By Tucson Marlon
The problem with attempting to explain “position” to players new to the game of poker is the fact that it’s such a nuanced concept that any hard, simplified definition often misses the mark. I believe there’s a much better way of describing the idea of poker position, and it has more to do with drawing parallels with common experiences than cracking open a poker dictionary of terms. It’s much easier for beginner players to imagine and conceptualize foreign poker lingo when it’s bathed in familiar, real world experiences.
Imagine for a moment that four people are at a yard sale. There are three paintings on display that capture their attention. They see half a dozen other people at the yard sale who seem very interested in the same three paintings. Each of the four shoppers have only five hundred dollars to spend for the day. As a result, the four of them understand that they have to be very precise with their bidding strategy in order to purchase multiple paintings.
The first person makes an opening bid of five hundred dollars as soon as the bidding process begins. He wins the bid when no one makes a counteroffer on the first painting. He also forfeits his chance of purchasing another painting because all his funds are now depleted. Later, he learns that he overpaid for the painting, as no one at the yard sale was willing to pay more than $50 bucks for the artwork because of subtle water damage.
In this scenario, the first person put himself at a huge disadvantage by acting so aggressive in the beginning of the bidding process. He made critical decisions without having much information about the painting or the other bidders at the yard sale. By being the first to make a bid, he was instantly at the mercy of the other participants left to act after him, each one with the power to overbid him or pass on the painting. Had he waited, or been last to act, he might have noticed that the other bidders only wanted to spend less than $50 bucks for the item. As a result, he paid more for the painting than it was worth.
The second bidder wants to purchase the second painting, but never makes a bid or counter-offer. The second painting is going for a discount deal at $100, but the bidder is intimidated by the process, scared that someone will inevitably raise any bid he or she makes. The bidder misses out on a great deal because of an inherent passive approach to the entire process. This bidder was more concerned about losing a bid than actually winning one.
Sometimes a person’s actions inadvertently sabotages his or her ultimate goals. Inaction or passive behavior is one of the main types of self-sabotage. If the goal is to buy a painting, yet a person’s behavior betrays that goal by not producing the proper action, this invariably limits the chances of success.
The third bidder slightly differs from the past two participants. He recognizes the second painting is looking like a great deal, but he only bids $5 more than the previous bids, making it easier for the people left to act after him to make a counterbid. He refuses to be bold in his raises, opening the door for more intense competition.
Too often, in life and in poker, being timid is not much different than inaction.
Lastly, let’s analyze the strategies of the fourth bidder. She patiently strolls through the yard sale, listening to the conversations of her potential rivals, watching their interests, taking note of indications of their budgets. She learns that one bidder really wants a handcrafted bar stool, but will settle for one of the paintings as a second option. She discovers that one of the bidders for a painting she wants has limited funds and don’t want to bid over $75, even though it’s a great deal for triple that price. After collecting all the data available, she patiently waits to act last, drawing conclusions from the actions and behavior of the other participants. She intently watches how everyone is responding to the rising prices and perceived value of the paintings, and when the bidding seems to stagnate a bit, she moves in with a bold bid that’s within her price range, worthy of the painting, and enough to intimidate the timid.
I believe “position” in poker is much like the previous yard sale bidders in our example. The person with the most information at his or her disposal has an inherent advantage over the competition. A player who is first to act after the big blind is in the worst possible position, as he or she has to make a betting action without having very much information about the decisions other players will make. She has no idea if someone will raise the pot, reraise the pot, or just limp around to see a cheap flop. Also, after the flop, she will more often have several players left to act after her, always putting her at a disadvantage when it comes to the available information. The first couple players to act at a poker table has to choose much stronger hands to open with precisely because they are armed with much less information.
In direct contrast to this situation is the player on the button, who gets to consider every other player’s actions (except the small and big blind pre-flop) before he makes his own decision. He gets to be the fourth bidder in the yard sale. He gets to watch how people acted in the hand before they made their poker action (or bid for the pot), and assess the general strength and weakness of their likely range of hands before making his decision on how best to respond. If everyone simply limped into the pot, the button gets to determine if raising increases his chances of taking down the pot preflop, or on the flop, turn or river. He has the information of what everyone else has done before he decides his best course of action, and there’s a certain amount of power in knowing what others have decided to do in poker before you make your own decision. Had the first bidder in the yard sale example been able to see that no one wanted to bid over $50 for the first painting, there’s no way he would have bet $500 on it. But because he was first to act, he was forced to make decisions without all the available information.
When it comes to “position” in poker (being the last person to act, or being last to close a particular betting sequence), the information collected also include past hands, playing styles, aggression, and betting indicators, among others key factors. When you are last to act in poker, you get to make assessments about how determined a player is to win a pot or how much they seem to like their hand. If you see a bet, raise, and reraise on the flop before the action gets to you, this gives you a ton of information about the texture of the flop, the players involved, and the likelihood that your hand is behind or ahead. It’s easy to fold middle pair, even top pair sometimes, when you have multiple sources of information to analyze before you make your final decision. You get to see how much people are betting in order to win a big or small pot, and from there you get to decide if your hand or the situation warrants you risking more chips.
When in position, or last to act, you get to determine how passive players are being, and from there decide if the act of pure aggression is enough to win the pot, no matter what your actual hand is. By being in position and having all the information about other players’ actions before your make your decision, you are armed with an array of tools to win a pot.
Most players have to depend on getting lucky and being dealt a good hand in order to win pots and tournaments. A player with a keen awareness of position gets to win pots regardless of their actual hand strength.
The second bidder in our yard sale example is someone who sabotages his own goals of purchasing a painting by being afraid of losing, timid and refusing to act decisively. In poker, and without an awareness of position, this mistake is made by betting too small, checking too often, and only waiting until you luck out and hit a really good hand before you bet.
Your goal in poker is to take every single chip in the tournament. You can’t reliably take chips by checking. You can’t reliably take the maximum amount of chips by betting weakly into big pots, giving players a discount to suck-out and win a pot that you’ve decided to take. Your actions should always align with the goal of taking every single chip in the tournament. That means that you can’t bet 1k on the river into a 15k pot when you have the nut flush and you know from past experience the player will call 10k. Your actions are then sabotaging the goal of the game, to collect and hoard all the chips at the table.
Position, when used correctly, always allows us to keep the goal of the game in focus because we are dedicated to collecting information. We don’t play weak hands out of position, essentially tossing chips into the pot as a call, knowing full well that if anyone left to act after us decides to raise, we will have to fold. We don’t collect all the chips at the table by giving them away in small pots with weak hands. (A different essay would have to be written about my personal definition of weak hands, but here is a popular starting hand guide: http://ygraph.com/chart/2035)
Now that we know that position is about collecting information as well as being among the last players to act in poker, we must quickly discuss how that information is collected and used.
In our example earlier, the fourth bidder at the yard sale paid close attention to the competition, seeking useful information. You must do the same at the poker table. Watch players, even when you are not in the hand. What type hands are they raising, what type holdings do they have when they call a raise?
If the blinds are 100 and 200, and you see player X limp into the pot from early position and then call a raise of 800, ultimately to win the pot against pocket kings with 7-5 offsuit, you now have information on how wide player X’s range can be in the future. Armed with this information, you can elect to punish his bad calls preflop by raising 1,600 with your high pocket pairs when he’s in the pot next time.
In poker, you are watching how other players are playing, the type hands they play with, the type bets they make when they have a hand, the type actions they make when they are bluffing, all in the hopes that when it’s your turn to face them, you will be able to use this information, along with position, to exploit them. I emphasize this aspect of position because it’s often overlooked by new players. Position is as much about collecting information during a particular hand as it his about being among the last to act. But in order for that information to be relevant and useful, you need to have a past database of information to help you decipher what a player’s actions might actually mean in a particular hand or situation. Does a player only bet in a certain situation if they have a flush or boat, or are they crazy enough to bet into you with only a top pair hand when you have a flush? Cultivating this type information allows you to take advantage of players’ mistakes, but only if you are actually paying attention, watching them, and willing to raise them (take their chips) when it’s obvious that they are behind your hand.
Be bold. Be aware. Watch players. Take chips. Teach yourself to despise “checking” in poker unless you are trapping someone. Position in poker incorporates a little of all these things. The pot on the poker table is your painting from the yard sale. Collect information on potential bidders. Use that information to your advantage. Boldly make your bid. And, whenever possible, make sure you are the last person to make a bid. Then take your painting home.