What Does It Mean To Be In Position?

Poker Concepts, Strategy

April 21, 2008

Like most people with websites, I occasionally look to see what phrases people are searching for to find my site. One of the recent ones was “what does it mean to be in position”. This sent the searcher to one of my pages, albeit not one that actually answered his question. While I can’t help that guy out (unless he comes back), I can answer the question for someone else.

It turns out that position is a bit of a complicated topic, because it really refers to several different concepts that are only slightly related. All of them have to do with the order in which the players act, but that’s where the similarities stop.

Position as The Absence of Risk

One of the first uses of position that players will encounter is position as a lack of risk. What does that mean? Well, for example, everyone knows that you can open weaker hands in limit holdem in later position (assuming a bunch of limps haven’t changed things) than you could in early position. But most people haven’t stopped to think why this is – ie. why it’s bad to open KQs under the gun, but a good idea to open it 3 seats later. The reason is simply that 3 seats later, the risk of running into a dominating AA,KK,QQ,AK or AQ has been reduced by a third. This turns a net loser into a net winner. Generalized, we get the following advice:

When you have to decide on a play and do not know what your opponents hold, the number of them remaining acts as a surrogate. If there’s 5 people yet to reveal what hand they hold, it’s more likely one of them has a good hand than if there were only 3 people. That means, if you hold a marginal hand, you should be more likely to bet for value against fewer remaining opponents. And if you hold a weak bluffing hand, you should be more likely to bluff against fewer opponents. In other words, it’s wise to shut down when you have lots of opponents unless you have a strong hand.

This is the primary importance of position, especially at limit games. However, it actually doesn’t have that much to do with where in the order you act. It’s just that, on the first betting round of any game with a blind or bringin, your position is equivalent to the number of people yet to act behind you. In stud games where you can at least partially see what those to act behind you have, this form of position is minimized. But in draw and community card games where all a player’s cards are concealed, it’s of paramount importance.

Position as a Source of Information

This next concept is the effect of position discussed in Sklansky’s Theory of Poker. He correctly points out that if more opponents act before you, you have more information when you act. This should be an advantage, and usually it is. However, the advantage is somewhat muted by the fact that your opponents can act in a deceptive manner – they may well choose to check a good hand, or bet with a weak one. The degree to which an opponents actions can be considered informative depends mostly on 2 things: how late in the hand the action is take, and how much money is at stake. Actions later in the hand tend to be more “truthful” and those earlier in the hand less so. This is because players often adopt the strategy of playing contrary to their cards early in a hand, and then consistently with their cards later in the hand. The opposite almost never occurs. Similarly, more money implies more truth. Small bets are often deceptive, but bigger ones rarely are more rarely deceptive. These two factors often combine – for example, Ciaffone points out the flop betting in limit holdem is often heavily deceptive. The flop has small bets, and is early in the hand. This collectively makes it hard to interpret flop bets.

Relative vs. Absolute Position

The two types of position described above each come in two forms – relative position and absolute position. Absolute position simply reflects the order that people will act. If there are 4 players still in the hand, the guy who will act forth on the next betting round is said to have the best absolute position. When someone refers to “position” without a qualifier, this is what they’re usually talking about.

Relative position is different. It reflects you position relative to the first person likely to bet in the next betting round. This stems from the idea that the person who put in the last bet or raise on the previous betting round usually puts in the first bet on the next round. This is called the “betting lead” and it’s not a surefire indicator of who will bet the next round, but it’s often accurate. The key observation is that checks that occur before the person with the betting lead are almost meaningless. Whether those players have a strong hand or a weak one, they’re going to check. If strong, they’ll want to check-raise either this street or a later one. If weak, they don’t want to put money in. So their actions are meaningless and convey no information. What this means is that the WORST relative position is immediately after they guy with the betting lead, and the best relative position is immediately in front of him. This is opposite of absolute position unless the first player to act has the betting lead.

So when do you care about relative position, and when do you care about absolute position? Good question. Generally, relative position is most important when you’re nearly certain that the person with the betting lead will continue to bet next round. In contrast, absolute position matters when you’re not so sure who’s going to bet.

Relative position also become far more important in multi-way pots. You get something I call the sandwitch effect. It’s in essence the “absence of risk” angle above for later street play. If you’re the third player to act in absolute terms, player 1 check, and 2 bets, you now have a problem if you hold a medium strength hand you think is just good enough to call player 2. Because there’s some chance player 1 is planning a checkraise, and if he does, you’ll have to abandon your call. In other words, you poor relative position means there’s risk behind you.

Changing Position, and Position as a Source of More Position

In the stud and holdem/Omaha structures there is a mechanism that changes around position from betting round to betting round. In holdem, the blinds act last preflop, but first on every subsequent round. Generally speaking, when considering whether to continue in a hand based on positional advantage, it’s position on future rounds that matters, not just position on this round. That means that in holdem, the positional advantage the blinds hold on the first round isn’t worth much. However, in such structures you can lose absolute position but retain relative position in the blinds sometimes. For example, if an early position player raises the pot, some players call behind, and you call in the big blind, you will retain relative position on the flop as long as you check the flop initially. This can be a more advantageous situation than it initially appears.

In stud, position changes based on upcards. Usually this mutes the positional advantage by changing it around relatively randomly, so stud players don’t put as much emphasis on position. However, when one player has a very high board to start, the position is often more or less fixed, or at least for it to change someone has to improve. For example, if you’re playing heads-up 7 card stud and you have {As7d}7c and your opponent is showing {XX}Kc, you know that you will either have position for the rest of the hand, or else make at least two pair. This is a more solid positional advantage than most you will see in stud.

Now you have some idea what it means to be in position.

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