Position is everything in poker. Position is akin to having possession of the ball with 20 seconds left in a tie basketball game: You have the opportunity to win, and to do so, you must be aggressive. If you’re passive and don’t take attack the basket, you’ll likely run out of time or wind up taking a well-defended outside shot. In poker, if you don’t take the opportunity to bet and raise when you have position, you’re losing out on golden opportunities. Try observing any poker pro on TV. When they have position, they tend to attack, even if they know they have the worst hand.
The value of table position is not only defined by absolute position, but relative position as well. Relative position is your position in relation to the pre-flop raiser, and it can often be more effective than have absolute position. When we take into consideration relative position, we must reassess the strength of our position and, of course, our hand.
Say you are on the button. Player A calls from the big blind. The player to the immediate right of you (in the cutoff), Player B, makes a raise. Here is a situation where, although you were are last to act initially, Player A is the one who closes off the betting. In this case, it’s actually better to be to the right of the pre-flop raiser. Why is this?
Sandwiched between players
Going with the aforementioned example, let’s say you are dealt K-J. The player in the cutoff, Player B, makes a raise and both you and Player A call. The flop comes J-9-5. You have top pair with the second best kicker. But here is the, ahem, kicker.
Nowadays, it’s safe to assume that the pre-flop raiser is going to make a continuation bet the majority of the time (depending on the stakes you play). Since the other players expect this move, it’s common to check to the pre-flop raiser. Player A does just that. Player B indeed makes a continuation bet.
Now, the power of being the last to act lies in the ability to see all of your opponent’s decisions beforehand, and then make a bet according to their perceived strength and hand range. However, you are no longer last to act in this instance. Player A will act last (assuming he does not re-raise). Player A was likely to check no matter what, so it’s difficult to put him on a range of hands. Unless he is certain that he has the best hand, he probably won’t lead out.
Essentially, you are sandwiched, or trapped, between two players who are tough to put on a range of hands because their fairly common moves did not indicate how strong or weak they were.
It’s possible that Player B holds a hand like A-J, a mid-range pocket pair or maybe even an overpair. It’s also quite possible that he is bluffing with a hand like K-Q. To add to our dilemma, we are unaware of Player A’s next move. He could be preparing to make a re-raise, whereby we would have to seriously consider a fold.
Professional No-Limit Hold ‘em example
Ed Miller, author of NotedPokerAuthority.com and multiple books, including Professional No-Limit Hold ‘em: Volume 1, brings this example to the table: A maniac has been going all in every hand at 9-handed, $1/$2 cash game table. He has $270, and you sit down for the max of $100. You decide you will call him with sixes or better, or A-10 or better. Two seats open up at the table, one to the immediate right of this maniac, and one to the immediate left. Which seat do you take? Ed writes:
Consider your worst all-in hand, ace-ten offsuit. If you sit to this person’s immediate left and call all-in, any of the other players could play as well. If one of them has AA, KK, QQ, JJ, AK, AQ, or AJ, you take the worst of it. However, if you sit to the immediate right of the slider, you see what everyone else does before you commit. You can limp with ace-ten offsuit, then get all-in if no one else calls him. If instead someone plays, you can fold. With relative position, you will often get to check to the likely bettor, then see how every other opponent reacts before committing your chips. That is why, contrary to conventional wisdom, it can sometimes be better to be on the right of a very aggressive player. Most of the time, however, absolute position is more important than relative position.
While it’s a contrived and unlikely example, Ed uses this point to illustrate how relative position can be more important than absolute position. On the other hand, unless you’re in late position, like the cutoff, you can run into plenty of problems by checking and seeing how everyone else bets. What if you have Q-Q and you check and let the blinds limp in. The flop comes 9-9-4. The BB goes all in for $100. What do you do now? How does a check-raise make you more money if you know this player is going to go all in regardless of what you do? By check-raising you’re inviting more players into the hand, who, especially if they have a small stack, might just be tagging along for the pot odds.
Also, don’t think this kind of maniacal play doesn’t happen, although I’ve only seen it a handful of times. If you’re patient, the money will come to you.
When considering relative position, it is better to be to the immediate right of the pre-flop raiser than it is to be to the immediate left. Against good players, you should expect a continuation bet most of the time; thus, you will be last to act. You don’t want to be to the immediate left of the pre-flop raiser. Here you will be first to act when the raiser makes a continuation bet, and it’s difficult to gauge the strength of the other player(s) in the hand who checked before the raiser.