“What do you do for a living?”
It was a polite question, in the setting I was in, at a neighbor’s annual soup party. I had no reason to be rude to the person I had just met named Julia. But I’d been working on this poker article all day, so my thoughts kept drifting back to it. Plus, I’d recently hit the vape for a while. In that condition it’s best if I avoid speaking because my words might not have a discernable connection to whatever came before.
“I’m a range shrinker,” I said.
And then I thought, I need to write that down! That’s the crux of the biscuit that will bring this whole article together!
Okay, that’s not how the conversation with Julia actually went. I don’t have the stones to say something like that to an outsider. But I can say it to you, because we speak poker: During my grinding years I played a million hands of live poker and I made a million dollars, by shrinking my opponents’ ranges in my mind, and by keeping my ranges as wide as possible for as long as possible in their minds.
I believe that poker players have always thought in terms of ranges, even though the word range didn’t find its way into the poker lexicon until 2007. That’s when poker-training websites became commonplace. And with that came a sudden expansion in the methods and language of poker analysis. Here are three examples of modern-lingo statements, followed by a pre-poker-boom translation:
“His range was polarized.” = “He had a big hand or nothing.”
“His range included drawing hands.” = “He could have been drawing.”
“I liked my range against his.” = “I thought I had him beat.”
Today we use ranges masterfully, to think about poker, and communicate poker ideas. But the ranges are not the poker. A range is the expression of a perception. It’s a new and improved wording applied to an old and proven process. Ranges are a mental model. A model that we made up. Because we love models. And we’re really good at using them. We get to see things that we couldn’t see otherwise, both from inside the model, and outside. When I step outside of the Ranges Model of poker and look back, I see eleventy billion shrinking ranges. Every time a hand is dealt, a range pops into existence, and they all start out the same. Then the collapsing begins. With every bet, check, fold, call, and raise, the ranges shrink.
Occasionally a range will expand during a hand, which usually means somebody got caught by surprise. But normally, the effect of new information is to shrink a range, and when a range shrinks, it feels good. It’s one of the many repetitive satisfactions of the game. The biggest rush for me is when someone shows their cards when they didn’t have to. It’s like I’m watching a fuzzy ball of uncertainty collapse down to a gemlike singularity.
Sixth street starts when the betting stops. Sixth street is the bloodiest battlefield in the range wars. This is when players let their guard down, as if suddenly it’s safe to reveal secrets to the enemy.
Any reaction to a hand − spoken or otherwise − constitutes sixth street action. If a hand ends without generating words or gestures or eye contact, then that hand didn’t have a sixth street, in the same way that some hands don’t have a river.
When a betting strategy is based on ranges, the success of the strategy depends on the accuracy of the range reading. Opponents can be armed with today’s most well-conceived, well-tested strategies, but without accurate data for their guidance systems, their missiles will miss their target. (That would be you.) And that’s why you shouldn’t do anything that might help your opponents narrow your ranges. It’s to make it harder for them to optimally construct their strategies.
And I’m talking about all opponents, not just the tough ones. Everyone has their own assortment of strategies. And bad players don’t always play bad. I’ve faced a parade of losers in my life, many who played brilliantly at times, and when they did it against me, it was because they were able to narrow my range narrower than I thought they could. In other words, somehow or other, they outplayed me. And I’d wonder…
Okay, before I tell you that, you need to know that my jabber jaws flapped away unfiltered at the table for two decades before I even attempted to silence myself.
So, back then, during my yattering years, when I got outplayed on a hand, I’d sometimes wonder…
Maybe they had info on me that had come from my blabbity mouth. Maybe I shouldn’t say things about what I’m doing and thinking to people who are trying to figure out what I’m doing and thinking.
Does it matter how good they play? Or how bad? Nope. A soldier in the range wars should be skill-blind, an equal-opportunity info nit, giving the same nothing to everyone.
What if your ranges didn’t shrink during sixth street? Not even a teensy bit? But theirs did. Sometimes a lot. What would an edge like that add up to over a lifetime?
Moe bets the river. Joe tanks, and then folds. Moe knows Joe wants to know what Moe had.
“Give me five bucks and I’ll show you.” Moe says.
With no hesitation Joe tosses a red chip to Moe. And now everyone is watching. Moe feels the pressure from all those eyeballs, and he instinctively knows that if they see this hand at this time, the information leak will cost him more than $5, maybe a lot more, so he reneges on the deal. He throws the $5 chip back to Joe, and mucks.
How many times have you seen or engaged in negotiations like that one? The existence of information bartering shows that range information has cash value, which means that any act of withholding information could potentially add to one’s bankroll. So why not withhold it all?
It’s possible to play a hand carelessly, and then play sixth street smart. But usually it’s the other way around. A well-played hand is followed by an information leak. For me, it was winning pots. It was like popping a cork. I’d be in a quiet shell for an hour, card dead. Then I’d win a couple pots, and suddenly I had much to say. Then one day I heard a name for this phenomenon. Someone called it “chatter chips.” Hearing that label made me take notice, of myself, and everybody else, over time, and sure enough, my research revealed that when a player becomes suddenly chatty, more often than not they just won a pot. So, be on the lookout for chatter chips, theirs and yours.
Everyone collects and processes information about their opponents, and at key points in key pots, that intel comes into play, even when it was collected subconsciously. And there’s no difference between good players and bad players on this. Everyone can retroactively shrink a range.
Bob sits down in a game he’s never played in before. Fifteen hands later, Bob has paid no attention whatsoever to Betty in seat five. That’s because Bob plays most hands, and Betty has played none. So she’d been off Bob’s radar so far.
Next hand, Bob opens with K-10, and Betty 3-bets. Without a thought Bob knows Betty’s 3-bet range. It’s the same as all the other players who barely play any hands. Bob also has some well-founded expectations about Betty’s postflop play, even though Betty’s raise was the first bet Bob had ever seen Betty make. For 15 hands, Bob’s mind has been narrowing Betty’s ranges, and drawing a rough sketch of her style, without Bob knowing it.
To maintain your ranges at maximum girth, keep your thoughts to yourself. And your feelings. Every emotion is a spy who, if set free, will carry information to the enemy that could cost you your stack. Your best strategy is to imprison your spies so that your enemies won’t know when you are frustrated, elated, annoyed, confident, etc.
Let’s examine five battles from the Bob and Betty range wars. The game is no-limit holdem, the blinds are $2/5, and the stacks are $1,000 (except for one $300 hand).
Bob opens under-the-gun with AK and Betty calls on the button with 6-7 of clubs. Everyone else is out.
The flop is K-5-4 with two clubs. Betty has an open-ended straight-flush draw. This is the type of flop that excites most people but not Betty. She’s in no hurry to bust Bob. Plus she only has 7-high. Bob bets the flop and Betty calls. Bob checks the turn and Betty checks behind. Bob bets 3/4 pot on the river and Betty folds her failed 15-outer painlessly.
Now let’s give Betty KJ. She has top pair. She calls Bob’s flop bet as before, she checks behind on the turn as before, and when Bob bets the river, Betty’s read is that Bob has her beat, and she folds without delay or consternation.
And no one has an inkling, on this hand and thousands like it, whether she flopped a draw and missed, or laid down a contender. That’s what I mean by keeping your ranges wide, because look what happens when we give Bob the 6-7 of clubs, and Betty has the ace-king…
The flop is K-5-4 with two clubs. Betty bets out with top-top, Bob raises with the straight-flush draw, and Betty calls.
On the turn, they both check.
On the river, Betty bets, and Bob makes his disappointment known before folding face down. It doesn’t matter if Bob’s griping is calamitous or discreet. The effect on Betty’s bankroll is the same. It gets bigger, because Bob’s range got smaller. Betty knows Bob did not lay down a pair. Would he have? Maybe not. She’s thinking ahead. And Betty learned that Bob likes to raise a draw on the flop, so now she has a line on Bob’s tendencies in some common situations. Bob loses a lot of money to Betty on sixth street.
Hole cards: AK of hearts vs 88
Flop: Kc-Qc-8h (Top pair vs a set of eights.)
Turn: 9 of hearts (The AK picked up a flush draw)
River: 2 of hearts (Nut flush beats three eights)
They go all-in on the flop, with Betty as the last aggressor. Right away she rolls her top-pair top-kicker. Bob doesn’t show his hand, but he does show some relief, which means 1) he doesn’t have the the nuts (pocket kings), and 2) he has Betty beat. At that moment, even with a draw-heavy board, Betty is able to shrink Bob’s range down to QQ, 88, KQ, K8 or Q8.
The river comes. It’s a spade. Betty hits the flush. Bob mucks face down and throws a tiny tantrum and by doing so he confirms Betty’s hypothesis: that Bob had flopped big. And now Betty can mentally replay the hand and learn something about how Bob plays and acts when he flops a set or two pair.
The flop is: K-Q-8. They get all-in on the flop as before, and this time Bob is the last aggressor. He is therefore rule-bound to show first.
The dealer deals the turn and river. Final board:
Kd-Qd-8s, 9s, 2s.
As soon as the river card hits the table, Bob shows his hand in tempo. He has the nut flush. Betty folds gracefully and becomes still. What is her range in Bob’s mind? Or anyone else’s.
Maybe she too had AK and got sucked out on for half the pot. Or maybe she flopped two pair, or a set, and she had Bob beat on the flop and turn. Or maybe she had a big draw with J-10 of clubs, or J-9 or 10-9 of clubs, or maybe even A8 of clubs. Or maybe she had something like pocket jacks and she thought Bob was out of line and gambling it up, or maybe…
Here’s what we know. We know she either missed a draw, or she got sucked out on. That’s it. And that’s all we can ever know about Betty. When you replay a Betty hand in your mind to get a retroactive read on how she plays drawing hands and made hands, the only info you have to work with is the betting itself, and the occasional showdown. It’s like playing against an online opponent, without a HUD.
Hole cards: Pocket pair vs pocket pair
On this hand, the effective stack size is $300 or less. Small enough that these two could get it in preflop with pair vs pair. It could be AA vs KK, or 99 vs 66. For the purpose of this example, what matters is:
- The lower pair makes the final preflop raise and must show first.
- The lower pair sucks out on the higher pair and wins the pot.
In this scenario, if Betty cracks Bob, Bob will use his words and actions to make sure the world knows about his bad luck. And if he has aces or kings, he’ll probably just turn them over. When he does that, it’s good for Betty twice. She can replay the hand to get a read on how Bob plays the biggest pairs before the flop, and she can smell tilt.
But when Bob beats Betty with the lower pocket pair after they go all-in preflop, Betty’s inscrutability precludes anyone from knowing if she is suffering over a suckout or if she was beat the whole way.
A bonus benefit of never showing cards is that occasionally a player will pay you off because they know you won’t show. This is especially true at fixed-limit poker, where the cost of calling the last bet is small, compared to the size of the pot. But it can happen at pot-limit and no-limit too, with well-timed dinky bets…
Betty opens and Bob is the only caller. Betty bets the flop and Bob calls with a flush draw. Betty bets the turn and Bob calls. On the river, Bob misses his flush, but he does make a pair of fours. Betty bets $40 into the $200 pot. Bob’s first instinct is to fold his small pair. He knows he is being sucked into calling. But he also knows there is zero chance that Betty will give him a courtesy show if he folds. She won’t even give a courtesy lie. And Bob is forever suspicious about Betty’s hand when nobody calls her, which happens a lot, so he calls the $40, just to see what she has.
Hole Cards: KQ in the big blind vs 98 on the button
The blinds are $2/5 and the stacks are $1,000.
Flop: A-J-7 (both players need a ten for a straight)
Turn: 10 (nut straight vs second-nut straight)
River: 2 (a blank)
Four players limp for $5, including Betty on the button with 98. The small blind folds and Bob checks in the big blind with KQ.
On the flop, all five players check.
On the turn, Bob bets out $15 with the nuts, three players fold, and Betty makes it $50 with the second-nuts. Bob just calls, not wanting to lose her. Betty’s spidey sense is tingling.
On the river, Bob bumbles a bit and bets $100. Betty snapcalls and Bob proudly displays his nuts. Betty gives a polite grin as usual and mucks nonchalantly.
And Bob thinks to himself, “It’s obvious what she had. The 10 on the turn must have given her two-pair, so she popped a raise in there on the turn, to protect her hand if it was good. That has to be what she had.”
Bob’s reasoning was based on his own behavior. Because he reacts to spikes of pain, he expects others to too. His subconscious thinking went like this: “Betty couldn’t have had 98 for the second-nut straight because nobody could remain utterly unflustered after a getting coolered like that. And furthermore, because I would have raised me in that spot, then Betty couldn’t have had 98, because she didn’t raise.”
Chalk this hand up as a crushing victory for Betty. A crushing victory in the range wars is defined as: Anytime your opponents are sure they are right about your range, yet they are wrong.
This time Betty has KQ in the big blind and Bob has 98 on the button.
Board: A-J-7 rainbow (They both need a ten for a straight.)
Preflop: Five players are in for $5 each.
Flop betting: Everyone checks.
On the turn, it’s checked to Bob on the button. He bets $20 with the second-nuts. Betty calls $20 with the nuts, extending some rope to the three players behind her, but they escape the noose and fold. It’s headsup now.
On the river, Betty checks, Bob bets $50, Betty makes it $150 and Bob almost shoves but then he…
And gives Betty an up and down.
Then he shrugs and says, “I call.”
Betty shows the nut straight and Bob takes it hard. He can’t stand to look like a chump who would pay off a nut-peddler like Betty with two pair or whatever. He must let the world know that he had every right to play this hand the way he did. So he collapses his range into a singularity.
To my mind, the defining feature of being a professional poker player is that financially, I depend on no one, and no one depends on me. I have no boss, and no employees. I provide no service and I offer no product. I must survive on wits alone, doing battle at a table, waging wars with the world. The range wars. My opponents do their best to shrink my ranges, but I’m as stingy as they come. While I glut on premium intel, my foes feed on scraps, and this imbalance creates for me a ubiquitous advantage.