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How to Begin a Session — Part IV

Develop a game plan based on your table position

by Barry Tanenbaum |  Published: Nov 26, 2010


In Part III of this series, I continued my discussion of things that you should do when you start a session. We looked at the following list:

1. Don’t play right away.
2. Look for negative inferences.
3. Assess each player’s current state of mind.
4. Determine your table position.
5. Take fewer chances.
6. At no-limit, buy in for the minimum.
7. If possible, establish a positive image.
8. Decide which players to exploit and which to avoid.

My last column covered point No. 3, assessing each player’s state of mind. (That column and all of my columns are available at We now will continue by looking at point No. 4, determining your table position. Actually, I have since determined that a better description for No. 4 would have been, “Develop a game plan based on your table position.” So, we will look at that topic here.

Let’s start by looking at the general concept of “game planning.” Assume that you are a football coach, and are preparing your team for next week’s game. You have a pretty good idea of what your team can do. You look at film to determine the other team’s strengths and weaknesses. Then, you decide on a plan based on the matchups.

If one player on the defensive line is weak against the run, you plan to run at him. If the other team has an excellent pass rusher lined up against one of your weaker offensive linemen, you devise a plan to roll your quarterback away from the pressure to get him more time. Essentially, you assess the abilities and vulnerabilities of each opponent and determine how best to exploit or avoid him.

Of course, the other team also makes a game plan, which sometimes attempts to counter yours. So, you need to be alert to make mid-game adjustments.

That thought process is the same one that you need to bring to the poker table. As you start your session, you use whatever preliminary observations that you have made to establish a basic plan. You decide who is weak and who is capable, who is tough and who is vulnerable, and who is self-assured and who is not. Using this, you make a game plan.

Your table position: Some of the plan has to do with where you are sitting. If you are to the right of a very tough player who likes to three-bet, you have to play lock-down poker even if you don’t want to. You can’t afford to get frisky with creative raises if you are going to face a barrage of three-bets.

Your table position also determines who is in the blinds when you are on the button and in the cutoff. How aggressively you can attack them depends on how well they play and how tightly they defend. While you should be assessing where you might like to sit, you need to develop a strategy that fits where you actually are sitting.

Of course, you also assess your table position to review the basics. You want predictable players on your left and unpredictable players on your right. When you sit down, you cannot get the other players to move to where you would like them, but you can determine how good or bad your current seat is, and adjust your play accordingly.

The game plan: Of course, you will play your hands as they are dealt. But, a game plan can help you determine what range of hands to play in certain situations, and sometimes when you do not need a hand at all.

Let’s look at a couple of weapons in your poker arsenal:
1. Bluffing
2. Isolation

Bluffing: Bluffing is seldom a spur-of-the-moment activity. You need to establish whom you can and can’t bluff in various situations.

In general, you should not try to bluff big stacks, tiny stacks, players who have been winning a lot of hands, and players who are self-assured. You should try to bluff players with medium stacks, players who have been getting beat, players with a negative attitude, players who are close to even, and players who are getting ready to leave.

Of these, the most important is the negative attitude. Some players, having taken a series of defeats, are ready to concede. They just know that it is a matter of time until some terrible card comes to kill their chances. So, if you are playing middle pair against them and a scary flush card hits the turn, raise or check-raise them. They will see potential disaster, and quite often will fold.

Isolation: If there is an undisciplined raiser on your right, you want to three-bet him liberally. If your range of hands for three-betting a tight raiser is A-A through J-J, A-K, and A-Q (and it need not be that large), you can expand it considerably against a loose raiser who is willing to fold a hand on the flop or turn; expand to perhaps any pair, A-K through A-9, K-Q through K-10, A-J, Q-10, and J-10. Your objective against the loose raiser is to hope that he misses the flop with his non-premium hand and gives up. The more hands he raises, the harder it is for him to play a hand heads up and out of position after he misses the flop. My book, Advanced Limit Hold’em Strategy, goes into considerable detail regarding this play.

Making a game plan enables you to make easier on-the-fly decisions against individual players. You know to check to frequent bluffers while value-betting against calling stations. You know to fold the turn when raised by non-bluffers while treating the same play by highly imaginative players with more skepticism.

By making the effort to understand the current style and state of mind of each opponent when you first sit down, then factoring in your position relative to each one, you can quickly establish a tentative counterstrategy for each opponent. As you implement it, things will change. For example, as you three-bet the loose raiser, he may revise his strategy and raise more solidly. Continue to adapt your play as opponents adjust to yours.

Next issue, we will look at ways to take fewer chances until your game plan solidifies and your table image becomes established. ♠

Barry Tanenbaum is the author of Advanced Limit Hold’em Strategy, and collaborator on Limit Hold’em: Winning Short-Handed Strategies. Barry offers private lessons tailored to the individual student. Please see his website,, or write to him at