Improving your poker position


Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. Originally published  published (2006) in Bluff magazine.


The ultimate power in poker is position. Position’s influence on the game is so great that if you put a satellite in space and had its camera zoom in on a poker table, you see something quite curious. You’d see the money flowing clockwise around and around the poker table. How come?

Every player at a poker table has a positional advantage over the opponent to the right. Because, by rule, the action proceeds clockwise, players on the right act first and players on the left get to see what they do and make decisions accordingly. Getting to act last is so important that even world-class players would lose to average players if they always made their decisions first.

It’s usually that way in real life, too. If you know that both you and a competitor are going to both have a chance to act, you’ll almost always have an advantage by going last.

Almost 30 years ago, shortly after I stumbled into the public poker arena by contributing the five-card draw chapter to Doyle Brunson’s Super/System – A Course in Power Poker, I made my first product available to the public. It was called Advanced Strategies for Draw Poker and Lowball. It was just two large sheets of paper, printed on both sides, with charts scattered all over the place. In the full-page ad announcing this, I used sold the idea that you could annihilate any draw-poker game if you knew which hands to open pots with and your opponents didn’t. There were separate charts that told you what to do in these typically eight-handed games if you were in the first through eight positions. Eight possible positions relative to the dealer called for eight charts – and that’s what I presented.

Position only

Each chart told you the minimum hand that was required to open the pot profitably. The thing that’s most interesting about my first publishing experiment is that the Advanced Strategies dealt with only one main poker concept: position. What the Advanced Strategies failed to deal with were methods for improving your position, which is what I’ll be sharing with you later in this column.

Five-card draw poker was played jacks-or-better to open back then in the legal California cardrooms. You anted, and you could check on the first round and wait to see if the pot were opened. If not, the antes increased and there was a brand new deal. You quickly understood that the more players that remained to act behind you, the more likely it is was someone would hold a stronger hand, so the more vulnerable you were. In the first position, it was costly to open with a pair of jacks, but in the last position, that same hand was quite profitable.

Now, when we consider how important position is in draw poker, where you could check and still come back into the pot, imagine how much more important it is in modern games like hold ’em, where you can’t check on the opening round. If you’re first to act, you must either wager or throw your hand away. In games like that, you don’t need to speculate that players who didn’t wager probably won’t play, because you know for sure.

So, the draw poker charts told us that the earlier your position, the more conservatively you needed to play. In hold ’em, you can raise the blind with profitably with Q-J from the dealer position, if everyone else has folded, but if you’re first to act, playing that same hand would be a disaster in the long run. The reason is that against just two remaining opponents, Q-J has a good chance of being the best hand, but against nine remaining opponents, it doesn’t.

Another key to success

But the draw poker charts taught something else that was fundamentally important to your poker success. If, by the time the action reached you, someone else had already opened the pot, your position didn’t matter much. It was the position of the opener that made the difference. You had to gauge your requirements in accordance with what that opener would need in order to come into the pot in that position. When we apply this principle to hold ’em in the big blind, we can see why you need a much stronger hand to call if the raise comes from the first player to act than from the dealer position.

Always be conscious of position at poker. If nobody has voluntarily wagered, then it’s your position that matters most. The more players that remain to act after you, the stronger your hand needs to be. But if someone else has wagered, then it’s the position of the first player to have voluntarily entered the pot that makes the difference. The more players that remained to act after that player, the stronger your hand needs to be.

Finally, I promised to share a secret that will make your position better! Here it is.

Watch the players remaining to act on your left. Primarily, you’re searching for those who will not play. As I’ve described in my tells book and the companion video, often players who aren’t going to enter a pot pretend to be interested. There’s no real advantage in doing this, except that they don’t want to appear predictable. Sometimes they’ll try to fool you by staring a little longer than necessary at their cards. Sometimes they’ll feign a good hand by subtly moving their fingers toward their chips, suggesting preparation to bet. Sometimes they’ll seem to follow the action much more closely than they would if they really held a strong hand.

Amateur acting

Those mannerisms are exercises in amateur acting. They usually mean the opponent is ready to fold. Contrast this to the way amateur acting looks when players really hold significant hands. They’ll try to show no interest. Often, they’ll stare away from the action, seeming uninterested and unconcerned. Also, player who have strong hands often push or lean their cards somewhat toward the dealer, a subtle, false indication that suggests they intend to fold.

Remember, when players are acting, they’ll usually do things that indicate the opposite of the true strength of their hands. When you see players doing things that indicate interest, expect them to fold. When they’re showing no interest, expect them to play.

Now that you know that, you can do what I do. You see, I’ve published guidelines for hold ’em and other games that tell you what your minimum wagering hands should be in various positions. That’s a great advantage in itself. But, often players at my table who have read my recommendations are puzzled and confront me. They might ask, “Don’t you need at least K-J to play in that position?” And I’ll just nod and say, “You’re right. But tonight I feel like just getting out there and gambling!”

The truth, of course, is that I’m not playing poor hands in too-early position. I’m watching the players to my left and predicting how many will fold or play. When there are supposed to be six players waiting behind me, but three look like they’re going to fold, that means I can play hands that I know to be profitable against three opponents. Not only have I played profitable hands, I’ve confused astute opponents who think I’m opening too weakly.

This method of improving position at poker has always been one of my secret weapons. Now it’s yours. – MC

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Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.

11 thoughts on “Improving your poker position”

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  1. It seems that no one these days looks at their cards until it is their turn to act. Of course you can still pick up tells after the flop.

  2. I’ve always been calling with weaker hands when someone in early position raises…because I have a positional advantage. I’ve also been calling with stronger hands out of position because the guy on the button (who raised) has the positional advantage. I’ve been playing backwards??

    1. Hi, Bill —

      Remember that the early position player, if making logical decisions, has already factored in the disadvantage of an early seat. Try to evaluate what you would need to make that bet from the opponent’s early position. That’s what you’re targeting.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

      1. Thanks for the reply :) My friends and I really love your advice.

        It’s a pretty popular tactic where I play to call with weak holdings just because you have position on the early position raiser.

        Are you saying that the advantage of position doesn’t outweigh the advantage of premium holdings in the long run?

        1. Position is compensation, so you can use it as a factor in expanding hand selection. But if you overestimate the value of position, you end up playing hands that aren’t profitable. Then, you’ve squandered the positional advantage. It’s a balancing act, as are are other poker decisions when both favorable and unfavorable factors are weighed. — Mike Caro

  3. Mike, interesting that you’re taking questions on your “Advanced Strategies…” now, since I recently tried to obtain it but found it to be rare and unavailable–no copies for sale on any market, and only one library in the world has it (and isn’t lending or making copies). Would you consider republishing it somewhere or posting a copy to the Internet Archive?

    1. Hi, Riccardo —

      I will publish it and make it available at Poker1.com if I ever locate a copy in my old boxes. It will either be free or for a low price in the store. It’s on the to-do list.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  4. How do you play against players to your left who don’t cower to raises?

    Do you limp in with your medium strong hands since you can’t steal the button from them or just fold and wait for a better time to bring it in for a raise?

    Edit: Elaborated that last part.

    1. Hi, Nicky –

      Remember that raising to chase opponents out isn’t a primary goal. It’s something you rarely use in addition to the twin major goals of raising — namely, to make extra money through strength and to bluff.

      The raise to “limit the field” approach should only be used if you can chase away strong opponents, not weak ones. In the case you describe, you can’t chase them away, so you shouldn’t be raising for that purpose. Usually, I will limp in that situation with medium-strong hands, encouraging the callers behind me. However, if those players behind me are aggressive and selective, and are proven winners, I might simply fold, instead, and wait for a better opportunity.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

      1. How about with pretty-strong hands like AK suited? If I raise a solid player who has position on me and I get reraised, I’ll usually at least call, even if another player that has position on him calls too. This tends to get me in a bunch of trouble. Probably my biggest weakness.

        I should probably just fold in these spots, but how do you handle these situations?

        1. Hi, Nicky — Unfortunately, I have no advice. There are too many factors to consider. Sometimes you’ll call. Sometimes you’ll fold. Sometimes you’ll even reraise. You’ll need to study other advice at Poker1 and try to apply it to any given situation. — Mike Caro

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