I’m a Range Shrinker
The Range of Ranges
Why to Be Info Stingy on Sixth Street
The Cash Value of Information
Battle Scene Reenactments
Hand 1: Approximating Tendencies
Hand 2: Inscrutableness
Take 1: Betty has AK of hearts and Bob has 88.
Take 2: Bob has AK of hearts and Betty has 88.
Hand 3: Range Cloaking
Hand 4: Just to See
Hand 5: When a Cooler Makes You Look Like a Chump
Take 1: Bob has KQ and Betty has 98.
Take 2: Betty has KQ and Bob has 98.
Glut and Scraps
“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)
Take 1: Betty has AK of hearts and Bob has 88.
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.
Take 2: Bob has AK of hearts and Betty has 88.
The flop is: K-Q-8. They get all-in on the flop as before, and this…