Poker Strategy: Position is Power

Jason Lake

Saturday, March 8, 2014 7:29 PM GMT

Sometimes it’s better to go first. But when it comes to poker, it’s usually better to go last. Find out why and what to do about it in our latest poker strategy article.

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Games are so unfair. If you’re playing tic-tac-toe and you go first, there’s no way you can lose if you know what you’re doing. The best your opponent can do is force a tie. Even if you make the game more complicated, like chess, going first is a considerable advantage. So why are all these poker players trying so hard to go last?

Because poker is a special game – it’s a game of incomplete information. There’s guesswork involved. Imagine a kind of chess where you don’t know the identity of your opponent’s pieces. If you move first, you’re pretty much guessing. But your opponent has just seen your move, and can make some assumptions about it before reacting. For example, was your first move with a knight? That piece will be easy for your opponent to identify.

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Assume the Position

This is why you have to be aware at all times about what position you’re in on the poker table. You have to know how many people are in the hand, and where they’re sitting relative to you, as well as their stack sizes. Every sound poker strategy is based on this non-hidden set of information.

Let’s say you’re playing nine-handed no limit hold ‘em, and you’re under the gun. You know that there are eight players still to act, including six more players who have relative position on you. If you open a hand from UTG, that’s six players who could call or raise you and force you to play out of position post-flop. If they all fold instead, great, you’ll have position on the small blind and the big blind. But how likely is that going to be?

This is why we usually open a tighter range of hands from UTG – maybe just the top five percent of hands, like 88+ and AQ+. That way, we’ll be better armed if we have to act out of position post-flop. If we’re sitting in UTG+1 with a chance to open, now there are five players in relative position, so it’s safer to open a few more hands, maybe 77 and AJs. By the time we’re on the button and first to act, we know we’ll always be in position if the blinds call, so we can open a wide range of hands, even 60 percent or more if the situation dictates.

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I Will Follow

If we’re playing our cards right, most of the hands we play post-flop will involve a single opponent on whom we have position. Then we can react to that player’s moves. If he or she checks, that tells us something. Maybe that player has a weak hand and we can bluff to induce a fold. If he or she bets, maybe that player has a strong hand and we can fold – or maybe we don’t believe our opponent, and we can call or raise. It’s up to us and our understanding of the situation.

Sadly, we can’t always be in position. But we can try to limit the number of times that we’re out of position. Say you open from UTG with AQ and you get 3-bet by the button. Your options are to raise, call, or fold. But calling will leave you out of position, so maybe you’d be better off either raising or folding.

And how about when you get involved from the blinds? If you’re defending against a button open, maybe you’ll want to resteal by 3-betting instead of calling. You might get your opponent to fold so you won’t have to play out of position. Even if the button calls, at least you’ll have initiative in the hand. You’re the one representing a big hand by 3-betting, so you might be able to take down the pot with a continuation bet. As always, it depends on the situation. Put yourself in the best position to take advantage.