Understanding the importance of position in poker is one of the foundations of solid play. If you’re serious about playing and winning at poker, knowing the advantages that position provides is a key element of your future success.
Position is a key factor in any poker variant that includes blinds and community cards, with that category including poker’s two most popular variants, Texas Hold’em and Omaha. Position considerations come into play no matter how many people are at the table, from a full game (9 or 10) all the way down to heads-up play.
A wise poker man once said, “If you could watch the action from above a poker table, and speed it up, you’d see the chips flowing around the table, clockwise, in direct relation to the button (the designated dealer in any given hand).”
The flow of chips between players has more to do with table position in poker than any other factor, including the relative skills of the players and the exact format of poker being played. The reason for position being so important is that in poker, whoever bets last has the advantage.
It’s a huge advantage. In a typical hole-card game, with small and big blinds, the blinds are last to act only on the opening betting round, before the flop. Following the flop, the small and big blinds act first, and those later in the rotation have the advantage of seeing how all the players before them react to the action that precedes them.
The position advantage is magnified even further in pot-limit and no-limit games by the fact that the size of the pot itself grow with each passing bet, making the actions of each later street — flop, turn and river — exponentially more important. If you’re playing from the blinds, the advantage of being able to act last before the flop is massively outweighed by the advantage of having to bet first for the rest of the hand, and there is no player in poker who makes a profit while playing from the small or big blinds.
Rather, when playing from the blinds or the next seat (called “under the gun”), your objectives are two-fold; to limit losses by not getting involved in speculative hands out of position, and to use take advantage of timely moments to strike back at those who use their position against you, by running into your very good hand.
In hold’em, more than any other game, the concept of stealing the blinds is a basic part of the action. The small and big blinds represent a small amount of sunk money that can be attacked by players in later position. In fuller games, the last three seats to act are often called the hijack, the cutoff, and the button, and it is from these three seats, with increasing frequency, that steal attempts occur, meaning a simple pre-flop raise without much for hole cards whose only purpose if to collect those blinds.
The reason stealing the blinds is such an effective and basic stratagem is that the blinds most often need some sort of hand with which to defend against a late-position raise. Lacking that, the prudent play is to fold your trash, wait a couple of hands, and take your own advantage of good position in turn.
Sooner or later you’ll run into the type of player who aggressively defends his big blinds, playing back with a high frequency against late-position players who make opening raises. Against the right types of players and when wielded judiciously, this type of play-back can be an effective ploy. Be warned, however: over-defending the blinds is, for the vast majority of players, a massive leak. Play too many hands from the blonds and you will spew chips, guaranteed.
There’s one other type of stealing that’s position-related that improving players need to monitor, and that’s a steal attempt directed not the blinds, but at the button. Being the last player to act on all three streets of action after the flop is such a huge advantage that the button itself becomes a target of steal attempts, most often by the seats to his immediate right, the cutoff and hijack.
A “rock” (poker lingo for a player who enters few hands, and then only with monsters) is an easy target for button steals, and an active, observant player will take advantage of him, often raising, then throwing away almost every hand if the button shows signs of a monster. Forcing the button out of the hand represents a net gain for the cutoff or hijack, even if the blinds are still to act, just another indicator of how important position is.
Another key factor regarding table position is using the late-to-act seats as a reason to enter the action with a speculative hand — a small suited connector, for example, or a baby pair. Playing this type of hand from early position against decent opponents might provide the occasional big pot, but it;ll cost of lot of chips in speculating in the process.
The later your position in any given hand, the looser you hand requirements out to be, and under the right conditions, almost anything is playable. For instance, in a medium-stakes cash game of average chip stacks, a hand like 6-4 suited is eminently foldable. From the button, particular if there’s been some limping or a single raise and a call or to, such a weak-looking hand is often worth the investment. It can be jettisoned quick in the face of serious betting, and in addition to its flush possibilities, if it hits the board hard, few other players will suspect it. You’ll win your biggest pots in poker when your opponent thinks he has the best hand — but doesn’t.
We’ll talk about other aspects of position play in future pieces, but this will do for a start. Position in poker outranks most other elements in hole-card games. Respect its importance.