A lot of poker strategy is counter-intuitive, and quite a bit is contradictory. We will try to sort through all of that, and try to give you insights into when some things are wrong or right (positive or negative EV) with an emphasis on why.
We might as well start off with our first contradiction right away. Most people spend way too much time thinking about play before the flop, and way too little thinking about how to play afterwards. Mostly, this happens because pre-flop play is relatively easy to discuss, and post flop play is more difficult. But the real money to be made at poker, especially beyond the beginner levels, is made post-flop.
In spite of that, we are going to spend the first six lessons discussing pre-flop play. We will not be looking at lists of hands and positions to play them. We be looking at the three keys to successful play (position, people and playing cards), and how to use them to make quality, thinking pre-flop decisions.
Patience, discipline and control represent a very important personal characteristic. However, you will find it a lot easier to be patient if you have a good idea of why you are waiting and what you are waiting for. With this in mind, we will spend the first six lessons on the foundation: principles of which hands to play, in which games, in what position, and why.
- Lesson 1 (this one) - Some words about position. You will find this lesson below.
- Lesson 2 - Characterizing loose games - what makes a game loose; handling aggression versus position in these games; what kinds of hands win.
- Lesson 3 - Characterizing tight games - what makes a game tight; handling aggression versus position in these games; isolation plays; what kind of hands win.
- Lesson 4 - Hand construction - How to play position and game type when holding pairs and big cards.
- Lesson 5 - Hand construction - How to play position and game type when holding suited connectors and gap hands.
- Lesson 6 - Unusual people and situations - How to handle blind hands, maniacs, excessive aggression.
A Few Words About Position
We start with position because it is the most undervalued concept by most intermediate players. Let's look at the "big three" of poker considerations:
- People - WHO am I playing against
- Playing cards - WHAT was I dealt
- Position - WHERE am I with respect to the others.
Interestingly, this is similar to the thoughts of a general examining a battlefield. WHO is the enemy, WHAT munitions and resources do I possess, and WHERE should I position my forces? As you know, one of the most important battlefield considerations is "take the high ground," Loosely translated (for my purposes), this means: "make the enemy come to me."
When you are playing poker, you are the general in charge of the battlefield. You get to assess the enemy (try to play against weak players, avoid the enemy's strengths). You examine the munitions and resources (what kind of hand was I dealt; how many chips do I have). You assess the terrain (do I have the advantage of acting last).
By assessing all of these factors, you get to make the ultimate poker pre-flop decision: do I wish to engage the enemy on these terms? In other words, do I have the right combination of opponents, cards and position to have reasonable chance of showing a profit, or should I wait for a more advantageous moment?
By this point in your poker career, you should know that poker is a game of situations. The reason you get the answer "it depends" to so many poker questions is that there are a large number of factors to consider at the table before you can answer. In this classroom we will try to demystify "it depends" by spending time discussing what it depends on. But the key to deciphering most situations is to not enter them unless you know what the situation is. And that is the essence of position poker.
Although this lesson series focuses on pre-flop decisions, the reason for holding position over your opponents comes into play on later streets. Of course, this fact is especially true in flop games, where your position will be fixed throughout the hand.
Here is a simple and common example. You are playing hold'em and see the flop in late position with JdTd. The flop comes J95 with no diamonds. In late position, if you see a bet and a raise in front of you, you can muck your hand at no cost. If they all check to you, you can bet for value as you likely hold the best hand and need to get rid of people with overcards as well as charge draws. If there is a bet to your immediate right, you can raise and try to get heads up. If there is an early bet and a few calls, you can determine compare your chances of winning to the pot odds, then decide the likelihood of winning and decide to call or fold.
Now consider the same hand and flop with you in early position. You can bet, and hope all works out well, but if you are raised and reraised, you will have to lay it down for the loss of a bet. If you check, you might find everyone checking and you have lost a bet and a chance to drive out some opponents. In short, you are now playing this very typical situation blind, and it could cost you a lot regardless of what decision you make.
The only way out of this quandary of how to play this hand in early position with a somewhat favorable flop is to not play the hand early in typical games. All sorts of attractive hands should be mucked up front in flop games solely because of position. Far too many players look at hand and decide, "This is a playing hand," and then play regardless of where they are relative to the button. This series of lessons will keep you from being one of them.
I would like to cover one more advanced thought regarding position. Very frequently, your position after the flop will vary not only with the button, but also with the pre-flop raiser. In many cases, the field will check to the pre-flop raiser, who will almost always bet. If you are on the right of this raiser, you can expect that the first post-flop bet will come from your right. You are now be default in the worst position for this betting round, as you must react first without the benefit of seeing how the action goes. This out-of-position effect is one of the critical reasons why you need a much better hand to call a raise than you would to raise yourself. Thus, in addition to considering your position relative to the button, and the possible strength of the raiser, you must consider you position relative to the field of the raiser happens to act first after the flop.
So make sure you give position at least equal weight in making decisions before the flop. In the next lesson, we will look at loose games and see what characteristics they exhibit.