general, Poker Articles

Poker Hand Analysis: Vacuum vs. Balance


In the previous article, I discussed what hand analysis is, why you should be practicing it, how to find hands for analysis, and how to generally approach hand analysis. In this article I want to discuss two different approaches to thinking about a hand, depending mostly on the type of player that you are up against. The first approach is for dealing with bad opponents that are unlikely to notice any leaks you expose. The second approach is for dealing with tougher opponents against whom you need to approximate a balanced inexploitable strategy.

Analyzing Your Hand in a Vacuum

Vacuum means we look at our specific hole cards and make what would be the most +EV play with them in the short-term. We just look at the hand like this is the last hand we will ever play and we don’t care about how this play fits into our long-term strategy, or how it affects how our stats will eventually appear in the rest of the players’ HUDs. Vacuum analysis is simple and if you are new to this whole hand analysis business you should start there. Chances are that if this is the case then you are also playing against incompetent players against whom balance isn’t important, which is just the right situation to be using vacuum analysis anyway!

So now that we know what vacuum means, how do we analyze hands in a vacuum?

This is simple! We should look at our specific hand and ask if we played it for the most positive short-term EV.

When we bet we should ask:

  • Is this bet for value?
  • Is it a bluff?
  • Is it for protection?

If you can’t justify the bet using any of these reasons, betting is most likely a mistake.

When we bluff we should ask:

  • Do we have the required fold equity according to our sizing? (for example, if we bet pot on the river – we need villain to fold 50% of the time).
  • Do we have any additional pot equity to help make the bluff +EV? (when bluffing where there are more streets to come)

When we defend we should ask:

  • Do we have the required equity to call? (If villain bets pot on the river we need 33% vs his range)
  • Do we have any implied odds / reverse implied odds / fold-equity on a later street? (when calling with a non made hand where there are more streets to come)

Analyzing Your Range For Balance

Now things start to get interesting! If villain is a competent reg or unknown, we should play a balanced strategy against him, which means our analysis should look at our entire range for each spot, and then check if the specific hand we played fits in the final range or not.

We should look at our range in each decision point and ask what parts of this range we are taking this action with as part of a strategy for maximizing long-term EV.

When we bet we should ask:

  • Should I have any checking range here?
  • Should I have any betting range here?
  • Should I have a polarized cbetting range here, and check some good hands to protect my checking range?

When we bluff we should ask:

  • How many bluff combos do we need to make villain indifferent to calling with marginal bluff-catchers? (for example, if we bet pot on the river – we need 1 bluff combo for each 2 value combos)
  • What are the best combos to bluff?

When we defend we should ask:

  • How many combos do I need to defend to make villain unable to exploit us by bluffing more often than balanced? (for example, if he bets pot on the river – we need to defend 50% of our range)
  • What are the best combos to defend?
  • Should I have any raising range here? (it is hard to balance a raise on a flop where the preflop caller’s range has either many more draws than nutted hands like Q52, or very few possible draws like 996).

Here is a good article that explains the math principles behind hand analysis in situations where balance is important. Please note that the author does not necessarily agree with the specific attack strategy taken in the example in the article (basically either betting 75% pot on all three streets, or giving up), which seems super polarized. But this isn’t the point, the article really highlights the basic math principles for balanced bluffing and bluff-catching on all streets, and so I recommend reading it.

Example of Vacuum vs. Balance

This is not a complete hand analysis, just a simple spot to demonstrate vacuum analysis vs. balanced analysis. In this example Villain is a 30/15 fish, Fold to steal = 60, Fold to F CBet = 60 and generally plays bad.

Hero opens A3 in the CO and Villain calls in the BB.
Flop: A22
Villain checks. Hero?

Hero should check-behind because villain will probably fold almost anything worse than Ax and we have the worst Ax hand. Checking behind may also induce loose calls on later streets.

Now, if this was a competent player we would want to cbet! Why? In order to protect our range! Because this is a bone-dry flop on which we have range advantage (We have strong hands in our range, which villain would usually 3bet or fold preflop: AA, AQ+, A2o, 32s, K2s) and we have position – we would want to bluff a lot on this flop! In fact a good strategy in this spot would be to bet small with our entire range (a.k.a “range cbet”), and villain would have a hard time doing anything better than folding a lot, which is exactly what we want with the majority of our range. So what would happen if we cbet almost our entire range and then we suddenly checked back? This would turn our hand face-up! If villain is competent he will realize that our checking-back range is unbalanced, contains a defined range of stable showdown-value hands like A9-A3, KK-TT, and he could easily exploit this (for example with 99 he might find an exploitative check-fold to our delayed cbet on the turn, and he will avoid leading turn with a backdoor draw because he knows we are calling, but he might check-raise turn and overbet river to put big pressure on our capped range). In addition checking-back only medium made hands in a prime light-cbet spot leaves our cbet-range very weak and imbalanced because now it contains only few strong hands and a huge portion of it is air.

So the conclusion is although there is no good vacuum reason to cbet this hand, we should still do so for balance, but only when playing vs. a competent reg (or an unknown player).

Vacuum vs Balance – Final Thoughts

Next time you analyze a hand, first decide what is the correct approach you should be taking: analyzing this specific hand in a vacuum or analyzing the entire spot for balance. Then follow through with your analysis plan and try to incorporate the relevant principles.

In the following articles I intend to give complete examples of analyzing hands, both in a vacuum and for balance.

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general, Poker Articles

How to Analyze Your Poker Hands

In this article:

  • What is hand analysis and why you should be practicing it?
  • What hands to analyze?
  • Thinking in ranges.
  • Preflop ranging.
  • Vacuum vs. balance.

Poker Hand Analysis – What Is It Good For?

Hand analysis is the process of reviewing a hand history, going through all decision points in the hand and looking for any spots where you might have made a sub-optimal decision. Hand analysis is perhaps the most important technique for any serious poker player for working on his game, finding his leaks, plugging them, and by doing so gradually improving his game and becoming a stronger player. Grinding at the tables isn’t enough to become better, and neither is learning poker theory. Hand analysis is the missing link between theory and practice. It might be hard work and take discipline but it is necessary in order to implement the theory into your actual game. It doesn’t matter how much good poker theory you know, but rather how much of it you can implement correctly in as many spots as possible.

Setting Up Your Hand Analysis Session

The best way to incorporate hand analysis into your poker journey is to allocate regular times for doing hand review sessions. For example, many players take 15-20 minutes after playing a session to review the session. I personally prefer to take the same time at the beginning of the session and review hands from my last session. Analyzing hands before the session is good for warming-up and integrating out-of-table thinking into in-table thinking. It is also a good idea to dedicate an entire session once a week for this kind of work on your game.

During online play you should be using a tracking software such as PokerTracker or HoldemManager. In any tracking software there is a function that lets you mark hands during play for later review. For example with PT4 on the HUD just hit the tag button at the upper left beside the PT4 chip logo, then select a recent hand and choose “review” from the dropdown menu.

Marking a hand for review in the HUD

Now that you have marked your hands during play you can go look at all of your hands for the session in PT4 and click the box “Show Marked Hands Only” to filter only the hands that you want to review.

Hand Report filtered for review

Another powerful technique for selecting hands for review is called a database review. This type of work starts by looking at your stats and searching for any leaks. How do you find your stats? One simple way to find your stats is to open some hand in the replayer and look at your own stats in the HUD overlay (make sure you choose Options > “Show Hero Lifetime Stats”). For example here are my stats in the replayer HUD:

HUD stats

I can see that I’m going too much to showdown (WTSD which means “Went to Showdown” is 27, while it is supposed to be around 25), which is probably a leak meaning that I don’t fold enough postflop. I can also click the HUD overlay to view the popups and find more stats there.

A second way for finding leaks in your stats is to create a Player Report and adding any stats you like to it. Yet, another way to find leaks in stats is to use the Leak-Tracker feature (Leak-Buster in HM).

After finding some leaky stats , we will want to create a Hand Report and filter for corresponding spots. So for example, if my “Went to Showdown” is too high I will filter for spots where I faced post-flop aggression on the later streets and called. To do this in PT4 for a river call I will click: Filters > Add New Simple Filters > Actions and Opportunities > River > River Calls > Any Call.

Filtering in PT4 for spots where we called on the river

After all these setup steps you are ready to start your hand review session. Using your tracking software you can browse through the tagged/filtered hands, choose a hand and open the hand details window which shows the entire hand history text in a nice format. You can copy the tracker’s text format of the hand history to the clipboard using the “Copy to Clipboard” button, which is useful for importing the hand for further analysis in your favorite hand analysis software.

Copying a hand history from PT4 for import to EZAnalyzer

Thinking in Ranges

The essence of hand analysis is assigning ranges and narrowing them throughout the actions in the hand. A range is simply a group of hands that a player is likely to hold at a given spot. For example a very tight player’s 3bet range BB vs CO might be queens and higher, and AK. This is written as: [QQ+,AK] and is often shown in a visual grid form like this:

EZAnalyzer range grid showing a typical nitty 3bet range

The main diagonal represents pocket pairs, above it are the suited hands and below it are the offsuit hands. We always want to assign a range to villain, we can’t know his specific hand but we can know what hands he can usually have and which hands he can usually not have. The ranging process proceeds through range narrowing: When we know what was a player’s range in one point in the hand it makes sense this range can only narrow as we proceed through the actions in the hand. For example, if we think this tight-passive player would not 3bet JTs or 99 then we can’t look at a flop of 987r and think that he might have flopped a nutted hand.

In addition, as you get more advanced in your analysis, you will want to get into the habit of working out your own ranges! This means you will ignore or even hide your hole cards and ask yourself what is your range for this preflop open/call/3bet and what parts of this range you continue with cbetting/defending/etc. This way the analysis of one hand becomes the analysis of a line that you would take with all kinds of hands, and you will be able to answer questions like:

  • Am I at the top or bottom of my range with this action?
  • Do I need to call with this hand or did I have many better hands in my range for that?
  • Do I have enough value/bluff hands in my check-raising range here?

and most importantly:

  • Am I balanced or imbalanced?

Now, of course when playing against bad players, balance isn’t important but it is important if we don’t know much about a player or if we know that he is competent. Even when we do play an exploitative strategy we want to understand what the balanced play would be so we know how far we deviated from it.

Preflop Ranging

It is very important for any player to know what a solid preflop strategy looks like: what hands to open from which positions; which hands to defend from which position vs. which position; when to flat and when to 3bet; when to defend vs a 3bet; what sizing is optimal for each action; etc. For example, you can find good recommendations for opening and defending ranges in The Grinder’s Manual by Carroters (see chapter 2 on opening and chapter 6 on defending vs opens).

Of course, you should also adjust ranges, for example wider for a loose player and narrower for a tight player, but the basic idea is that once you got this part down, preflop ranging should be automatic, so this is the easiest part of the hand analysis.


REM is a simple useful thought process introduced by Flynn, Mehta and Miller in the book Professional No-Limit Hold’em: Volume I
REM stands for Range, Equity, Maximize:

  • Range: Assign a range to your opponent based on their play and the board texture.
  • Equity: Work out how much equity you have against your opponent’s range.
  • Maximize: Make the most +EV play based on the information you have gathered.

Forget About Results

Don’t be results oriented! Poker is a super-long-term strategy game with a ton of short-term variance always messing up your short-term results. You need to look at your decisions and analyze how much money you would have theoretically won over the long run, regardless of the outcome for one particular hand.

Look for Missed Adjustments

If you identify leaks in your opponent’s strategy, you should ask are there any relevant strategical adjustments you should make to exploit those leaks, and is the way you played the hand consistent with these adjustments, or did you ignore any valuable information.

Hand Analysis – Two Different Approaches

There are two approaches to thinking about a hand, depending on whether you are playing against a good player or a bad player. When playing against a bad player you should keep things simple and just consider how you played your hand “in a vacuum“, meaning in the most profitable way for one particular hand in isolation from the rest of your range. We might end up bluffing too often or not often enough, or folding too much or too little in some spot, but that doesn’t matter since an incompetent player is not expected to take note of our imbalance and exploit it.
On the other hand when playing vs a competent player we will need to analyze our play as part of a balanced strategy, considering our entire range in each spot and so we will need to sometimes bluff, avoid bluffing, fold or avoid folding, all in pretty marginal spots just so we don’t end up with an imbalanced range in some common spots.

In the next article I will expand on these two approaches.

Hand Analysis – Final Thoughts

I hope this article gave you a better idea of what hand analysis is, how to approach it, and why it is an important part of any serious player’s routine.

This is a big topic and in the following articles I intend to continue exploring it.

The best way to get good at this is to simply start marking hands for review, allocate times to do a review session and start analyzing those hands.

Let me know in the comments below what techniques you use during a hand analysis. Let me also know if you have any questions about anything that I talked about above. You can also write me at

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