When we first learn how to play poker the tendency is to quite naturally concentrate on the initially simplistic matter of hand values. Aces would be nice, AK is strong, QJ looks interesting (especially suited) and so on. Aspects such as ranges don’t yet feature, and if we had to come up with parameters, then a typical pre-flop starting hand range for an inexperienced player would at this stage of development be rather limited and top-heavy, with holdings such as 87 suited not being seriously considered.
Crucially, when dealt this or that hand, our actions would be very similar regardless of our position. Whether we’re, for example, UTG (‘under the gun’; Early Position – immediately left of the Big Blind), the Button (Late Position; immediately right of the Blinds), Cutoff (Late Position; immediately right of the Button) or in Middle Position (MP)… if we’ve not yet become acquainted with these terms, then we’re likely to play the holding the same way regardless.
However, our thought processes change – or at least they should! – when we incorporate Position into our game. Moreover, the more we understand the concept, the more enlightened we feel, and we begin to appreciate just how fascinating and rich is the tapestry that is poker. Those of you who play chess have a similar experience with the realisation that it’s not just a case of hoovering up each other’s pieces. It’s not a coincidence, given the many connections between chess and poker, that learning about the positional aspect of chess – the co-ordination of pieces, weak squares, pawn structures and so on – is equally imperative.
The aim of this mini series of articles is to get the message across to those players who are relatively new to the game that becoming acquainted with the concept of position is a fundamental part of the learning curve. That all-important plateau of understanding we reach when we learn how the way a hand plays out can change so dramatically just by virtue of being on the Button rather than the Small Blind is a memorable moment for the poker student. We suddenly see the light, and our entire approach to the game takes on a whole new meaning, like we’ve become a member of a new club; we get it.
The Power of Position
It can be a little confusing when first introduced to position in poker, when thus far we’ve placed so much stock on the cards we’re dealt, to get our heads round the fact that position can be a more important factor than the cards themselves; this includes the cards our opponents are holding, too. We should make a point of permanently engraving this poker truth on to our little grey cells because it will make decisions much easier in future.
Hopefully, you’ve become sufficiently inspired at this point to make the next step of your poker journey and to start to think about this key concept of position.
The next part will introduce the fundamental differences between Early, Middle and Late position, as well as the significance of the individual positions within those sectional categories.
Position, Position, Position
Positions at the poker table can be categorised simply as Early, Middle and Late, with individual positions within those sections having specific properties that afford us more or less flexibility. Note that the crucial implications of position come to the fore in play after the Flop…
Early Position (EP)
As the name suggests, when we’re in Early Position we’ll be among the first to act after the Flop, and it is this simple fact that makes EP the worst position to be in in relation to our opponents and when they act. Whatever we do, our action will give the remaining players in the hand information in some form or other, as well as greater pot control, and this disadvantage continues for the Turn and River!
Consequently, we don’t want to compound the problem by getting involved with weak(er) starting hands.
Avoid getting involved with weak/random starting hands
With the possibility of our being able to outplay opponents by virtue of our always having to ‘commit’ first while not receiving the same free information from other players, the strength of our hand assumes more importance. Consequently our range of starting hands with which we can enter into a pot is going to be considerably narrower than in MP and LP. Much more care is required in EP (of course we need to be careful regardless!) because we’re going to be more vulnerable to the action that follows. For example, we might open with a reasonably good hand but when faced with a sizeable raise we’re already in a potentially troublesome spot. Throw another a couple of players into the mix who are still yet to act – and therefore could well re-raise etc – and our hand no longer looks so good. This is a typical EP negative scenario which tends to find us (usually correctly) having to fold due to the likelihood of being up against much stronger hands.
Be willing to fold
There is a tendency for inexperienced players in this situation to persevere, refusing to say goodbye to the chips they’ve invested. The problem with this approach is that we could be digging ourselves deeper into the hole we initially created for ourselves when we got involved in the hand in the first place by not properly respecting our position. Calling that raise (or, worse – a subsequent reraise) on the Flop is one thing, but we can expect to see more action when the Turn comes and, assuming we haven’t hit big and are still in the dark as to where we stand, then we’re simply paying too big a price to remain in contention and are simply throwing away our chips. Rewinding back to the point at which our bet was raised, we should instead face facts and fold, and have no regrets in doing so. These realistic, practical decisions should anyway become increasingly natural as we improve our game, but especially so when we find ourselves at such a positional disadvantage.
Middle Position (MP)
It follows that playing in Middle Position is an improvement over Early Position. No longer the first to act, we can expand our starting hand range a little compared with when in EP because there are fewer opponents to act after us post-flop.
Note that it isn’t necessarily always the case that we’re not the first to act – if everyone in EP and anyone else before us were to fold, then we’d essentially assume the role of being in EP, and with it the same potential handicap when play resumes post-flop.
Essentially, in MP we have an advantage over those who act before us, but the proverbial spanner in the works is that we are at a disadvantage to those who act after us.
As we move around the table seat by seat (in a clockwise direction), then of course there will be more players to act before us and fewer players still to act after us, and it is in Late Position (LP) that we enjoy the most freedom.
The ultimate positional advantage is when we are on the Button, directly to the right of the Small Blind, and guaranteed to be the very last to act post-flop.
This is a great opportunity, and we should make a point of closely keeping tabs on the button to be ready each time it comes around to us. Being constantly aware of our position is paramount. It helps to be dealt our fair share of strong starting hands, but success in poker boils down to a myriad of factors and cumulative advantages, and carelessly folding because we failed to notice we’re on the Button is a potentially advantageous opportunity wasted.
Because we’re the last to act when the Flop arrives, this luxury of flexibility means we can glean the most information from the actions of all of the players remaining in the hand, while also being in the driving seat in terms of having greater control of the pot. While this doesn’t mean we should be getting involved with terrible starting hand combinations without a second’s thought, we must nevertheless try to take advantage when in LP by widening our range accordingly. In fact, if we can get away with bullying the opposition we should be exploiting our position to the max, and it’s a good strategy – as we gain experience – to be doing just that. Unless there are vaild reasons why we shouldn’t step up a gear on the Button (in particular), simply fire away and mop up the blinds and whatever chips are there for the taking.
Typical Implications of Late Position
As we continue to gradually appreciate the significance of position, so we can understand the implications in countless situations. For example, when there are loose and aggressive players at the table we would ideally wish to be sitting to the left of them as this gives us both more information and, especially with these types of players, more control over the pot.
On the other hand, when it comes to exceptionally tight players who simply don’t engage in habitually aggressive play, where we are seated in relation to them is far less important because their positional advantage over us simply won’t be much of a factor.
If someone checks before us, that could well be a sign of weakness and we can put pressure on them. If we’re dealing with a tricky player or are not sure what the check signifies, then our positional advantage allows us to not commit ourselves, keeping our powder dry (perhaps momentarily) and keeping our options open. Or, of course, we could get jiggy with it and put them to the test.
When someone bets it might signify strength, and we at least can consider what the size of their bet could mean. Again, this inexact science becomes easier to contemplate with experience, but at least having a position lets us have more influence on steering the hand in a direction that best suits us. Also, should we decide to fold, our decision to stand down didn’t cost us anything as it might have were we out of position and had opted to bet.
Even such aspects as timing can be factors on how effectively we use position. For example, when players react to the Flop by checking quickly it could be because they didn’t connect, have a weak – and therefore vulnerable – hand, and will simply fold (maybe even auto-fold) when faced with even a minimum bet. This is just one interpretation (albeit not an unreasonable conclusion, particularly in lower limit games), but the crucial point to take in when thinking about Position is that we are in the best place to act, rather than being on the wrong side of this flow of information.
Much of the above is relevant in LP generally, and remember that any position can assume the Button role. This is why the Cut-off – immediately before the Button – is also a position that deserves maximum respect and attention, not least because of the frequency with which the Button steps aside to leave the Cut-off last to act.
With this in mind, we should be increasingly aware generally that, with fewer players to act after us, the fewer strong hands we are likely to face, and the better our chances of assuming an initiative to which a key contributing factor is position.
Simply being aware of the concept of Position – and in turn, contemplating the implications – is already going to give us an edge over many players who are too pre-occupied with their starting hands and the cards themselves to notice this very important element of the game. The more we play, the more we can both exploit the advantages and opportunities presented to us, while at the same time guarding against being taken advantage of ourselves. Crucially, once we have incorporated Position into our armoury, we become a far more formidable force…