AngusD switched from pro chess to poker two decades ago and has been professionally involved in the game on numerous levels since the very beginning of online poker, including playing as a poker ambassador both online and at major festivals around the globe. He has written much about the game over the years, and brings to YPD a wealth of experience in all aspects of the poker industry. Meanwhile, his many years on the pro chess circuit (he’s an International Master and prolific author) afford him an interesting perspective on the psychology of poker.

· Published 14.04.2021 · last updated 09.05.2022

The initiative in poker is a concept that all players need to develop an appreciation of at some point in their career. It’s a key part of the game – so much so that the more we become acquainted with the implications of the initiative, the more we’re able to achieve the desired outcomes at the tables.

How do we define the Initiative in Poker?

Quite simply, the player who made the last aggressive play during a round of betting is the player who holds the initiative; an ‘aggressive’ action in this context can be a bet or (re)raise (as opposed to just a call). There are a number of ways to assume the initiative.

The following are typical examples of how a player can assume the role of aggressor in a hand before the Flop.

  • If Bob’s bet is called by Bill, Bob has the initiative.
  • If Bob bets, Bill raises and Bob calls, Bill has the initiative.
  • If Bob bets, Bill calls, Bruce raises and the other two call, Bruce has the initiative.

Advantages of having the Initiative

Given that the four betting stages present multiple opportunities for players to keep leapfrogging each other to take the lead in terms of the best hand, it’s interesting to consider the implications of having the initiative. Clearly, the sooner we establish ourselves as the aggressor, the more influence we can have on a hand, including to the point where our opponents might not even get the chance to improve.

Ideally, it’s very useful to take the initiative before the Flop, and this is indeed often the case because, typically, someone will raise and meet with one or more calls. Alternatively, we could react to an early position bet with a (re)raise on the Button in order to wrest the initiative from that player and head into the Flop in the driving seat; this also has the advantage of taking the proverbial wind out of the sails of the early aggressor who otherwise might have been the one to dominate the hand (and subsequently steal the pot).

Induce post-flop passivity

Once a player has taken the initiative pre-flop, there then tends to be an almost conventionally accepted ascribing of roles when the Flop comes, with the caller(s) refraining from undertaking any aggression themselves because they effectively give respect to the pre-flop raiser by checking. This highlights how being the pre-flop aggressor can afford us an advantage right from the beginning of a hand. Just by raising we can immediately take some of the sting out of our opponents, whose mindset is to curb their enthusiasm in the belief (which we put in their minds by simply betting) that we might very well have a strong hand into which it would seem foolhardy to bet. This puts us in the driver’s seat and, to continue that analogy, gives us some flexibility in terms of being able to influence both the direction of the hand and even the pace at which we travel along.

Induce errors

Because our aggression suggests we have a strong hand it puts our opponents on the back foot and elevates the importance of their decisions, which in turn puts more pressure on them when making these decisions, which will ultimately lead to their making mistakes. This is crucial because mistakes are, of course, major contributors to outcomes – essentially no less important than the strength of the hands we hold.

Note that (relative) Position is a key factor when discussing the initiative in poker. In the context of the situation above, for example, being the pre-flop aggressor is going to be far more effective when the Flop comes and we’re on the Button, last to act as the opposition checks to us, than if we were in mid position with other players to act after us.

Pot Stealing

Amongst the various advantages afforded us by having the Initiative is the number of opportunities we’ll have to steal pots that otherwise would have gone elsewhere. By being consistent in our aggression we will find ourselves being checked to and invited to stake a claim for the chips in the middle with a strong bet that we set up pre-flop. It can be surprisingly easy to keep getting away with taking down uncontested pots post-flop after having being the aggressor pre-flop…

Have fun at the tables!

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