Range building -- empirically

Much talk about poker strategy revolves around building a range. This is nearly always talked about in terms of planning to play a specific range of hands that you pick in advance, so that you have some structure to build a game plan around.

I wonder if anyone goes about it the other way, that is to say, to go back and look over a tournament that they played well, and note which starting cards they played, and then use that as the basis of a range for future play.

I just won the Golden Donks Sunday 9-Max MTT tonight, so I tought I’d have a look back at the hands I won with, and see if I could retro-actively identify my range. In this tournament, I folded a lot of starting cards that I might have opened with in other games. And it seems to have helped me in this tournament, although there were certainly plenty of playable hands that I folded, including a number of small pocket pairs.

I’m unable to go all the way back through every hand I played in the tournament to get them all, but I went back as far as my hand history went, and picked just the hands that I won with.

Now, I won’t share those with you, because that’d be giving away too much. But I will say that it’s interesting to compare the range of “playable hands” to my a priori thinking against the hands I actually played and won pots with. This may help me adjust my thinking and help me win more regularly in the future.

It’d be even more interesting to compare against hands that I lost, and hands that I folded, and to do even further analysis, I should look at what position I was seated in when I played these hands. This will take time, but I think it could be very interesting, so I think I’ll do it over the next day or two and see what I can see.

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If you do an extensive study of hands and how they did, you will find that the stronger hands preflop win more times than weaker hands. This should be pretty obvious and not need an extensive study.

If you are going to do it, I would suggest you also record pot size, maybe as a number of BBs to normalize the numbers. You might find that hands like 78s, for example, win less often but tend to win much bigger pots when they do win.

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The problem i have with putting too much emphasis on the result is all the hands i lose, but will play the same way in the future, and win most of the time. I’m beginning to see that there’s no eliminating luck from the game. All you can do is play with solid odds, and proven guidelines,. with the expectations of a good win rate, over time. Spoken like a true ring game player, eh?
Actually, the only time i play ‘cash’ games, nowdays, is i’m broke, and trying to raise an entrance stake.
My main reason for a personal range, is discipline. ( or lack of ). I suspect the real skill is putting your opponent on a range, and using the info to make the right decision


Of course you’re right about that, and I do expect that the results will tend to confirm expectations.

But what I’m interested to see is whether there are hands that I psychologically favor, but shouldn’t. For example, for months, I’ve been losing hand after hand with AJ, but I just can’t fold it preflop. It almost always comes for me on a board where the highest card is a 7 and some nimrod who called my 10BB open with two rags runs away with a straight or a full house. Or I’ll flop top pair and bet it to get beat by a weaker Ace that made two pair. And once in a great while I’ll get killed the expected way by AQ or AK. But when does AJ ever pay off for me? I’ve won with it a few times, sure, but way less than “strong hands win more times than weaker hands” would suggest. Perhaps I can finally convince myself that it’s not worth playing this way.

Then there may be other hands that I think are in my range, but that I fold more often than not. I don’t know whether there are, but for “questionable” hands, it may help me think more clearly about whether to play or not. My first key hand last night was Q8 in the SB. The betting preflop stayed small, so I decided to come in with it, and ended up with a full house, and got my first double-up.

Obviously I can’t expect that result every time I play Q8, so I don’t truly believe that it’s a great hand to play in most spots, but “blind specials” are one of those things I’ll be looking at as well. I find one of the fun parts of NLHE is when they limp to you in the blinds and you hit something with your junk cards that you ordinarily would have folded.

This is a good suggestion. I am planning on doing something like this.

I’m sure that in order to be truly representative, I’ll likely need a few thousand hands to do meaningful analysis, but I’d like to see first if doing this with a few dozen gives me any “probable” insights that seem like doing this at all is worthwhile.

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This is going to be a problem. Not only would you need a few thousand hands in order to generate meaningful insight, you’d probably need a few thousand hands with each hand in the range in order to generate meaningful insights. Layer in your position with each of those hands, number of competitors, the action before you (did it fold to you? were there four limpers? are you facing a 3-bet before you even act?), and your own action in that spot (call/raise), and suddenly this becomes overwhelming to filter through.

Consider that you’ll be dealt any given pocket pair on average once every 221 hands. If you’ve played 5000 hands, won an average of 6BB with AA the 32 times you were dealt it, but won an average of 9.5BB with KK the 12 times you were dealt that, does that mean KK is more valuable than AA? What if one of those times you had KK you got it in preflop with 150BB and ended up winning - should you back out that outlier, resulting in KK being, on average, a losing hand?

Empirically building a range can make a lot of sense. However, you need so much data to effectively do so, either you need to play millions of hands to build a strong enough database, or have the ability to mine others’ results. Otherwise your small sample size will lead down highly sub-optimal paths.


I suppose you are right. Perhaps my aim is less to statistically validate a “viable” range from all possible hands, but rather to check what hands I’m actually playing, to see whether I’m actually sticking to what I tell myself my range is.

I think the larger sort of survey that you’re suggesting would be a great study, but it’s beyond my current ambition. I’m more looking to see if I am playing with discipline, or if I am ad libbing. And if I am, whether that’s getting me into trouble or not.

I don’t play a single range for all situations, but I adjust my range based on a number of factors, which I won’t get into here for sake of brevity. With all the mental adjustments going on, I’m left wondering if I can really say that I even have a “range” or not. So I thought if I looked back at hands I’ve actually played, it might yield some insights.

Does that make more sense?

OK, who are you, and what did you do with the real Pug?


That’s… a bit different than what I thought you were discussing originally.

What I’d recommend doing, in that case, is building a way for you to filter the hands you’ve had in a given scenario. When you are on the button facing three limps, what hands are you limping/folding/opening, and with what frequency? What about when you’re UTG 6-handed? I think that would answer the question you asked - whether you’re truly sticking to a range, and whether that range is appropriate for the situation.

Putting your opponent on a range is the range that I’m familiar with and try to do. As I have only played ring games so far I find this very difficult to do, especially when you have numerous hands you’re playing against.

Well, just about everyone, whether they think about consciously or not, has a range of hands they’ll play and ones they’ll fold. Planning out a strategy, it’s a good idea to decide on a range of hands you’ll open with. How you build that range is a good question. My thought in this thread is that I should check my actual hands played to see whether I’m really sticking with the plan, or if I am playing tighter or looser than I realize, and see if that helps me to play better. It’s one thing to say what you’re playing, another to actually play it.

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I don’t see why you would want to have a perfectly defined range in the first place. If you are adjusting to suit the situation, you would end up with too many ranges to remember anyway, so what’s the point?

For example, if it folds around to me in the SB and the BB folds too much, I’ll open any 2 cards. Since I know this will be profitable, should I stop doing it because the hand I hold isn’t in my predefined “allowed” range?

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I’ve never felt as though I was playing a “perfectly defined” range, either. I’m not looking to define a rigid range that I never deviate from. But I AM interested in seeing how closely my actual play matches up with my plan.

To the extent that you could say that I have a range, or that my play implies a range, mine does adjust based on the numerous factors that I have been omitting for sake of brevity. The point of this thread isn’t to establish a good set of parameters that can be used to adjust a range, although that’s also a good topic. The point of this thread is to see if I am actually playing hands that I consider “playable”.

Obviously, plans sometimes need to change, and it’s fine to deviate from a plan, but I think ideally one would want to do so consciously, and for a good reason.

My investigation is to see whether or not I am disciplined, and how much I am drifting from plan, and whether that might be getting me into trouble.

For example, there were at least three or four key hands in my Sunday Golden Donks victory that were outside my usual range:

  1. Limping Q8 from the SB seat, about 40-45 minutes into the tournament. It hit two pair, improved to a full house, and my first double up. But arguably Q8 is a bad hand to play from early positions. I did play it, on a hunch, with only one limper + the BB, on the grounds that I was halfway limped in and the blinds were still relatively cheap. I hit a windfall.

  2. QJs on the button, at the final table. Blinds were sky high at 1k/2k, and I raised about half the stack of the SB, hoping that I could steal, and they jammed on me. I called, not really liking it, because while QJs is decent to raise with, it’s not a great hand to call an all-in. I hoped my villain was just trying to bluff me off to defend his blinds. But he flipped up KK, and I ended up sucking out a straight.

  3. Another hand at the final table, I was starting to dwindle and felt like I needed a steal to stay viable, so I shoved K5s, and unfortunately got called by QQ. But then the flop bailed me out, giving me 2 pair, KK55, and I doubled up instead of stealing the blinds. Maybe with the blinds this big you do need to play wider, since stacks are effectively short. I dunno. But I felt like I was lucky here.

  4. Final hand, I called a shove from ATo with A6s, and hit a backdoor flush to win the game. Ordinarily I would not want A6 in my usual playing range, but heads up, with blinds at 2k/4k, and having a 2-3:1 stack advantage, I was willing to gamble. I was dominated, he paired his Ten on the flop, but again I sucked out with runner-runner hearts. This was luck, not skill. I’ll take it, but maybe next time I should think twice.

  5. A few hands prior to the final, heads up, I got 99, flop came in low, i have a hidden overpair. My opponent shoves, having a straight draw, i call, he hits it, and takes the big stack from me, leaving me with just around 30k left.

  6. A hand or two later, in desperation I put in half my stack on Q9s, and flop two pair with it, shove, villain calls with top pair Ace, and I double back up and retake the lead. I only wanted to steal blinds with that raise, but again I got a huge windfall due to the luck of the deal. If I’d made a standard open to 2-3BB, that would have been about 12-15k - - I went to about 25k, and left myself no room for error. I was committing my game to that hand, and while it paid off, it might have been safer to go with the standard open. But then, if I shove a 1.5x pot overbet on the flop, would he still call with top pair, only defending around 10k chips? Maybe… Maybe not. If he folds, I win a smaller pot and he still dominates me with his chips and has more chances to put me all in with a better hand.

I don’t know that any of these plays were particularly bad, but all had favorable outcomes for me. I just as well could have ruined my game with any of them. I could have backed off of the early Q8 hand if I had missed the flop, without much consequence. But the final table hands were all plays I didn’t absolutely need to make, and if I had had bad outcomes from them, it would have been clear they were bad times and bad hands to try and steal with. Did I win despite myself? Was I due? Does range theory help in these situations, or was calling an audible necessary in these places?

I suspect that for much of the game, sticking to my preferred range was the best for me. And at that final table, I definitely folded “playable” hands much more than these ones above: K9o, K7s, middle Aces, low suited Aces, low pocket pairs. Hands that I will sometimes play with as part of my range in other situations.

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All that said, though, I do think that for beginners, playing a specific range of hands and sticking with it, no exceptions, will tend to serve them better until they gain more experience.

In tournaments table position, prize money issues and stage of tournament, and relative stack sizes are everything in determining which hands to raise. For example, if the BB is a very large stack who is a loose caller, I would tighten up a lot on opening hands from all positions.

On the other hand, if I am a big stack, the BB is a medium small stack, and it is close to the bubble, I would attack him with anything from late position on the assumption that he will only call and risk his tournament with a premium hand. Some of these players may call with a small pair and then fold to a continuation. If they like the flop, they will generally shove the flop and not try to slow play it.

If you have something like a flush draw and BB shoves, then you will have to do some quick mental arithmetic to determine whether it is best to call or shove depending on the odds and the stack sizes.

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Yes, although one should also consider their hole cards!

I have such a knack for shoving when someone has QQ+ though. It happened TWICE at that final table, but I was super lucky and survived it each time. It happens quite often for me. Of course pairs more likely to call a shove, so it’s not like I shouldn’t expect it, still it’s as though I’m summoning them with a chip sacrifice to the poker gods.

On the final table of the Golden Donks, with 7-8 players remaining, I recall there were about 4-5 players who were short stacked with about 10-12BB, and I was relatively healthy with about double that. And I was folding a lot of hands when not in the blinds, because I didn’t want to have to decide between calling or folding when someone jammed for half my stack. So for a time I tightened up and folded KJo-, AJo-, and 77-. I specifically remember folding 33 and 55, and I think JTs, and K9 several times,because they weren’t worthy of calling a jam, even if I might have stolen with them. If you steal too much, sooner or later they catch you. So I let the desperate stacks make mistakes and beat each other, and waited patiently for my better hands to come, and even then I still had to get lucky a few times.

Apart from the hands above that I talked about, there were a number of hands where I was in the BB with unplayable junk and either no one called, sparing me, or I had a good enough flop that I was able to bet and win those pots. Of course I also had to fold quite a few blinds as well. And when I felt like I needed to pick up a pot to stay healthy and had a good hand, I was able to, darn near every time. I stole a few, but did so with premiums like AK aQs and QQ, and large bets that no one dared call, plus the aforementioned lucky hands where I beat QQ and KK.

If you don’t have a starting point how will you ever know which adjustments to make? Having defined pre flop rages is no different than Bill Belichick having a pre game strategy from which he makes in game adjustments to counter his opponents strategies.


That’s basically how I approach it. My range isn’t perfectly defined, but I know that I’m probably raising KK, and folding 52o. It’s good to have some idea what you’re doing with your hands in different situations. But there might be a situation where I’d be able to play A6s, even calling a preflop shove with it, although it’s not really a hand I’m crazy about.

Well, OK. There are hands I won’t play and hands I will play, which means I actually do have ranges. I just don’t that fine a point on it. Should 56s be in my range from hijack sitting on an average stack in mid tournament with 3 limpers, one of them short stacked and fairly tight, one of them a calling station with just unbder average stack, and the other an aggro maniac with a big stack, where the SB folds too much and the BB defends too much?

My point was that there are so very many unique situations that I’m not going to even try to develop a specific range for each one. A lot of what I do is based on years of experience, not on charts churned out by some fancy machine.

When I hear someone like Doug Polk saying that he doesn’t mind a raise now and then for balance, what is he saying? He’s not saying anything really. Define “now and then.” Let’s say we boil that down to 15%. What does that mean? It means nothing. The only thing that maters is WHICH 15%.

In each hand, you will either do something 100% of the time or not do it 100% of the time. Against someone who will almost always fold, I do it every time, against someone who never folds, i never do it. Would these eventually work out to 15% total? I don’t care, and nobody should care. Should i not make a profitable play because doing so would put me over the “optimal” percentage for that action?


To some extent. I will certainly raise to 3BB with no cards sometimes if I am due for a raise and the blinds are playing tight, being prepared to fold to a shove if necessary-but often the shove does not come and in fact when you do this twice, they catch on, so that when you make the same raise the third time when you have AA, then they lash out and you have them where you want them.

Similarly, if you are in the BB and you have opponents who are promiscuous limpers, sometimes it is a good idea to raise them to 3BB with complete garbage. They will probably fold, or if they call sometimes you will see a paired flop and be able to shove, or you will occasionally flop an improbably straight and win a lot of chips. Or you will lose the hand. But when you win with that straight, it will immeasurably enhance your table image as a complete maniac, so that when the flop comes 22K, opponents cannot be sure that you don’t have a full house when you check raise them.

If you can win a few large pots with complete garbage, it makes it so much easier to win tournaments when your premium hands come along.


Why? Why can’t you build randomness into your approach, and do a certain action 50% of the time, or 75% of the time, or with some other frequency? There are times when it’s actually much, much better to use this approach. Building some low-frequency plays into your range can broaden your range and make you much trickier to play against. Libratus, the poker AI that beat a human team in 2017, showed up with some crazy bluffs in its match. It was able to do so because it chose those plays with extremely low frequency - neither 0% of the time nor 100% of the time.

Yes, most of us are not machines and wouldn’t be able to accurately tell how often we should make these low-frequency plays. Adding these to your range, if you’re not careful, can quickly make you too bluff-heavy. However, we need to recognize that appropriate balance can include low-frequency plays, and that playing poker with an all-or-nothing mentality can be suboptimal.