Understanding the Importance of Position

In poker, position means power. It is almost always advantageous to act after you've had the benefit of seeing what your opponents do. Their actions provide clues about the real or implied values of their hands. This is true in every poker game, and is particularly important in fixed position games, like hold'em and Omaha. In these games position is fixed for the entire hand, unlike stud, where it can vary from one betting round to another.

Suppose you're sitting in eighth position in a fixed-limit hold'em game and raise before the flop with a pocket pair of jacks only to see A♥Q♦6♠ flop. Now the player in seat three comes out betting and is raised by a player in seat five. What should you do? Unless you have good reason to believe that the bettor and raiser are both bluffing - and that's very, very unlikely - you no longer have the best hand and should release your pair.

Let's examine another scenario with the same cards. Suppose your hand was checked on the flop, and again on the turn. Now you can probably bet your pair of jacks and take the pot, or simply check behind your opponents and give someone with a hopeless hand a chance to bluff at the pot on the river.

What if you were first to act with the same hand? What should you do with your jacks then? You can bet, and probably take the pot if no one holds an ace or queen, but remember this: in many lower limit games players will play any ace, regardless of the kicker.

Betting gives you a chance to steal the pot, but if someone holds a better hand you can be sure you'll be called - or maybe even raised. Because you were forced to act first, with no advance knowledge of what your opponents are holding, or any clue as to how they might play their hands or respond to your actions, you are forced to guess what the right play might be. Even if no one holds an ace or king, you might wind up throwing your hand away if someone bets and you are forced to consider calling in the face of two overcards.

All in all, this is not a good situation to be in, regardless of position. But you are certainly safer acting last. All early position offers is an opportunity to steal the pot by bluffing at it. This, however, is a high-risk strategy, since you might be up against a better hand, and find that you've been raised for your troubles.

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