When beginners describe what hand they played, they usually start by describing what their hole cards were, and then tell the story about the betting. An expert however, would never describe the aspects of any hand, without first describing his position. That’s because in NLHE, position is sometimes as important, if not more important than the hand you hold.
Position is a very simple concept. Position simply refers to when you have to act relative to your opponents. In a typical 9 handed Texas Hold’Em game, there are 3 basic positions and the blinds (early, middle, and late position). The person sitting directly to the left of the Big Blind (“BB”) is considered to be Under the Gun (“UTG”). In a 9 handed table, the UTG player and the 2 players to his left (UTG +1 and UTG + 2) are considered to be in “Early position” as these will be the players that will be the earliest to act in the hand. They’ll act by either calling the BB, raising, or simply folding their hand. But again, these 3 players are the “Early Position Players.”
The next two players to the left of the Early position would be considered in “Middle Position.” They are located a the very middle of the table relative to where the blinds are. And finally, “Late Position” is defined by players who are either on the Dealer button, or to the direct right of the dealer button. The position to the direct right of the dealer button is also known as the “Cutoff.” There is tremendous power in poker by playing more hands in Late Position than in Early Position, simply because you have more information. This helps a poker player determine so many aspects of what they should or should not do with their hand.
Also, you will be able to change the starting range of your hands based on your position on the table, playing more hands in Late Position than you would in Early or Middle Position. The big reason is, you will make more money in late position than in early position. It’s not that you’ll be dealt more winning hands in Late position than in any other position. Cards are random, and the winning hand should theoretically be dealt to each position on the table an equal percentage of the time. However, this is poker. And what’s important in poker is not betting, but profitability. The simple idea of poker is to end up with more chips than your opponent has. And because there are dynamics in poker such as folding, there are 3 main reasons that acting in Late position is more advantageous than acting in Early or Middle position.
Reason 1) In early position, you’ll fold the best hand more often. The simple reality of No Limit Hold’Em is that you never really know what two cards your opponent has until the cards are turned over. This happens for 1 of 2 reasons. Either, all the cards have been dealt, and action has been called all the way to the river, and players have to turn over their hands to determine whose hand is best. Or, a player is called after placing all of their chips in the middle, in which case the hands must be revealed to determine who holds the best hand.
When you are acting in Early Position, you simply have less information on your opponent. Lets say for example that you’re dealt As-Qs from early position, and you receive 1 caller from Late Position. The amount of the bets at this point are irrelevant. In this situation, lets say that the flop comes out 8c-7c-6c. Suddenly, a hand that doesn’t have a club isn’t as good as a hand with them. The possibility of receiving the winning hand by the time the river card comes is very low, unless the person that called you from late position has absolutely nothing. But to have called you before the flop came up, they obviously have 2 cards, any one of which may be better than your simply Ace high. If they hold any club, or any pair, or perhaps a hand with a Ten or even a Nine-Ten hand, then you’re hand will not be a winning hand. And in order for you to win this pot, you will HAVE to bet your hand, in order to induce your opponent into folding.
In a similar case, lets say that you hold two tens as your hole cards. T-T is a good starting hand. But from early position, difficult decisions are more common. Lets say that you open from early position with your pocket pair for 4 times the BB, and again you find 1 caller. The comes out, Jc-6h-2d. There is no real straight or flush draws at this point, so the only hands that have you concerned would be a J, a pocket pair of 6’s or 2’s, or a pocket pair of J’s or better. Because you opened the hand, there is no real way to assess what your opponent has, or how good their hand is because they simply called you pre-flop. Making a standard continuation bet here is actually a very prudent play, and I’d recommend it on a board such as this.
But lets say that in this instance, your opponent calls you. Well, now you’re faced with a very difficult decision when the turn card comes out. You have to really wonder, “what hands might my opponent be holding that could have me beat.” Regardless of what the turn card is going to be, you almost have to slow down and check your pocket pair to get more information from your opponent with respect to the strength of his hand. All of this is going to cost you a risk of more money to see if your opponent calls you.
Here’s a great video of Jamie Gold vs. Chris Ferguson, in which Ferguson ALMOST lays down the winning hand because he’s in early position. Jamie’s bet from late position makes this a very difficult decision, and even Phil Hellmuth and Johnny Chan provide commentary on the hand that is eventually decided by a coin flip.
Chris eventually makes the right call, but you can see from the length of the video that it takes him a while to arrive at the right decision. Even after flopping such a huge hand, Chris has an extremely difficult decision because he plays this hand out of position. Jamie makes a great position bluff with absolute nothing, but the fact that he's able to act in position means that there is more pressure applied to the early position player, and almost makes him lay down the actual best hand.
Reason 2) You’ll make more with winning hands in late position. The above examples also do a wonderful job of explaining this. You can really put the players in late position on ANY hand, and their play's make it hard for the player in early position to make the right call. Lets take another look at the first example, and this time lets give Player 2 in late position AKos. So, player 1 opens with As-Qs from early position for 3 times the BB, and is called by Player 2. The flop comes up 8c-7c-6c, and now Player 1 is forced to check the flop. This gives Player 2 a tremendous advantage because he has position on his opponent, as well as the best hand. It gives the AK the opportunity to bet the flop with the best hand, and very likely pick up the pot, or check the flop of all clubs, and not have to risk any more of his stack. But just simply by being in position, you’ll be able to see more cards, which will lead to folding less often, resulting the opportunity to win more hands.
Here’s another example on how playing in Late position can help. In this video, we see Daniel Negreanu and Sam Farha tangle in a pot in the WSOP. Daniel is notorious for playing lots of pots, and makes a pre-flop bet from early position, and is called by a player from middle position, and Sam from Late position. Take a look:
Daniel initially checks the flop with the best hand because there are a lot of ways that he could be beat by the two remaining cards. He remains way ahead on the turn, and tries to get his opponents to fold by betting out 2000 on the turn card, which helped neither player. He’s successful by eliminating the player with AJ from the pot, but Sam Farha decides that it’s not too much more to come along to chase his straight and/or his flush draws. He gets lucky when it hits, and he can then bet with the best hand. Now Daniel is really in the unenviable position of either A) Calling into a hand for the rest of his chips where his hand can now be beat by a myriad of other hands, or B) getting away now with his loss by folding.
Daniel makes a great read (as he’s noted for doing), and we see that Sam takes a large pot by playing his hand in position.
Reason 3) You’ll lose less with a losing hand in late position. When you’re in late position, you have the ability to control the size of the pot. Because you’re the last to act, you have the freedom to either check and see a free card if the action is checked to you, or call or re-raise any bet in front of you. And if you miss your hand completely, you’ll be able to get away for less expensive than if you were in early position.
Here we see Johnny Chan laying down aces from position.
I really believe that Chan had to put Seed on a Jack here, but he was able to lose the absolute minimum with the absolute best possible starting hand, simply because he was in position.
To surmise, you will make more money in the long run, and you'll have much greater success if you focus on making plays in late position. That's not to say that you can't make winning plays out of position, but it makes your job as a poker player much easier if you're making your plays acting last.