The Pros: Andrew Brokos, James Sweeney, and Andrew Neeme
Craig Tapscott: How do you best determine an opponent’s hand range preflop in terms of your decision to fold, flat call, three-bet, etc.? Do you think the concept of polarization comes into play? Many players are confused by this concept in general.
Andrew Brokos: I actually think polarization is not a terribly useful concept on early streets, especially before the flop. Very few hands fall into the “very strong” or “very weak” categories. Pocket aces are an 8:1 favorite against a very bad hand like Q-2 offsuit, but that kind of edge drops off quickly. And A-K offsuit is only about a 2:1 favorite, while J-J is a 3:1 favorite.
When you raise with these hands, a significant amount of the value of that raise comes from causing your opponents to fold weaker hands. That doesn’t mean you are not raising for value, it just means that equities before the flop are mostly not polarized. This is why it is so rarely correct to slowplay strong hands before the flop, because except for exactly A-A, most strong preflop hands still benefit a lot from fold equity.
Likewise, even if you think an opponent is “bluffing” when she raises preflop, she probably isn’t all that far behind a good hand. Whereas a river bluff usually has no chance of winning if called, a preflop “bluff” may well have 33 percent equity.
James Sweeney: It is important to note that almost all preflop two-bets (open raises, isolation raises, and steals) are going to be fairly depolarized. This means the preferred two-bet hands start in the top-left-hand corner of the hand matrix and then expand into the next-strongest holdings as the ranges widen. There are some exceptions to this, like open raising A-5 suited from under-the-gun (UTG), but largely, two-bet ranges are going to be depolarized.
The polarization primarily comes into play with three-betting, four-betting, five-betting, etc. ranges. Take a spot where middle-position open raises and the cutoff (CO) three-bets. If the CO were a nit that only three-bets Q-Q+/A-K, their three-betting range is strictly depolarized. All of their three-betting combos are mashed into the upper-left-hand corner of the hand matrix. But if the CO were three-betting 9-9+/A-J+/A-9 suited+/K-10 suited+/K-Q and also A-3 suited to A-5 suited/8-6 suited to 10-8 suited, their three-betting range would be correctly classified as polarized. There are nuttish hands and non-nuttish hands accounted for within the range.
Nitty players, by the very nature that they have few, if any bluff combos in their re-raising ranges, tend to be depolarized. The same is true for passive players who simply refuse to bluff. Aggressive players see the value in taking weak-medium holdings and adding them to their reraising ranges to ensure their reraising ranges aren’t exclusively strong hands. Players who only reraise strong hands are super easy to read and easy to beat. Just don’t pay them off when they show interest in creating a big pot and make math-based decisions if they make sizing errors or offer massive implied odds along the way.
When I identify that a player is polarizing their range, the first question I ask myself is, “What is the strong part of their range here, and what density of their overall range is likely weak?”
By doing this, I’m essentially breaking their range into a pie chart that contains two pieces. One side is their strong hands that will almost certainly continue if I reraise. The other side contains their weaker hands. If the weak side of the pie makes up a large chunk of their overall range, and those hands are also likely going to fold often against a reraise, I’m looking to add tons of extra bluff combos to my own range.
So, if a player three-bets me and I suspect they are doing so with J-J+/A-Q+/A-2 suited to A-5 suited/6-4 suited to 9-7 suited and without factoring in my specific hole cards, this means that 64 percent of their range is J-J+/A-Q+ and the other 36 percent is the weak-medium stuff.
Now my question is, “What would they continue against my four-bet with?” It is key to remember that not all players will continue with the weakest of their strong hands. If that’s the case here and I believe villain will fold J-J and A-Q against my four-bet, plus fold all of the weaker holdings, they are now folding 61 percent of the time.
The more often they are going to fold against my reraise, the more bluffs I should add. So, hands that may have otherwise been marginal calls against villain’s three-bet (such as 7-7 and K-Q offsuit) could be more profitable as reraises to capitalize on the available fold equity. On the other hand, if that same villain would continue with almost all of their strong hands and even five-bet some of their better weak hands (like A-5 suited and A-4 suited), a bluff four-bet is less viable. Their increased continuance, especially with chunks of their weak-medium combos, eliminates any auto-profitable four-bets.
Just note that a spot where bluffing isn’t profitable typically means there is an opportunity for getting thinner value. So, if they will rarely fold against your four-bet, heavily consider four-betting with hands you would have otherwise put at the top of your call versus three-bet range.
Andrew Neeme: I don’t think polarization comes into play. Here are the factors that I consider when facing a raise.
What position did they open from? If they are UTG or UTG+1, I rarely three-bet them, and will even flat my entire range from the big blind (BB) without any callers in between. If they opened from middle or late position, then I will three-bet more liberally, because their range is weaker.
What is my hand? I will three-bet strong hands like A-A, K-K, Q-Q, J-J, and A-K for value; hands with blockers to strong hands like A-5 suited, K-J suited as bluffs; mix in the occasional suited connector like 8-7 suited for board coverage; and flat middle and small pocket pairs, or suited connectors.
Who are they and what are their tendencies? Are they opening too many/few hands? Who is behind me, yet to act? If I have good players behind me, I’ll three-bet more frequently so as to push them out of the pot and disincentive them to squeeze. If I have weak players behind me, I’ll flat to entice them into the pot more often.
Craig Tapscott: How does polarization comes into play in terms of post-flop situations?
Andrew Brokos: Polarization is about how an opponent’s equity is distributed across his or her range. On the river, most bets are polarized. You either have the best hand or you don’t. Your bluffs have no chance of winning if called, nor will your strong hands get drawn out on.
On earlier streets, ranges may or may not be polarized, and that determines how inclined you should be to call versus raise with your own good hands. A good rule of thumb is that the bigger a bet is, the more likely it is to be polarized.
Suppose you make a continuation bet of $10 into a $30 pot on a 9 3 3 flop. The big blind check raises to $25. Both your bet and your opponent’s raise are small and probably not polarized. You should bet many good-but-vulnerable hands like A-J and 4-4 here. These hands will have decent equity when called but also benefit from folds. The big blind needs a slightly better hand to raise, but she can check-raise hands like 10 9 or Q 5. Both have decent equity when called, but gain a lot from folds.
If she instead check-raises to $100, she should have a much more polarized range consisting of mostly very strong hands (trips or better) and low-equity hands like 5 4 rather than higher equity semi-bluffs. Hands like 10 9 or Q 5 would be largely wasted with this bet size. If you fold, it won’t matter that she had a good hand. And if you don’t fold, you’ll mostly have very strong hands like trips and big pocket pairs yourself, in which case her pair outs and maybe even some of her flush outs will not be live.
You have more incentive to raise against a less polarized raise. So, if you held K-K facing that small check-raise, you might do best to reraise. This gives the big blind a tough decision with those medium-strength hands like 10 9 or Q 5. Against the larger raise, reraising K-K would be a waste. The big blind would fold 5-4, which was drawing nearly dead anyway, and continue with the trips, against which you are drawing nearly dead. Even if you had 9-9, you wouldn’t want to raise. With a full house, you’d want to keep the bluffs in, and you could count on the trips continuing to build the pot for you.
James Sweeney: How polarized a player is post-flop is a key consideration for me when crafting lines. This is largely due to the fact that there aren’t that many nuttish combos available post-flop. If a player is going to polarize their aggression ranges post-flop, they end up doing two things. They give information about their aggressive range and they also give information about their passive range. For what it’s worth, this is also true preflop.
But thinking about post-flop specifically, say a player continuation bets (c-bets) the flop and barrels the turn on K 9 8 2. You assume this player c-bet the flop with their monster hands (sets and two pair) and also a large number of bluffs and semi-bluffs.
On the turn, you assume they are barreling a polarized range. You can actually use the same question from earlier and ask, “What is the strong part of their barreling range here, and what density of their overall range is likely weak?” If they are polarized, maybe you assume they bet all of their strong combos (sets and two pair) plus strong top pairs (A-K and K-Q). You might assume their weak-medium holdings include gut shots (Q-J and Q-10), open ended draws (J-10 suited and 7-6 suited), and some whiffed backdoor draws (A 6 and 5 4).
The real question is what the density of strong versus weak hands is. If the villain barrels every gutshot, every open-ended straight draw, tons of whiffed backdoor draws, and some other weaker hands too, then it’s far easier to continue when you hold a hand like K-10 or 10-9 here.
Being polarized doesn’t mean they have a perfect 50/50 breakdown of strong and weak hands. So, this is where your reads and other info comes into play. Think about their size, and if the size of their barrel indicates a greater density of strong hands in their range. Think about their timing and if that indicates anything. Think about your history and if that skews their density at all.
Like before, the larger the density of weak holdings in their range, the more inclined I am to bluff relentlessly. Especially if a player barrels polarized here but is also likely to check with some top pair and two pair+ combos, the density of weak hands can increase sharply. It is important to remember that you can’t manufacture more strong combos. The number of strong combos is finite, and if those strong combos get fully or partially removed from a player’s aggression range, it can skew the density of weak hands in their aggression range quickly.
Andrew Neeme: Let’s think about when we might want to use a polarized sizing. Essential poker theory is such that we want to get maximum value from our strong hands and want to achieve maximum fold equity from our bluffs. These two general scenarios will be obvious to a thoughtful player, and if we are able to reach these goals, then we will be pushing our profit to new heights. But while it’s always fun to put your opponent “in a spot,” this doesn’t mean that we should polarize at every betting opportunity, and it will largely be dependent upon ranges and board texture.
On the flop, our c-bet sizing revolves around where our hand falls in our range, and how static or dynamic the board is. We also have to consider equity denial on both the flop and turn. Say for example that we raise in late position, the big blind calls. We consider two very different flop textures of A-7-2 rainbow, and 8 7 6.
On the ace-high board, we will be much less likely to use a polarized c-bet sizing because our opponent can only continue with very strong hands versus a large sizing. We can make cheap bluffs on this board since there are no natural draws, and therefore should look to balance those bluffs with small c-bet sizings for value as well. We don’t have to worry about equity denial since the board is so dry, and a hand like K-Q is disincentivized to float an ace-high board.
On the second, connected board, all of the opposite descriptors are true. Our opponent can call with a wider variety of hands that have hit this flop, as well as hands that are drawing strongly to eight or more outs. So, we should size up here accordingly with our c-bets for our hands that have connected as well as with our semi-bluffs. And we can apply these same thought processes to both boards on the turn when deciding to fire a second barrel. Keep in mind that you’ll likely want to have at least a pot-sized bet left going into the river so that you can leverage a good amount of fold equity for your bluffs on that street. ♠
James “SplitSuit” Sweeney has been playing and coaching poker for well over a decade. He has written multiple best-selling poker books, coached more than 500 students one-on-one, and has released hundreds of free training videos. He is also the co-founder of the training site Red Chip Poker.
Andrew Brokos has been a professional poker player for more than 15 years. He is the author of Play Optimal Poker and Play Optimal Poker 2. Brokos hosts the long-running Thinking Poker Podcast and has published hundreds of articles in Card Player Magazine, Two Plus Two Magazine, and PokerNews.
Andrew Neeme is a successful poker player and vlogger with an educational and popular YouTube channel with more than 150,000 subscribers. He lives in Las Vegas and loves traveling and celebrating life each day.