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Head Games: Three Keys to Winning Poker: Position, Position, Position

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Apr 29, 2011


The Pros: Shane Schleger, Yevgeniy Timoshenko, and Moshin Charania

Craig Tapscott: What are some of the main ways to take advantage of your position against opponents at the table?

Shane Schleger: Position is like a force of nature in a poker game. The dynamics of table position are so intrinsic to the game that weak players can use it to gain an edge against good players without even realizing it. Acting after a player in a hand enables the in-position player to glean the maximum amount of information about his out-of-position opponent by being able to observe betting patterns and tells. The opportunity to observe is the greatest advantage of being in position. For a “feel player,” the most usable net effect of this is being able to win hands in a lot of spots where hand values don’t matter so much. There are many poker situations in which both players in a hand have missed or have marginal hands, and being able to act last in these close spots makes all the difference. Employing basic poker aggression in combination with position is going to get the job done in these instances, but more importantly, a player in position can leverage the information in a hand to create opportunities for effective bluffs and can identify spots where calling with a “bluff catcher” is clearly a good decision.

Yevgeniy Timoshenko: Having position is very advantageous because it enables you to win many more pots. The deeper the stacks, the more powerful your position becomes, because it enables you to gather more information and make better decisions. Having position enables you to put pressure on opponents with or without hands, and with better results. Timid players will often avoid playing a big pot out of position without a strong hand, because they’ll be afraid of being put in a tough spot. This will allow you to pick up many more small pots than you would be able to pick up otherwise. Another major advantage of having position is that you can pick up pots that people have given up on; since people have learned how to combat continuation-bets in position, players with initiative have started shutting down more and even check-folding flops that they think hit their opponents. This sometimes enables you to pick up pots with just one bet. Finally, having position also helps you to assign your opponents more accurate ranges. Since you have more information about your opponents, you can narrow their ranges better based on how they act out of position. At times, this enables you to maximize your wins and minimize your losses.

Mohsin Charania: Having position can enable you to win a pot in several different ways. When you possess knowledge of what your opponent is doing before it’s your turn to act, you have the ability to control pot sizes, which can often get inflated when you are acting out of position and are almost clueless of your opponent’s next move. You can use your position on multiple streets, as well. Players can “float” flops without hands, because their opponents oftentimes will not continue to bet at pots when out of position without a strong holding. Acting in position also allows you to put more pressure on your opponent, which is a key factor in winning at poker. You can put in a raise after your opponent continuation-bets to see how he will react. You also can bet at pots when one or multiple people check to you, because that’s oftentimes a sign that they are giving up on the pot.

Craig Tapscott: How can you fight back against an aggressive player who is using his position to bully you?

Shane Schleger: If a bad player can use position against you without realizing it, a good player doing it by design can make your time at the poker table truly difficult. Like many things in poker, there are different viable approaches to dealing with this dynamic. The simplest tool that I use to deal with a player like this is: pick your battles. This is where “finding better spots” becomes a relevant concept, and it’s often unnecessary to go to war with any one particular player when there are other players at the table who are probably easier to take advantage of. The other players at the table might be good, but if they don’t have position on you, you’re going to have the same ability to lord position over them. The more aggressive option is to look for three-bet spots preflop and semibluff opportunities post-flop where you have fold equity. This is where another cornerstone of poker dynamics is essential — having a sense of your opponent’s range. You have to be able to roughly determine your equity versus your opponent’s possible holdings, and make some educated assumptions based on the possible outcomes (how much you win or lose when called, and how often he folds). Against a good player who is using position to his advantage, it’s usually not a big mistake to bet and three-bet with a big draw after the flop. Having outs and fold equity is one of the ways that you can neutralize positional advantage. This is also related to the concept that it’s OK to gamble against good players.

Yevgeniy Timoshenko: There is no easy way to fight an aggressive player who’s using his position. If you’re getting three-bet a lot, a good way to combat a wide three-bet range is to take some hands you might otherwise fold or call with and four-bet them. Be careful, though, as the deeper the stacks, the less effective this play becomes. Sometimes, aggressive players won’t back down to four-bets, and will either call or reraise, so use the four-bet wisely. Another option if your opponent is reraising a lot of hands is to simply take a hand that flops well and call. If you’re calling a lot of three-bets, this will make it tough on your opponent to three-bet many marginal hands, and might slow him down. Your plan is to flop a big hand and hold on, but if that doesn’t work, you can always try to bluff if you think you can represent a strong hand that’s better than your opponent’s on certain boards. The easiest way to do this is by check-raising the flop and hoping to win the pot right there. A riskier option is to float out of position, hoping to take the pot down later, but there’s more that can go wrong with this play. Due to the aggressiveness of players today, you shouldn’t expect to get anyone off overpairs or better in reraised pots, but if both of you miss the flop and you’re the most aggressive, you will often be able to pick up the pot if your table image allows it.

Mohsin Charania: Playing back at an opponent who is using his position to take advantage of you can be tricky. I think it takes a little bit of discipline. One way is to play tighter and wait until you make a strong enough hand that you are willing to put a lot of chips in the pot. At this point, you can use your opponent’s aggressiveness to your advantage. You can oftentimes check to him, and he will likely fire at the pot, and you can then check-raise to build a nice pot or check-call out of position to make it look like you are weak. By check-calling, you are letting your aggressive opponent continue to bluff while you’re trapping him. Another way to take advantage of his aggressiveness is to be even more aggressive than he is. This can get very tricky, especially if you’re out of position; I would not recommend it for players who aren’t high-level thinkers yet. ♠