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Head Games: Position And Having The Lead

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Jul 14, 2021

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The Pros: Fedor Holz, Andy Stacks, and Matt Stout

Craig Tapscott: Can you define how you take advantage of position in tournaments or cash games?

Fedor Holz: Position plays an important role in poker. Being last to act is a big advantage that gives you more flexibility than your opponents. It forces your opponents to play more passive when there is someone behind them that is still to act, because you will still have position on them throughout the entire hand. That’s something to be aware of and to make sure you take into consideration playing each hand.

As for specific situations, especially when open raising and being flatted (called) in position, even though you have the stronger range, you need to check on a lot of flops and on occasion to the player in position. Being aware of this dynamic is vital if you want to become a better player.

Andy StacksAndy Stacks: With position, depending on the opponent of course, I’ll be calling with a much wider and questionable range of hands in both tournaments and cash games, especially in uncapped cash games where we are both sitting deep, due to the ability to reload at any time. 

Overall, I’ll be continuing with far weaker made hands and all kinds of backdoor draws and overcards, especially on boards where there are more potential scare cards that can hit. I’ll also probably be more inclined to play more aggressively on those types of cards if they do come. I’ll be more confident in betting to apply more pressure to my opponent’s range on turns and rivers. 

For example, if the board was 7-5-4 rainbow and I’m holding K-8 offsuit out of position, I might not continue as often, depending on what kind of player is in the hand with me doing the betting. I might just choose to give up early on, even if I think it’s 50/50 that you have me beat. But with that same hand in position, I’ll be much more inclined to stick around. I may call to get more information later in the hand or choose to raise as a bluff at some point, but I would be doing very little folding if my opponent is a reasonably active player. 

Also, when calling with these weaker made hands that have good cards to improve on, I believe it’s far more difficult for your opponent to continue firing as a bluff when you have position on them. Without the information of how you will react to cards to come, they’ll be forced to give up both their bluffs and their made hands when the board gets ugly for their actual holding.

Particularly in a tournament setting, I’ll be reraising preflop as a steal a ton more versus preflop raisers. Since the chips in a tournament are so much more valuable to players, they’re less likely to call passively out of position without a decent holding.

Matt Stout: Position is easily one of the biggest factors in no-limit hold’em, so much so that a weaker player can often negate a stronger player’s edge simply by having it. It dictates what hands you can play profitably, and in terms of game theory, you can play about twice as many hands profitably from the button as you can from under the gun in a nine-handed game. Top players will not only talk about how good or bad their table draw is, but how good their seat at that table is based on who they have position on and who has position on them.

Poker is a game of information, and often incomplete information. The player who is in position will always have more information than the out-of-position player. That is why you’ll often see players seat-hopping in cash games to try to get position on “the live one” even though it’s frowned upon in terms of poker etiquette. Whether your hand is a monster, nothing, somewhere in between, or a draw, it will always be easier and more profitable to play it in position than out.

When you have a big hand out of position, you either need to lead out with it, or run the risk of letting it go check-check and giving your opponent a free card. Obviously, you’re going to want to check and let them stab or bet an inferior hand for value in a lot of cases, but you can miss a lot of value by doing so when they don’t bet. When you’re in position, you’ll always have the option to bet if your opponent checks to you, so it’s a lot easier to control when and if you give your opponent any free cards for the sake of deception. You’ll also gain more value.

When you have nothing and decide to take a stab, you’ll generally be bluffing into a much weaker range after the out-of-position player checks to you than if you do so when acting first. This leads to much more profitable bluffs.

When you have draws and medium-strength hands, you’re often going to have some close decisions as to how you want to proceed and how big you’re willing to let the pot get. Needless to say, being in position will make all of these decisions easier and give you more control over how to proceed than if you act first.

Craig Tapscott: How important is having the lead in the hand? Can you please share how this can be utilized vs. certain types of opponents and why?

Fedor HolzFedor Holz: I’m not really thinking in terms of “having the lead.” I’m mostly thinking about what range each player has, who has position, which board we see, and then what the optimal strategy is based on these inputs. What happened on earlier streets dictates the ranges, but doesn’t matter much for me beyond that. 

There are lots of situations, though, where exploitatively I will make adjustments based on which actions my opponent chose. There are scenarios where the majority of players will deviate from optimal play, because they aren’t aware of it and mostly act out of their intuition. So, I’m often thinking about what their “intuitive play” would be.

When in a situation when most strong hands would go for a large bet, and my opponent starts checking or betting small, then I will start attacking him on later streets. If in a tough river situation, I’m being put all-in, the first thing I’m thinking about is which value hands and which intuitive bluffs he will get there with. If I believe he has enough natural bluffs, I will call.

As you can see, I look at actions to define the composition of our ranges and to play optimal with that information rather than at who had the betting lead.

Andy Stacks: Having the betting lead in the hand is huge. Between two opponents with similar skill, the one doing the betting is automatically playing with a massive advantage. For every street that you maintain the lead, betting puts your opponent on the defensive. Essentially, they’re forced to try to hang on and make a hand strong enough to continue. 

Otherwise, they’re going to have to play back at you at some point to try to win. But it’s tough for players to do that if we both know how to read the situation. If they try to take the lead away and their story makes no sense, it’s going to be really awkward. From my experience, most players that I’ve encountered that started the hand as the caller aren’t accustomed to just start check-raise bluffing without either improving or having some really reliable information about your strategy. So again, they’re really at the mercy of either trying to make a big hand, completing their draw, or just calling you down with something marginal. 

Especially in deep-stacked cash games, it’s a losing proposition to be holding a marginal hand, up against multiple large bets and just guessing. If that player is being put in that type of situation repeatedly throughout the course of an eight-hour session, he/she is just certainly almost always going to get destroyed when facing an opponent who knows how to time their aggression. When two strong players are in the hand, the one with both position and the betting lead is going to simultaneously make a ton more when ahead and lose a ton less when behind in a cooler. That player is going to be able to decide every time, how large of a pot they want to play in each spot.

Against tricky opponents who like to apply a lot of aggression on dangerous boards, they’re greatly handicapped when out of position without the betting lead. If my opponent’s strategy was to check-raise a specific range of turn or river cards, obviously he/she is only able to do that if I decide to bet when checked to. And if I can anticipate which likely cards they would do that with, their chances of winning the hand go way down when not having the lead. 

Matt StoutMatt Stout: It’s extremely important to try to have the lead in the hand as frequently as possible, often to the extent of folding some very playable hands. This is simply because the situation dictates that you don’t think it’s a good spot for you to be the aggressor and that you don’t want to play the hand without being the aggressor. It comes down to a really simple piece of advice that Mike Sexton used to give on WPT broadcasts. When you’re betting, you give yourself two ways to win the pot, either you get your opponent(s) to fold, or you can show down the best hand. When you’re not the aggressor, you can only win the pot by showing down the best hand.

One of the most common situations that comes to my mind where you want to play your hand but are often better off finding a fold is when you’re in middle position with hands like A-J offsuit, A-10 offsuit, or K-Q offsuit and are facing an under-the-gun raise from a somewhat tight player. Not only are you not in great shape against their range, but you’re also inviting multi-way action by calling. The problem with that is offsuit high-card hands don’t play well multi-way. You’ll often be dominated and get kickered when you flop a pair, or worse, be up against two pair or better hands.

When you combine positional play with a good, but reasonable, level of controlled aggression, you can pick up a lot of small pots, especially against weak and passive opponents. Those small pots may seem somewhat irrelevant but will often pad your stack to help make a couple more big blinds per hour in cash games, or leave you with a medium stack instead of a short stack or out when you lose a big pot in tournament play. That, in turn, can make the difference between losing and break-even, break-even and winning, and winning and crushing. ♠

Fedor Holz is one of the most accomplished poker players of the modern era, having been ranked no. 1 worldwide both live and online. His $34 million in live tournament cashes is good for no. 7 all time, with an additional $11 million won online. The 27-year-old German pro has shifted his focus to entrepreneurship, founding and investing in multiple projects. His most active venture is called Pokercode, a poker community where he and other world class minds coach aspiring players to thrive and improve.

Andy “Stacks” is one of the most familiar faces in the high-stakes poker scene in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and has become known for his regular appearances on the popular live streamed cash game, Live at the Bike! at the Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens, California. In 2020, he started to help promote the growth of poker in Asia and became a brand ambassador for GGPoker China. You can check out his YouTube channel by searching for Andy Stacks Poker.

Matt Stout has amassed more than $8 million in cashes across online and live play during his career. In 2014 he founded the Charity Series of Poker, which has helped raised more than $2 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Vegas Golden Knights Foundation, the Raiders Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, local food banks, and more. If you’re interested in NLH or PLO coaching, or know of a non-profit that would like help running an online or live charity poker event, you can reach out to matt@charityseriesofpoker.org.