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Position in Poker

Poker Position Strategy

Position is by far the most undervalued factor in the decision making process of the average poker player. It is absolutely crucial to consider position in every poker decision you make. Now, you may enquire, if something is this important, surely a real life analogue is instructive? I don’t worry about position in everyday life! I tend to disagree. There are plenty of examples from life; here is one which seems pertinent. I am reminded of when I visited Vietnam and Cambodia earlier this year; now in these places, the bartering system of purchase is alive and well. Not only is it kicking but it is systematically eradicating any more ‘civilized’ modern system.

When you wish to purchase something—anything—you enter into a simple yet intricate game.

It is not unlike poker. I see something I want to buy, but there is no price tag. So I go up to the vendor and ask “how much is it?” Of course, his response (and it is the correct response in terms of optimizing his profit in this game) is “how much do you want to pay for it?” Now there are plenty of reasons why this response is correct: first and foremost, if you make a commitment, he knows that you can never go below this amount. He also knows exactly how much the product is worth. It is unprofitable for him to place a price tag on the product; then you now know that he can never go higher than that.

Of course, there are other considerations in the simple game of haggling, but what exactly are we vying for in the above example? It is indeed the case that in the long run the vendors of these markets come out way in front of the average consumer. Sure, they are skilled at playing the game, but even an experienced consumer will never manage to beat the vendors. This is because they rig the game such that they always act after you. That is, they always have position. When you enter the haggling game, they force you to act first. They know that this gives them an unexploitable advantage, and increases their profit.

So now, we move on to talking about position on the poker table. The real world analogy above is instructive in thinking about how you can exploit your advantageous position in poker. The first thing to learn, which I see skimmed over far too often in the vast majority of the popular literature on poker is the concept of relative versus absolute position. I put it to you that absolute position is all you knew about, and relative position is in fact, in no limit texas hold’em at least, much more important. Absolute position is defined to be your position preflop, relative to the blinds. So if you are first to act preflop, you have the third worst position and are called under the gun. It continues around the table until we reach the button who has the best position preflop; uninterestingly enough this is called being the button.

The blinds are the worst absolute position preflop because you have already acted—blind betting, or placing out antes, is indeed a kind of action. The small blind is the worst absolute position postflop. Many books will tell you to raise more in later position and tighten up in early position. These are certainly not bad ideas, but before you blindly act, I ask you to question your thought process. It is fine to acquire the idea to make these moves from books or people or elsewhere, but to be a good poker player you must also be able to justify this move to yourself. Time for something heretical: absolute position can be misleading. Absolute position preflop can lead you to making the wrong move. Not an intrinsically bad decision, but (alluding to last week) a decision which is just not as profitable as another. Be careful, and think also about relative position.

What am I talking about? First a definition, and then an example. Relative position is the position you have on the next street compared to the most likely bettor. This is a very familiar concept to experienced poker players, who will find if they do not consider it explicitly are instinctually aware. If you act just before the most likely bettor, then this is the best relative position. If you act just after the most likely bettor, then this is the worst relative position. Imagine that there is a second ‘button’ just before the most likely bettor at each street; this is the relative position button. It is placed here because the vast majority of the time there is a player (identifiable preflop) whose most profitable action is to bet the flop a large percentage of the time. Let’s look at some examples to illustrate the importance of relative position, how it can trump absolute position and vice-versa.

Example 1. Blinds are $5/$10 and everyone has $1000. You are dealt KQo in the cutoff (one off the button). It is folded around to you and you raise to $40. The button calls, and both the blinds call. This is fine play, but only if you have the correct thought process. KQo is not an especially good hand but raising to $40 with the benefit of absolute position on the blinds and only one player left to act is a good play. Being the first person to raise preflop, you have what we call the lead in the betting, which is an advantage as you show some strength and have some control over the hand; but it is also a disadvantage as everyone else now has relative position on you. This can throw you off balance in the following way.

Example 2. Continuing the previous example, the flop comes AJ2 with two flush cards. The blinds both check, and you bet 3/4 of the pot, $120. The button folds, the small blind folds and the big blind now raises to $300. What do you do?

I hope that everyone here folds. But let’s have a look at what happened. I am going to assert that the big blind made excellent use of the best relative position in this hand. Assume he is a good player. Calling preflop closes the betting and gives him the best relative position on the flop; with the price he is getting, this is an excellent deal. Now the flop comes, the small blind checks and he checks to the most likely bettor, who then bets (that would be you). The button and small blind fold, leaving him heads up with the most likely bettor.

He knows that even with the most likely stronger hand that the raiser has (being in the big blind it is unlikely that he has been dealt a better hand than someone raising preflop), it is unlikely that he has hit the flop. Perhaps he has a read in addition, but it is unnecessary; there are no more players in the hand, and there is a great chance that a raise right now will take down the pot (this is called fold equity). It is also very important (although beyond the scope of this section) that this ‘good player’ also check-raises flops out of the blinds in this situation with very strong hands, and rarely does it as a complete bluff. Notice that at no point above did we talk about the cards the big blind has. He could have anything from 37o for complete air to J2o for the flopped two pair. He has exercised one of the great advantages of (relative) position: position makes more moves available to you. Another point to make. Say that instead of the small blind folding in the above example, the small blind himself puts in that check raise. Is it a good play? Well, not especially. The big blind is still left to act, which makes it dangerous. So a good player in the small blind position in this hand will not check-raise as a bluff without a very good read on both players. Similarly if the button makes this raise: although the blinds are likely to have worse hands it is quite dangerous to bluff raise here with two players left to act. As a general principle, do not try to bluff multiple players.

But here in these examples we see yet another of the massive advantages of position. The big blind has seen these fireworks coming from the small blind or button, and knowing that they must not do this as a bluff (if they do, this will become apparent fairly quickly) and can safely muck his hand. Say he flopped bottom pair, or middle pair, or top pair with a weak kicker, we can safely muck his hand losing a much smaller amount than if he had bet out of position.

Being in position lets you see what has happened in front of you as a reaction to whatever happened on this street. Poker is a game of people, and everyone reacts to whatever stimulates them. Preflop, absolute position gives you the best location from which watch people react to their cards. Postflop, relative position takes over as everyone makes their response to the most likely bettor.

Now of course I do not want everyone to go calling every preflop raise from the big blind in the name of relative position. But, it is certainly the most important factor to consider in your decision-making process. As to calling out of the big blind, the next two factors: villains and holdings play a dominant role.

If there is one thing that you should take out of this section to improve your game that perhaps you did not do before, I would like it to be an understanding and explicit appreciation for relative position. One more example.

Example 3. Blinds are $5/$10 and everyone has $1000. You are dealt JTs in middle position. It is folded around to you, and you call the $10. Immediately after you the person in late position raises and makes it $50 to go. The button calls, the big blind calls and you call. Who made the right play?

Well first and foremost, of course we don’t have enough information to know if anyone made certainly bad or certainly good plays. However, we can say a few words about position. If the player on the button in this hand figured he had good position, and so was correct to call with a larger range of hands that would be incorrect. After the person in late position raised the new best position on the table is relative to the most likely bettor on the next street: your call in MP is in fact much more defensible than Button’s call in this example. Similarly, the big blind no longer has the best relative position post-flop, can cannot use this to support their call. Don’t call out of relative position unless you have a good reason to preflop!

To finish on position. Both relative and absolute position are the most important factors to consider when making any poker decision. However, they are not the only factors. If the position-move goes against several of the factors to come, then perhaps it is not a good move to make. Although it is the lead character, it is not the entire show. The next player in your decision-making musical is the villain.

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