play or thin call down are just stop-gap measures that turn an insanely profitable bluff into a marginally profitable bluff. You won’t win nearly as often, but if you can stand the variance, you’ll still show a profit in the long run.
Realize also that capping your opponent’s range will enable you not only to bluff but also to make big, thin value bets. In the second example, if you know your opponent rarely or never has better than one pair, then you could take the same line with a weak two pair hand like 54 or even one strong pair such as AK. There are very few second-best hands that will pay you off, but there are also very few better hands in your opponent’s range. And if he does correctly adapt by occasionally calling down with one pair, he’ll be in for a surprise!
Poker is a battle for information. Any time that you have more information about your opponent’s hand than he has about yours, the potential for profit is there. It is simply a matter of figuring out how to make the most of it. Even many players who read hands well don’t always take full advantage of that information.
Learning to recognize when there is an upper limit on an opponent’s possible hand strength and how you can exploit it can present you with some very profitable opportunities. Hopefully it will also demonstrate the critical importance of mixing up your own play, at least when there are good hand readers at the table, so that no one is able to take advantage of you.