Each week, the Talking Poker series will highlight a particular poker term. We’ll give you a clear, to-the-point definition of the term and an example of the strategic concept to which it refers, so that you can start using the term and implementing the related strategy into your game. Today we’ll discuss what it means when a player bets or raises and is described as being “polarized.”
The term “polarized” is used to describe a player’s perceived range of possible holdings as suggested by the way a player has played a hand. In this case, the term refers to a player likely having either a very strong hand (e.g., the “top” of the player’s range) or a very weak hand (the “bottom”), and nothing in between. A player whose range is polarized is sometimes said either to have the nuts or air.
The term comes from the idea of “polarity” as used in physics or other contexts where two properties are in direct contrast with each other (e.g., like positive and negative electrical poles).
In a game of no-limit hold’em Player A raises from late position with and Player B calls from the big blind. The flop comes , Player B checks, Player A bets, and Player B calls. The turn brings the and a similar check-bet-call sequence.
The river is the , meaning there is no straight or flush possible. Player B checks again, and Player A decides to bet a third time. Player B then responds with a big check-raise that is more than the size of the pot, and Player A goes into the tank.
Player A realizes that such a strong move likely only represents a couple of possibilities — Player A either has a very strong hand like a set or has nothing at all and is bluffing. Player B is in a difficult spot, wishing he had just checked behind with his pair of kings as he is unsure what to do against what appears to be a very polarized range for his opponent.
It is possible to read an opponent’s range as being polarized before the flop, although there the concept usually isn’t applied that often. However, sometimes a player’s style might suggest that when he four- or five-bets before the flop he only either has a very big hand (, , ) or is bluffing with rags.
More often the idea applies after the flop, and in fact most often on the river although sometimes it can come up before. A player check-raising certain flops can occasionally be considered to have a polarized range.
Say a player raises from the button, the big blind calls, and the flop comes . The BB checks, the button bets, and the BB check-raises. Such a strong move by the big blind suggests a lot of strength — e.g., either a set or — since players with a medium-ace or middle or bottom pair would likely just call. The button could assume the player’s range here is polarized.
By the river players’ hand ranges have often become more narrowed thanks to the preceding action, which makes it a more likely spot to read a player as polarized. Boards that make a flush or straight possible, or boards that have a pair showing meaning someone could have a full house or even quads, create situations where big river bets or raises often suggest a polarized “nuts-or-air” range.
Watch and Learn
During the recent 2015 GPI Global Poker Masters an interesting hand took place in the final round during the heads-up match between Team Russia’s Anatoly Filatov and Team Italy’s Rocco Palumbo — one that in fact provided a good illustration of what it means for a player to be polarized when betting or raising.
Palumbo had a large chip lead over Filatov with 439,000 to Palumbo’s 113,000. With the blinds 1,500/3,000 with a 400 ante, Palumbo min-raised from the button and Filatov called.
The flop came single-suited — — and Filatov check-called a continuation bet of 7,000 from Palumbo. The turn then brought a fourth heart, the . This time Filatov led for 16,000 and Palumbo called, bringing the pot up over 55,000.
The river brought yet another heart, the . Filatov checked and watched as Palumbo made a big bet of 45,000. The Russian then responded by check-raising all in, and Palumbo let his hand go instantly.
On the live stream aired over Twitch, the hole cards were shown suggesting Palumbo held and Filatov . In other words, it appeared Filatov had made a very bold bluff as he could only play the flush on the board and couldn’t beat a better flush such as Palumbo appeared to have. As you might imagine, announcers Jesse May and Joe Stapleton were amazed at the move, calling it “totally sick!” and continuing to discuss it for the next several minutes.
However, it was discovered afterwards that the card graphics were incorrect — Filatov in fact did have the in his hand and thus held the nuts when he made his all-in river shove. That perhaps explained his comment afterwards to Palumbo: “Just playing my hand.”
Filatov’s river bet in fact suggested that idea of being polarized insofar as he couldn’t reasonably push all in with any medium-strength hand (e.g., a less-than-nut flush such as Palumbo apparently held). Rather, he could only make the play with either the nuts or with nothing. If he were bluffing — say if he did have — he would be doing so hoping that his bet would be too much for Palumbo to call with anything less than the nuts (again, like a smaller flush).
Sarah Herring spoke with Filatov afterwards about the hand and the confusion caused by the live stream showing the wrong hole cards. Take a look: