Positional play – early position

We get to the bottom of why, in no-limit Hold’em, the seat you’re in should affect your decisions the most

‘If I could play every hand on the button I’d beat any game blind.’ Not my words readers, but those of Doyle Brunson, a man who knows a thing or two about poker. As he knows, and you’ll discover, position is everything in Texas Hold’em. You will have heard this said before I’m sure. You may even think you understand how important it is. But the fact is very few players below the professional ranks really understand how important position is and, more importantly, how it affects every decision they make at the table.

In this series of articles, rather than telling you how to play in each position (which is too simplistic) I’ll look at the main factors influencing your decision as well as some of the concepts and plays you can use to maximise the money you make. This month I’m delving into early position, moving on to late position next month, and playing out of the blinds to finish off a month later.

When I sat down to write this article I was reminded of a time recently where I wanted to ask a very successful pro an opinion on a hand I thought I’d misplayed. I started my story, ‘So, I’m in early position…’ and he cut me off, laughing, saying, ‘Well there’s your first mistake.’

As this pro rightly surmised playing out of early position and making good decisions is hard – harder than most players would like to admit. Acting after another player is a huge advantage because of the information their action gives you and the reverse of this is true. If you have to act first you’re acting with less information, which is why playing a hand when out of position often becomes a guessing game. I’ll look at some of the ways you can counteract this disadvantage.

Premium hands only

For the purposes of this series ‘early position’ means the first three spots after the big blind. First of all let’s look at the type of hands you would consider entering the pot with ‘up front’. As your position is as poor as it can be your hand should be as good as possible. So in the main I’m talking premium hands. You’re always going to play A-A, K-K, Q-Q and usually strongly. With smaller, medium pairs, specifically 10-10 and J-J you should vary between raising and limping – the bigger the stack/blind ratio the more often you can limp.

Playing two big cards often leads to some of the toughest situations after the flop, although there are times later in tournaments when short-stacked where you’d look down to see K-Q, sing a quick chorus of Hosanna and push your chips in. However, if you have a bigger stack and there are other big stacks out there you really should limit playing this kind of hand. You should usually raise with A-K, limp with A-Q and throw everything else (A-J, A-10, K-Q etc) into the muck.

A variation to your play of strong hands up front is the limp re-raise. This is a divisive play in poker – some pros never use it, others make the play regularly. Usually it’s done with one of the top four hands (A-A, K-K, Q-Q and A-K). The clue’s in the title in that you just call the big blind hoping someone will see this as weakness and raise. You are then able to re-raise having trapped them with the better hand. It’s a play that’s more effective at an aggressive table where raising and re-raising is common. For this reason, and because the blinds are bigger so you can trap more money before the flop, it is best used in tournament play.

The easiest category of hands to play in early position is small pairs. Post-flop you’ve either hit your set and can start working out how to extract most money from the hand or you’re usually done with it. In most deep-stacked games (cash or tournament) you can limp in with a small pair and call a standard raise behind should one come. In shorter-stacked situations with big blinds this isn’t possible and your small pair becomes unplayable. But to vary your game or in short-handed situations you should sometimes open the pot with a raise.

There’s a huge caveat to your hand selection in early position, and that is to remember that sophisticated opponents will realise players only enter the pot in a certain way with this kind of hand up front. They will know if you raise you have a premium hand, and if you limp you’re likely to have a pocket pair (you should look for this tendency in your opponents, too). You will need to adjust to this as you play in tougher games to prevent being pushed off hands by aggressive players in late position. The antidote is to vary your play somewhat and play hands like 8-7 suited in early position for a raise. Don’t get carried away with this idea though; you’re definitely better sticking to premium hands at the lower levels.

Guessing game

After the flop things start to get really sticky when you’re out of position. Do you lead out on the flop or do you check? If you have a hand and the pot is multi-way you’ll want to protect your hand against draws and get money in the pot when you have the best hand. Often this is accomplished by betting out, as giving a free card to multiple opponents when you’re probably ahead is a huge risk. However, with aggressive opponents in late position, check-raising can prove to be a more successful tactic as you will trap more money in the pot when ahead but, if no one bets, get a free card which may turn a winning hand into a losing one.

In a heads-up pot or against two opponents you will often face the choice of maintaining the betting lead (continuation betting) or checking.

Often when you’ve raised before the flop and been called, the best play on the flop may be to check, often with the intention of check-raising. There are many benefits to this play. It effectively allows you to keep the betting lead because you will be the one putting pressure on the other player(s) in the hand. It also increases your expectation, as it makes it more likely other players will take a shot at the pot with a weak hand.

You should look to make this play when you’re strong, say if you’ve got an overpair to the flop or top pair, but also as a bluff, when you’ve missed with A-K for example, and still have outs to improve if he calls you.

The disadvantage to this approach is that it costs you a higher price to check-raise than it does to lead out. Against passive opponents it’s usually better to bet your strong hands and continuation bet when you miss the flop because your opponents will only call or raise when they have a good hand.

Another technique to try out is checking with the intention of betting whatever comes on the turn if your opponent checks behind you. This is a delayed continuation bet, which will often look like you have a strong hand you were slow-playing on the flop. It’s particularly effective if opponents have seen you checkraise the flop with good hands in the past.

If you have made a play on the flop, whether leading out or check-raising, and the little buggers are still playing with you on the turn, things are getting serious. Obviously, if you have a strong hand you’re in the business of getting paid but a lot of the time you won’t be certain your hand is good and this is where some guesswork comes in. But let’s make it educated. As with everything in poker, player knowledge is incredibly important.

For example, if you have top pair/top kicker against a passive opponent it may be they are calling along with a worse kicker and make it right to value-bet your hand. Against a tricky player you may be up against a monster and find yourself facing a raise when you bet again on the turn. Of course, the cards on board will affect this evaluation. You can be much more confident of having the best hand on the turn if you hold A-A and the board is K-9-5-2 with no flushes as opposed to A-A on a board of K-Q-10-8 with three hearts.

There are some players who will call on the flop but fold on the turn if you fire a second barrel. Again, deciding when to make this play is dependant on both the player and the board. I wish I could give you rules on when to do this and when not, but a lot of this is judgement that comes with experience.

You should also add check-raising on the turn to your armoury. This is particularly useful against aggressive opponents who will call on the flop to try and take the pot away from you on the turn. You can make this move when you hold a strong hand or as a bluff. However, it does carry the health warning that making a significant check-raise on the turn will involve you committing a lot of chips, which leads us seamlessly onto our next topic.

Element of control

On the turn and the river you should consider making moves that control the size of the pot. A maxim that all excellent no-limit Hold’em players try to adhere to a large part of the time is to only play a big pot with a big hand. One pair – even an overpair – does not count as a big hand. The reason for this is that the more resistance you get from your opponent the greater the likelihood that he has that beat and the more guessing you have to do.

If you have an opponent acting behind you contesting the pot on the turn, consider checking and calling if he bets. This idea can also be used on the river – if you’ve taken the lead on the flop and the turn. This play may seem passive but it has a number of advantages. If you take the lead you open yourself up to being raised and will either have to play a really big pot with a marginal hand or have to muck your hand. If you check your opponent may underestimate your hand and end up giving you chips. This works particularly well on the river when your check with an overpair may induce him to bet his busted draw – the silly overconfident monkey.

An alternative to this play is the blocking bet, also known as a defensive bet. This play is usually made on the river and is intended to stop your opponent making a big bet and putting you to a difficult decision. For example, let’s say you’ve taken the lead with Q-Q on all streets. On the river an Ace hits. You think you probably have the best hand as he could have been calling with a lower pair or a draw. If you check you open up the possibility of being bluffed or being put to a big decision. However, if you make a defensive bet – usually about 30 percent of the pot – you stop this possibility.

These bets are effective in a lot of games, but against strong opponents they become less effective as they will be seen as weakness and attacked. I’ve outlined some of the concepts and plays that will help you combat the disadvantage of playing in early position.

Experiment with these approaches to improve your judgement as to how to play each situation in early position. But always remember it’s an enormous disadvantage to play from this spot so try and avoid getting all your chips in early from this position.

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