Playing in Position

In a game as complex as poker, there are a number of fundamentals that beginners could learn that would improve their win rate. Things like avoiding dominated hands, how to chase hands profitably, raising instead of limping and avoiding getting involved too often from the blinds. Learning these fundamentals will make (or save) you more money. Period.

However, in terms of making more money no fundamental will come as close to the importance, effectiveness and profitability of playing in position. It’s hands down the most important concept that you can learn.

What is Position?

Position in poker refers to two things. These things usually overlap, too. You’ll see how in a second.

The first thing that position refers to are the seats at the poker table in relation to the dealer button. In a 9-handed game, the first 3 seats to the left of the button would be referred to as early position. The next 3 seats would be middle position and the last 3 seats, with the dealer button being the last seat, would be referred to as late position. The dealer button changes position each hand, which means the seats will, too.

The second thing that position refers to is where a player is sitting in relation to another player. Any time one player acts after another, it’s said that he has position. In other words, a player in seat 8 will have position on a player in seat 5. A player in seat 6 will have position on a player in seat 1. The player on the button will have position on everyone at the table.

In either case, you always want to be in position. As often as you can be, at least.

To be clear, actual seat position isn’t as important as your relative position to the other players. However, they do intertwine. You’re more likely to be in position if you play hands from a late seat position than you are from an early position. In early position you have 4-6 players that can call and have position on you, while in late position you have 0-2 players that can, while still giving you position on everyone else.

Why You Need to Play in Position

If there was only one reason as to why you should play poker in position, it would have to be: information. When you’re out of position, you don’t know what’s going to happen next. If you bet, will your opponent raise, call or fold? If you check, will your opponent bet? Does your opponent (appear to) like his hand?

When you have to act first, you don’t know. You don't have this information.

However, when you have position you get to see how each player feels about their hand. You know a player likes his hand because he bet. You know the villain is weak because he checked to you. It’s ok to take a stab at the pot with air, because the last 5 players decided to check.

You know this, because you got to watch it. You were able to collect information first.

Information is the most important reason why you want to play in position. But there are other reasons why, too. Another reason would be pot control. When you’re first to act you never know exactly where the pot will end up. If you bet, you have no idea if your opponent will fold, call or raise. But being in position gives you the last say in how big the pot is. You can check behind or call to keep the pot smaller, or bet or raise to make it bigger. It’s your choice, and when it happens it won’t be a surprise.

How Position Affects the Hands You Play

By now I hope you understand why position is important. I think it’ll make the next couple of paragraphs on how position affects the hands you play easier to understand. Lets look at an example.

Say you have A4o on the button and everyone folds to you. This is a good situation to open-raise because you can pick up the blinds. In a worse case scenario you’re called and will have position. However, since it’s a weak ace you’ll want to make sure you keep the pot small. This will be easy to do because if you’re opponent bets, you can just call. If he checks you can bet or check behind. And, if your opponent bets a couple of times, you can feel ok with letting your weaker ace go – he probably has a bigger one anyway.

On the flip side of the coin, this hand would be very difficult to play from the small blind. Say the button decides to raise, you call and you flop top pair, weak kicker. You’re in a similar position wanting to keep the pot small, but is that possible? If you bet you have no idea if the villain will raise. And if you check, your opponent might bet, and you’ll have no idea if he actually has an ace, or if he’s just betting because you checked. It’s harder to decide what to do. Regardless, the bottom line is that you’ll lose more money in the long run in this position than you’ll ever win. And it’s all because of your position.

That doesn’t just apply to weak aces, though. It goes for all hands, even hands like aces, jacks or ace-king. They’re just harder to play out of position because you don’t know what your opponent will do, and if what they do choose to do is congruent with your goals/strategy for this particular hand.

And that’s not all. One more thing to consider is where your opponents are playing from, what they could be holding and what you should be playing as a result. This vaguely touches on the principles from the Gap Concept, which states that you should be calling a raise with a stronger hand than you’d open yourself from a similar position (to your opponent). For example, say your opponent opens from early position. They probably have a hand like TT+ and KJ+. So the hand you decide to call with should be stronger than this range, say QQ+ and AQ+. That way you’re not dominated – there’s actually a chance you’re ahead of their range.

So it’s not just your position that will affect what hands you choose to play, or how you decide to play them. You also need to consider your opponent’s position and it’s relativity to everyone else at the table. That way you can ensure that the hands you do choose to play aren’t behind, or at the very least crushed (dominated) post flop.