If you’ve ever played a session of blackjack, then you know the advantage that comes with being able to act second. It’s the main reason the house has an edge in the game, and if you make a priority to act second in poker – by having position – then you’ll enjoy a similar advantage.
Acting second is so important that position and stack sizes are the two most relevant factors in determining which hands you should play pre-flop. Players who make a habit of playing out of position are quickly punished; for many beginning players, it’s the single most-common leak in their game.
Being able to see what your opponent does first is one of the few pieces of telling information we have that helps define their range of holdings. For example, if a straight-forward opponent raises in early position, and then checks to you on an uncoordinated flop like Q-7-2, then you can likely eliminate the strongest and weakest holdings from his range because his combinations with top pair and better would likely bet for value, while his combinations with no pair would likely bet as a bluff. With just one street of information, we can make a relatively accurate assumption that he has something with moderate showdown value that doesn’t want to bloat the pot (perhaps a holding such as pocket tens or jacks).
As the hand continues, the power of your position becomes even more apparent. Take the turn for example, where it’s common to see the pre-flop raiser continue their aggression with a continuation bet on the flop, passive players will be more reluctant to fire again on the turn if they’re not confident in their holding. This is especially true when the most obvious draw on the board completes. Unless your opponent is holding the nuts (or creative enough to slow-play a relatively strong hand), you can infer that a check from your opponent means he’s concerned about the draw. In situations like these, it’s possible to turn a hand that’s behind his range – such as a small pair – into a bluff if you believe he’ll give you enough credit.
Of course, you can’t always be the one in position. Take the small-blind for example; any time you enter the pot you’ll be out of position, so you’ll need to mitigate the disadvantage whenever possible. In the event you’re facing a raise from middle or late position, you’ll often adjust by three-betting pre-flop so you’ll have the lead in the hand, and the opportunity to win by betting the flop when you don’t connect. This doesn’t mean you should always three-bet from the small blind – and if your opponent is weak it may be better to just call pre-flop and keep the pot small – but against capable opponents, it’s a major leak to be just calling often, particularly in heads-up pots. If you do just call, make sure it’s with hands that play well post-flop, such as suited Broadway holdings.
Check out this video clip to see the power of position in all of its glory.