Just because you’re out of position doesn’t mean you have to lose. Learn how to rule the tables with Ross Jarvis’s guide to owning the opposition out of position in part one of this pro concepts series
Think back to when you first learned to play poker. I bet you quickly heard about the ‘power of position’, likely from some bearded Socrates lookalike who was busy multi-reading the Racing Post while nitting it up in a £10 rebuy. Of course, this guy probably had little idea what he was talking about, but he was correct about the serious importance of position. Position allows you to obtain more information from your opponents, control the size of the pot and make much more accurate decisions. But you already know all this, don’t you?
What about when you’re out of position though? Often the only help you’re offered is this: don’t play hands out of position. It’s terrible advice. You can’t be scared when you’re the first to act. Instead you need to make life really difficult for your opponents and try to turn your disadvantage around. You always have three ways to win the pot when you’re out of position and they are: donking out, check-raising or check-calling. Here’s how to pummel your opponents in all three ways.
There once was a time when only donks donked. Hence the name. That’s all changed in today’s game though. When used correctly donking can confuse, irritate and befuddle your opponents into making major mistakes.
The problem with donking for value is that it often polarises your range into air and nut hands (mostly sets). This is fine if the pot is multi-way. Say you have 2-2 and see a Q♣-J♣-2♦ flop five ways. If you’re first to act the best play is to donk out big on the flop. If you check you run the risk of nobody else betting (people tend to c-bet a much tighter range multi-way for fear of being raised and almost never c-bet bluff), which is a complete disaster on a flop like this. The turn could bring cards that complete draws, kill your action or just stop you building the pot size with a hand that you want to go to war with. Donk out instead and you’re much more likely to get action and win a big pot.
Should you ever donk out with a medium strength hand to find out where you are? In a word, no. This is one of the most frequent mistake poor players make with donk bets. Mid-stakes tournaments and cash games are so aggressive now that donk bets are raised relentlessly, so the information you’re after is distorted. This is another reason why your donking range should be weighted towards value hands. A good, underutilised tactic is to donk out hands such as A-T on a T-high board. This allows you to dictate how many streets of value to go for – dependent on the board run-out and your opponent’s tendencies – while also inducing bluffs from your more aggressive opponents.
It’s rare that you should ever donk bet with a pure bluff, because you’ll often be left guessing on later streets if called, plus you’ll also be raised a lot on the flop. The only exception is when you have a note on a player that they will play very passively against donk bets. Normally it is much better to donk out with semi-bluffs. These can be as light as a hand such as Q♣-J♣ on a 8♣-9♦-4♠ flop as there are so many turn cards that give you some extra equity (any club, T, Q or J) to fire again on the turn and triple-barrel some rivers too. With bigger hands like nut flush draws you can also mix it up between check-raising and donking out to leave your opponents guessing.
Check-raise the roof
Check-raising used to be banned in many casinos as it was deemed unethical and deceptive. This is precisely the reason why you should check-raise a lot. Another good reason is that there’s no way for you to make playing out of position profitable if you don’t check-raise a high frequency with value hands, semi-bluffs and complete air. You have to be willing to put pressure on your opponents and playing passively simply won’t work.
Even today, players don’t check-raise bluff nearly enough. The best targets for bluffing are those who have a very high continuation bet stat (anything over 70% will suffice). These players are firing away at almost any flop whether they have equity or not. Thus, by check-raising on flops we suspect they have missed we will pick up the pot almost every time. Position and flop texture are vital when considering which boards to check-raise. It’s not rocket science. If a player opens under the gun and you flat from the big blind with a hand like 8-7 you should not be check-raising an A-5-T flop that smashes their range.
It’s important to remember that we are not attempting to get players to make big folds – we are only attempting to make our air beat their air! A much better spot to bluff is on that same flop but when the initial raise comes from the button. This time your opponent’s range is much wider making him more likely to fold to a raise. If your flop check-raises are called you can’t always give up. As a general rule it’s better to double (and triple) barrel if the board changes (meaning that flushes, straights or trips get there) rather than staying the same, as this will make it much easier for an opponent to close their eyes and click call.
In an aggressive game you should be check-raising for value relatively light. Say you’re heads-up against a player who gives your check-raises little credit. You call a preflop raise with Q-T and the flop is T-4-7 rainbow. With this game dynamic check-raising is normally better than check-calling because he’ll call with worse, float you and sometimes he will play back against you with air. If you’re going to take higher variance lines such as this you must be prepared to make a plan for the remainder of the hand there and then. It is no use check-raising a flop for value if you are going to check-fold a blank turn when called.
If you’re not happy with this style of poker then you should check-call instead as, while you’ll probably miss out on value, your decisions will at least be easier and less stressful. When you have a monster you should be much more inclined to check-raise if the board is draw-heavy, if your hand can be outdrawn on later streets or if there is an aggressive game dynamic ongoing. You should, for example, check-raise J♣-T♠ on a J♦-T♦-6♦ flop 100% of the time while it may be better to just check-call 4-4 on a 2-4-J rainbow flop to allow your opponent to catch up a little.
Check back tomorrow for the second part of this pro concepts series!