Playing winning poker out of position

You’re at a huge disadvantage when you play out of position. Luckily, Nick Wealthall is on hand to show you how to win from all positions

‘Position is everything in no-limit hold’em.’ You’ve probably read these words many times before, but only really good players constantly apply this maxim to their game. The best players are always those who understand the power of position and use it to maximum effect. This comes back to the central idea of poker being a game of incomplete information: the person with more information has the edge, and if you’re acting last or after other players, you have more information than them as you’ve seen their actions.

Sadly, however, it’s not possible to play EVERY hand in position. As much as we recognise that playing out of position is a handicap, it’s something that’s pretty much unavoidable in the normal course of play. In this article I’ll look at the challenges you’ll face, and ways of protecting yourself, when playing out of position.

Preflop decisions

You can minimise the amount you play out of position by focusing on your preflop play. A lot of beginner and low stakes players make the mistake of playing similar hands in every position. In fact, you should be playing very few hands out of position and compensating by playing a lot of hands in later position.

When deciding whether or not to enter a pot in early position, your choice should be determined not only by your hand strength but also the nature of the game you’re playing in. Firstly, consider how aggressive the players are behind you. In a full ring cash game or deep-stack tournament in which you have aggressive and competent players behind you it may not be profitable to play a hand like Ac-Qd out of position. In many full ring situations the old guidelines of medium-to-high pairs and A-K still hold true for the first three seats, and under the gun in a six-max game. Obviously you can play looser in a lot of games but it’s really tough to play weaker hands such as K-Q suited or A-T well from early position.

Playing from the blinds is equally challenging preflop. Not only do a lot of players play too many hands from the blinds, but they also play their hands far too passively. Let’s say a strong player opens from late position and you hold A-T offsuit in the big blind. Clearly this hand is well ahead of his opening range and you shouldn’t be folding, but if you flat-call it can make the hand very difficult to play. The majority of the time you’ll miss the flop and even if you hit your play isn’t straightforward. Often a far better line in this spot is to reraise. By three-betting you are putting more money into the pot with what is often the best hand. You are also somewhat compensating for your positional handicap by taking the lead in the hand and putting pressure on your opponent.

It sounds obvious but you should be even more wary of calling three-bets out of position. With three-betting becoming increasingly popular in the modern game it can be frustrating to get reraised a lot and have to fold medium-strength hands preflop, but the reality is that calling with two high cards or medium pocket pairs will only put you in a money-losing situation. You’ll often end up playing a big pot out of position with your opponent holding the initiative in the hand.

Let’s say you’re deep-stacked and raise with 8-8 from early position and get reraised by the button, who also has over 100 big blinds. Calling the three-bet puts you in a horrible position on most flops. If it comes K-9-2 you may be ahead or behind but you’ll almost certainly face a flop bet and maybe a turn bet too. It’s not a nice place to be. Very often you should just muck your hand preflop or, if you believe your hand is ahead of his range, four-bet rather than call. You should, however, be aware that if you choose to four-bet you are representing a very small range of hands and allowing your opponent to play more perfectly against you as well as bloating the pot.

Postflop problems

While being out of position preflop is no picnic, it’s on the flop and beyond that the disadvantages of acting before your opponent(s) really start to bite. Every street gives your opponent a chance to exert more pressure, and the deeper the stacks are, the more your problems will be magnified.

In a tournament situation with much shallower stacks it’s possible to overcome the disadvantage of playing out of position somewhat by being able to get all-in on the flop. A useful way of doing this is to take a stop-and-go line where you call a preflop raise and then shove all-in on the flop to get folds from better hands.

In deeper-stacked games there are some situations in which you can combat your poor position. One thing to look at in particular is exploiting players who continuation-bet too much. Let’s say you call an opening raise from the blinds with Q♠-J♠ against a habitual c-bettor. In this spot when you miss the flop you should be looking for boards that you can attack him with. If the flop comes 5-4-2 you might decide to check-raise. This pure bluff puts a lot of pressure on the preflop raiser and will elicit a lot of folds from better hands such as Ace-high.

Another possible line is to check-call the flop against aggressive players, or when you think you are ahead and your opponent will overplay his hand. For example, say you hold 9-9 and the flop is K-7-3. You figure to have the best hand here a lot of the time, but you feel that check-raising will fold out everything you beat and cause you to play a big pot when behind. Here, check-calling is logical. The problem with this line is making decisions on future streets. For example, if an Ace comes on the turn it may improve your opponent’s hand and leave you not knowing where you stand. Equally, if he’s a thinking opponent that card is a great one for him to fire a second barrel at, so you may have to call another bet more often. Things then get really tricky on the river if you’re forced to call another bet with your underpair.

In summary, check-calling out of position has the benefit of allowing aggro players to bluff, but it makes the hand much, much harder to play. There are some players like Daniel Negreanu who have had success with this approach, but you need to have excellent hand-reading skills to make it work and you should try not to get into these spots too often. Imagine how much easier it would have been to play the 9-9 hand if you’d reraised preflop and then fired at the flop with the initiative.

Continuation betting

If you’re the preflop raiser and are called by a player behind you then you may well have the stronger hand preflop but are now playing the hand out of position. The first means of defence is to fire a continuation bet on the flop. Despite awareness of c-betting now being very high you should still keep the lead on the flop often and give yourself the best chance of winning the pot there and then. As more and more players are floating on the flop these days (for the uninitiated that means calling a continuation bet not on the basis of your hand but with the intention of stealing the pot on the turn as a bluff), you often have to bet the turn as well, even if you’re not sure if your hand is best. If you just give up on the turn your play will become very exploitable and better players will play pots with you in position knowing they can beat you up on later streets.

Getting value

Of course it’s not all doom and gloom – sometimes you’ll make a big hand out of position and then the challenge is about extracting value. Often the best way to extract value is to keep firing in the bets and hoping your opponent can call you with second best. Bet-sizing here is extremely important. You want to be betting large enough to get paid the maximum, but it’s important not to vary your bet sizing too much between your pure bluffs and your strong hands.

Sometimes you may want to vary your line. For instance, if you’re facing a creative player who calls on a lot of flops you may want to fire the flop and check-raise the turn, both with some bluffs but also for value. This unorthodox line looks extremely strong so it can work as a bluff but it may also trap an opponent to either stack-off with a worse hand or bluff the turn when he would have folded to a bet. Don’t overuse this line though, as you are risking giving a free card on the turn.

If you’re the preflop caller and you make a big hand you have to decide between check-calling, check-raising or betting right out. The classic example of this problem is when you call with a small pocket pair like 5-5 and hit a set on a board such as Q-9-5. There is no single answer to the problem of extracting maximum value in this situation, as it is dependent on your opponent, how likely the flop is to have helped him and your respective stack sizes. Try to think situationally about these factors and take the best line to extract the most money or induce the most action.

One final weapon is the ‘blocking’ or defensive bet. This is a smaller bet than standard and is primarily designed to stop your opponent from making a big bet and putting you to a tough decision on the river. It can also be used to set a price when you have a draw or to extract value with an okay hand. These bets are useful but will be attacked by aggressive players who view them as weakness. You should remember this and sometimes use them to induce aggressive opponents to make a bluff-raise when you’re strong.

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