Nuts or nothing: What are polarised hand ranges?

‘Nuts or nothing’ is one way to describe polarised hand ranges but, according to Alex Scott, that doesn’t quite tell the full story

It’s amazing how much poker has moved on in the last few years. Not long ago, it was common to hear a discussion at the table that went something like this:

‘Why didn’t you raise the river with your Jacks full?’

‘I put him on quads.’

Nowadays, you still hear such reasoning at the tables but only from beginners. Players with any sort of sophistication to their game have moved on, and are now talking about hand ranges instead. Thinking through poker situations by assigning exact hands to your opponents is an elementary mistake, because it’s impossible to be 100% certain about even the most straightforward player’s holding.

This is because if you present the exact same situation to a typical poker player multiple times, it’s likely that each time they will make a slightly different decision. For example, give the same player pocket Aces under the gun twice in a row. On the first hand he might raise to three times the big blind, but the next hand he might simply call. Both choices have merit, and there is an element of randomness as to which decision the player will make.

Because players are so unpredictable, it makes no sense to assign specific hands to opponents. Instead, you should talk about a player’s range of possible hands. For example, suppose a player moves all-in on the river and there are three hearts on the board. You might decide that the villain’s range of hands includes any two hearts, any pair which made a set, any two cards which make a straight, and a few bluffs.

Clear definition

A polarised range means that in a given situation a player’s range of hands is overly skewed towards having either a very strong hand or a bluff, with little in between. In the three hearts example, you can imagine that the all-in player’s range included not only made flushes, but also straights, sets and bluffs. However, let’s change the example a little. Now everyone at the table limps in before the flop and checks it to the river. The final board is K-Q-8-6-2♣, meaning that anyone with a heart has a flush. The player UTG now moves all-in. What do you think his range of hands is?

This is a basic and somewhat extreme example of a polarised range. It’s quite unlikely that any player would be moving all-in for value with a hand such as 8-8 (bottom set on the flop), given the action before the river and the low likelihood of being called by a worse hand. That means the only two types of hands that make sense to bet are complete bluffs (because there is no way to win the pot without betting) and strong flushes (for value).

You’d thus say that the UTG player has a ‘polarised range’, because he either has a monster or a bluff. A polarised range can actually make your decision easier, by reducing the possibilities you have to consider. Backtracking through the hand may enable you to eliminate one end of the range or the other, or you may be able to do so by reading your opponent’s body language. Clearly, if there are two diametrically-opposed possibilities and you eliminate one of them, your decision becomes a lot easier!

Open range

A polarised range doesn’t always come about on the river, though. At any time your opponent can have a range of hands, it’s possible for them to have a polarised range. Because you use all the information available to you to narrow your opponent’s range – board texture, position, bet sizing, opponent tendencies and more – you can assign a polarised range to a player any time they’ve taken an action and you have information about the situation.

The most obvious examples of polarised ranges occur on heavily textured boards – for example, four-flush and four-straight boards, or ones with three of a kind. However, polarised situations can arise before the flop too, and it’s not always a ‘nuts or nothing’ situation.

For example, say you’re in the early stages of a mid-stakes live tournament with deep stacks and are in the small blind with pocket Jacks. The blinds are 50/100 and the action is folded to the button who raises to 300. You reraise to 1,000. The button thinks for a while and moves all-in for 10,000. Because the stacks are quite deep and there is plenty of money left to bet, it’s quite unlikely that the button has a medium strength hand such as suited connectors. A typical player would either fold such a hand, or simply call and see a flop, hoping to hit something big or outplay you. By removing most of the medium strength hands from the button’s range, you’ve left him with weak hands and strong hands – both of which make sense given the action. But for practical purposes his range isn’t completely polarised, for two reasons. First, the button will sometimes make this move with a medium strength hand, and second, some of the hands that are considered ‘strong’ in your opponent’s range are an underdog against your pocket Jacks (A-Q or A-K for example).

Bet sizing

What about times when your range is polarised? How much should you bet to get maximum value when you have the nuts, and how much should you bet to minimise your chances of getting called when bluffing? Normally, your bet sizing is based on balancing several factors. You want to maximise the chances of being called by a worse hand, maximise the value you will earn if you get called by a worse hand, but also minimise your loss if you are up against a stronger hand.

In a polarised situation, there is much less uncertainty about where you stand. If you have the nuts, you don’t need to think about minimising your losses when you’re facing a stronger hand – you just want to extract maximum value. In such situations, I recommend making a larger-than-average bet, because the likelihood of being called does not decrease in proportion to the amount that you bet.

If you have nothing at all, you’re only worrying about getting better hands to fold, and couldn’t care less about extracting value from weaker hands (because there aren’t any!). You don’t want to make a small bet, because a small bet is more likely to be called than a big one. On the other hand, you don’t want to make an enormous bet relative to the pot, because you’ll be risking a lot to win a little.

In both situations, a larger-than-average bet makes sense, so that’s what I would recommend you make when your hand range is clearly polarised. If your usual bet would be two-thirds of the pot, try overbetting the pot slightly in a polarised situation. Not only will this put your opponent to a tough decision, but it will maximise the chances of achieving your objective, no matter at which end of the range your hand actually lies!

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