Welcome to the next installment of PokerStars Blog’s regular series: The Daily Strategy. During season nine of the European Poker Tour, we’ll be talking to Team PokerStars Pro for their advice on a specific element of major tournament strategy, aimed at introducing new players to key elements of high stakes tournament poker.
Today Eugene Katchalov, fresh from a 118km journey from Cannes on his bike yesterday, talks about the importance of hand ranges, how important they are to eventual success in poker and how to go about figuring it out for yourself.
The concept of hand ranges
Since we don’t know our opponents cards hand ranges are something that we use to give us a better idea. We try to narrow the hand ranges down. Poker is like a puzzle. With every action, hopefully, you’re giving another answer to the puzzle. With every action we try to put the pieces together and work out what you could possibly have in your holding. At some point we can maybe discount some possibilities. So let’s say only some possibilities exist for what you have, that’s called the hand range.
At the beginning of the hand your hand range is every possible hand. You haven’t done anything so I don’t know, you could hold anything. Let’s say you raised. Now I know there are some hands you’re not going to raise with. You’re not going to raise the very bad hands like 9-3 or 7-2. So maybe I can narrow your range to something decent at that point.
Then as you go on in the hand – the way you played the flop and using some other things – you try to narrow the hand range and get it down to as small a range as possible. Then you can figure out your opponent’s hand and what you can do against it.
Don’t try to be too specific
You’re looking to exclude hands because it’s very difficult to find the specific hand. Yes, sometimes you will be able to guess your opponent’s exact hand. That happens very rarely so most of the time you find yourself battling against your opponents range. Since you know your own hand you try to figure out how my hand will do against my hand and go from there.
Easy to explain, impossible to master
They say poker is an easy game to learn but it takes a lifetime to master. It’s so true. You find yourself always improving. A lot of people say this and I’m one of those, but I really believe it. When you stop improving I don’t think you can be a winner anymore. You always have to improve and find new ways to exploit your opponents. Hand ranges is one of the most important things.
What steps to take
Often if I’m playing in a big main event I’m playing with people I’ve never played with before. If I’ve played with them before I may have a little knowledge about their game, but if it’s a totally new player my job is to sit there and observe him or her and try to figure out what type of player they are, at least to start with the basics. How aggressive or tight? How often are they in a hand? How do they play their hands post flop. That will at least give me some information to help me play against them. That’s how I start. Then I observe and try to remember some hands I’ve seen before and see what information it gives me.
Try not to forget
A good memory is important, especially in live tournaments. You have time to remember this and you should try to. It gives you information and a way into your opponents’ mind and an idea of what they might be thinking. If you have an idea of how they approach the game it may help you to define their hand range a little bit better when you’re in a hand with them yourself.
There’s always something to look out for
If there’s a hand that goes down to showdown and you see how your opponent played, try to remember how they played it pre flop, on the flop, on the turn and on the river. Try to get an idea of why he bet or checked here. Why did they always check there? Did he slow play the hand? Did he fast play the hand? Try to get an idea. Maybe he thinks about poker this way, or that way. Try to characterise your opponent.
It takes time
This was by no means easy for me. It took a long time. I remember when I first started I didn’t understand all this much at all. I started off as really tight. Then I saw some players like Gus Hansen back in the day. He was super aggressive. I tried this style and that didn’t work for me either. So maybe it’s something in the middle. I would always try to go back and forth and nothing worked. But you kind of have to develop your own style. There’s no right or wrong style necessarily but you have to develop your own. Find what works for you, and go from there.
Try not to give away information
It’s something I’ve paid attention to a lot. I’m always afraid I’m giving something away. I’m always trying to think about my hand, the way I’m playing it. I’m trying to think if I had another hand would I play it in the same way. If I think to myself ‘well, I’d play another hand just the same way,’ then I know I can’t be being so obvious. My opponent shouldn’t know exactly what I have.
The first steps
There’s nothing like experience. I would say play a lot and the more you play, the more you will experience certain situations. The more you do one thing or another you start to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t in certain situations. I think experience is the best way to start. Then you start changing it from there, tweaking from there. I couldn’t take someone who hadn’t played poker before and tell them everything I know. It’s not like they would be just like me. You still need experience.
Keep an eye on the live tournament reporting from EPT Sanremo for all the news from the tournament floor.