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StrategyWeekly No Limit

Crushing NL50 (4) - Opponent Specific Play


Crushing NL50 (4)
Opponent Specific Play

by Hasenbraten

You have already learned a lot in this article series. You have improved your full ring preflop game by moving away from the starting hands chart. You have studied the general theoretical basics of postflop play and made your way to the short handed game.

In the last article you received your first starting point to help you switch to short handed play: the open raising chart. Based on this solid foundation, the focus of the last parts of this series will be on exploiting your opponent's weaknesses.

This will add the finishing touch to your game. Used properly, it will help you to not only beat your limit but make you an unpleasant opponent even against good players.

One thing needs to be clear: we are looking at advanced concepts. Therefore, it is impossible to play according to simple guidelines that you can find in a basic poker book. You should consider this article a training manual designed to help you improve your game.


This word hasn't popped up so far, yet it defines many lines on an advanced level. What does exploiting mean in a poker context?

Exploiting describes the methodical exploitation of weaknesses in your opponent's game. Based on certain patterns in his behaviour, you look for exploitable situations. You are searching for a particular action or series of actions in your opponent's game which allows you to extract profit based on your opponent's mistakes.

A perfect player isn't exploitable. In every situation he could either hold hands from every category or at least be aware of the possibility (so he could make a hero call). In practice, no player is perfect. Therefore, every opponent is exploitable. You just have to search long enough.

The better your opponent is, the fewer exploitable mistakes will you find. They will also become more difficult to spot. That is the theoretical basis of exploiting opponents. If you don't understand this concept or interpret it the wrong way it will be utterly useless. Hence we will now look at some examples to help you understand. Which lines are exploitable?

Firstly you need precise information to put your opponent on a particular range. Secondly, this has to result in a particular action on your part which is very profitable against your opponent's range. Lets look at the following example:

Example 1

100BB Stacks

Preflop: 6 folds, CO raises 4BB, BU calls 4BB, 2 folds

Flop: 3, 9, T Pot 9.5BB
CO bets 6BB

An obvious continuation bet. Most players will make this bet. The question is, whether it's exploitable or not. The answer is: it depends. Very often it is exploitable. A small calculation to illustrate the point: assume CO is more or less tight-aggressive and doesn't know the Button. His preflop range is likely to be something like this:


This is roughly 25% of all hands and 334 hand combinations. Against a raise from BU, CO is likely to play top pair+ and strong straight draws (T9 – AT, JJ+, 33, 99, TT, QJ). That leaves us with 4*6 (pairs) + 4*12 (top pairs) + 6 (2 pairs) + 9 (sets) +16 (draws), which equals 103 possible combinations.

Now we need to determine the continuation betting range of the CO. For the given range that CO will stay in the hand with, this is the factor to determine whether or not you can exploit the continuation bet.

Assume BU raises 18BB. He is investing 18BB to win 15.5BB. According to the EV formula, he needs a fold roughly 54% of the time to make the bluff profitable. CO will continue to play with 103/334 = 30% of his preflop range.

If he bets more than 68% of his range, CO can make a 100% profitable raise regardless of what hand he has. It should be noted that the range that CO will continue to play against a raise is quite loose. Frequently this range will be tighter.

The range that CO raises preflop is quite tight and will frequently be looser. If CO were to open raise 30% and on the flop not to play all combinations of QJ and only continue with TPTK+, the result would be the following:

CO plays about 400 combinations preflop. Against a raise he might play 12x AT, 6x T9, 8x QJ, 9x sets, 4x6 overpairs = 59 combinations which equals 59/400 = 15% of his range. This would result in a continuation betting frequency of only 33%. In the first example, his range isn't as strong. Some opponents might bet 100% and become exploitable. However, in the second example it's much more obvious.

The situation isn't perfect but a frequency of 75%+ is no exception despite anything over 33% being immediately exploitable. What are the consequences for us? Let's take a look at the following:

Before you change your continuation betting behaviour, ask yourself whether your opponent will think this far ahead.

In almost all cases the answer is no and you don't have to change your game. If the answer is yes, you have a problem. You can react in a number of different ways. On the one hand you can bet less frequently and simply play check/fold or check/call.

On the other hand you should bet/fold less frequently and bet/call or bet/3-bet instead. This means folding fewer pairs and re-raising draws more frequently. This will increase variance, but from a theoretical point of view it is the only way of not making a mistake unless you want to give up every pot.

If you are the BU you will ask yourself whether your opponent understands what is going on. If the answer is 'yes', you shouldn't go over the top. If the answer is 'no', you can bluff a lot as long as your opponent doesn't adjust. This methodology can also be reversed. Against very aggressive opponents there are situations where CO can profitably push any two over a raise from the BU because he bluffs too much.

This example was quite simple although the approach may not have been obvious to everyone. It is how exploiting usually works. In certain situations a particular line is profitable against a certain pattern. You need to recognise and exploit them while avoiding them in your own game.

Another example that should be mentioned is the check/raise on the flop. Particularly with regards to polarised ranges these are interesting. Polarised ranges will be covered later on. Some players never bluff check/raise and some do it far too frequently. If either one is the case you can easily counter play. Donk bets and the reaction to them can also open up possibilities for exploits.

Raising donk bets on the flop should be a common line for most players. You know that donk bets are weak a lot of the time so you just raise them with air. Players on the flop can often be exploited with these raises.

Especially on dry boards, where these bluff raises are common, a very contradictory argument arises. You want to bluff so you do it with a raise. At the same time you don't want to scare your opponent out of the hand when you have a strong hand such as top pair+ or play way ahead - way behind and just call.

What does that tell you about the range that this player will raise the flop with? Correct, if often is a bluff. This frequently leads to spots for a bet/3-bet with hands that look too weak at a first glance. However, you very rarely get called and if you are successful you can take home a lot of dead money.

Similar ideals apply to multi barrels or turn raises. It is up to you to think about these ideas.

How can you exploit yourself?

When exploiting your opponent, a good start is to ask yourself what lines you play that could be exploited by others.

Many of the better players on your limit will play similar to the way you do and have a similar level of understanding of the game. By asking yourself how you would play optimally against yourself, you achieve two things:

  • You will learn to understand where good opponents can exploit you and avoid these situations or at least be more aware of them.
  • You will be able to actively use this information against many opponents on your limit to your advantage.

Polarisation of ranges, balancing

The term "polarised range": the term often describes a range which is either composed of bluffs or very strong hands. Polarisation alludes to an electronic dipole where two extremes exist opposite to each other. With this understanding, many lines can be refined and understood.

In this article the term "polarised range" will be used more loosely. This will be illustrated the following way: imagine your opponent's range to consist of possible hands, divided into different categories. If all categories, such as bluff, monster, semibluff, marginal hands etc., are evenly represented within the range, it can be called a completely depolarised (with no focal point) or balanced range.

Once you start removing single hand categories from the range, depending on their probability, the range becomes unbalanced and starts to be polarised. An extreme case is the "original" form of a polarised range which contains an obvious imbalance. In this framework the most extreme case is a range which is polarised with regard to a single hand category, therefore representing the biggest possible imbalance. This can be summed up concisely and quickly.

  • A polarised range is a range with certain missing parts.
  • Balancing describes the balance between different parts of a range.

If a range is balanced, it's not polarised. Again, these are very theoretical terms. To improve your understanding, let's look at examples that include polarised ranges. The most frequently brought up point is the origin of the term. A range is split into a very strong part (value) and a very weak part (bluff). There are no draws or hands of medium strength in the range.

Example 2

100BB Stacks
SB (bad TAG)

Preflop: MP Raises 4BB, SB calls 3.5BB

Flop: 2, 7, Q Pot 9.5BB
SB checks, MP bets 6BB, SB raises 18BB

Brief hand reading: preflop TAG will almost always hold pocket pairs. Occasionally he will hold AQ, KQ, QJ or 78, 67, all of which have connected with the flop. A bad tag is unlikely to think of check raising ~AQ which polarises his range the following way:

He either holds a set and wants to go all in or he doesn't have a set or strong top pair and doesn't want to go all in.

If MP wants to exploit the situation, he needs to evaluate SB's bluffing frequency. If it is practically zero he can make a good fold. Mucking AA right away will be hard but especially hands like Qx should quickly make their way to the middle of the table.

If the bluffing frequency is very high, you can consider a rebluff with TP+, aside from downcalls. This should particularly be considered if SB's bluffing range beats MP's hand (he holds <= A high).

This could take the form of a 3-bet on the flop (which also polarises but will the SB react to it?) or "bluff calls" of the check raise with the intention of buying the pot later on. Exact knowledge of SB's bluffing strategy is required in this case (does he bet the turn or does he give up?).

Another form of polarisation is the absence of draws in a hand range after particular actions of your opponent. This requires intimate knowledge of your opponent. However, there are players who will never check raise their draws. This means that you don't have to protect against them even when draws are possible which allows you to play, for example, way ahead - way behind. The possible complete absence of monsters in a players range leaves him open to bluffs.

Example 3

100BB Stacks

Preflop: UTG raises 4BB, BB calls 3BB

Flop: 8, T, 5 Pot 8.5BB
BB checks, UTG bets 6BB, BB calls 6BB

What do you expect from BB, what don't you expect? Sets or two pairs. Those would almost always be played out of position, which leaves (much) weaker hands. From time to time you will see different flush draws or straight draws or medium hands. Monsters are missing.

Turn: 2 Pot 20.5BB
BB checks, UTG bets 15BB, BB calls 15BB

The turn misses the draws. BB will almost always have top pair or a draw or a combination of both.

River: K
BB checks Pot 50.5BB

Regardless of UTG's hand, the question is whether BB could ever call a river bet.

Only if he pulls out a hero call. Besides a possible KT, he will hold hands like T9-AT in the best cases. This will be beaten by nothing that UTG value bets. He has to see UTG bluff frequently to be able to a call. Not all players will think this far ahead. In this situation, UTG can make a bet that is 100% profitable because of the lack of monsters in BB's range.

If he holds KK the bet if obviously more profitable than it would be with AJs. Often it will be +EV with both hands. Another possible form of polarisation would be "monsters only". This would be possible after a lot of preflop action by a very tight opponent with big stacks. Especially if you have good reasons to rule out AK, you can play your hand perfectly. You can either find a tight fold or see the flop for suckout value.

Balancing is crucial for your game. This doesn't mean that you have to bend over backwards in every situation to make sure that your range isn't polarised. Two factors however, are very important: Does your opponent understand that your range is polarised and will he exploit it?

If the answer is 'no', you don't have to pay any attention to it. If the answer is 'yes', it still doesn't mean that polarised ranges are not permitted. It only means that you have to be aware of them and, if in doubt, you have to react to them, for example, with hero calls.

» Summary

Taking polarised ranges into account is a good introduction to concepts of exploitation as well as more complex lines as a whole.

On the one hand, you improve your hand reading skills. On the other hand, you improve your edge against other good players. These concepts are particularly important not only to collect money from fish, but also to win money from opponents who themselves try to win by using a strategic approach.

Basically, these concepts build on the concepts of "planning your hand" along with "hand reading". It was explained that you should put your opponent on a range, assess how he will react with individual parts of his range and pick your actions in such a way that they will lead to the best overall result.

This simple requirement, which itself is only one formulation of the EV maximisation principle, leads to ever more complex and advanced concepts. You just have to put some time and effort in studying them.

In the next article you will learn about semibluffs and deception in a more practical way. Also you will learn more about playing against particular types of opponents. The focus will be on the exploitable lines of these opponents.