Tournament Poker Strategy: Position And Having The Lead


The Pros: Faraz Jaka, Nick Petrangelo, and David Baker

Craig Tapscott: Can you share how you take advantage of position in tournaments?

Faraz Jaka: Having position is one of the most important things in poker, because it gives you such a big edge. Over the long run, at any given poker table, you will generally make most of your money off the player directly to your right and lose the most money to the player to your left. 

One reason why having position gives you an advantage is that the player with position gets far greater control of dictating the final size of the pot. Imagine a player is on the turn with a medium-strength hand that is good enough to value bet, that also needs protection but doesn’t want to put heaps of chips in the pot. They can simply bet small and check back the river. If you had the same hand out of position, the player in position may force you to pay more to get to showdown. 

It also just makes it way easier to get max value when you hit a big hand. Imagine someone raises from early position, you call in middle position with pocket threes, the cutoff and button call as well. The flop comes A-7-3 and the preflop raiser checks to you. It’s unclear here if the cutoff or button have a piece of this flop or not. If they do, you’d love to bet. If they don’t, you’d love to check to let them bluff or catchup by hitting something on the turn. Now imagine this same scenario except now you’re in position on the button. All of the other players will reveal (to some extent) if they have a piece of the board or not before you get to act, and then you get to make your decision with more information.

One of the things you can do, to fight for position, is to three-bet a hand you might otherwise call with. By three-betting you kick players behind you out of the pot to ensure you have the highest chance of having position in the hand post-flop. You also might just win the hand preflop by three-betting. This may not seem like much, but over the long run this can add up, especially deeper in tournaments when chips are very meaningful. 

Nick PetrangeloNick Petrangelo: In any form of poker, whether it’s tournaments, cash games, sit-n-go’s, no-limit hold’em, short deck, pot-limit Omaha, etc., the in-position (IP) player will always have a strategic advantage, due to the nature of the betting structure. In theory, the concept of positional advantage is evident, even from just looking at simple range data. To fundamentally understand positional disadvantage, I think it’s important to examine equity vs. expected value (EV).

A range’s equity is what percentage of the pot that range is entitled to, while EV is the expected amount of money that range will make. In a single raised pot, a variety of position pairs will have similar or identical equity in some instances, but even in the case of a 50/50 equity split, the in-position player will have higher EV, and therefore make more money from the pot, mostly due to positional advantage and equity realization.

Let’s illustrate this concept with a simple range comparison. We’re playing 100 bb (big blinds) deep and we raise from the hijack, making our standard 2.4x open or whatever it may be for your game, with roughly 30% of hands. The big blind defends his 60% or so, and we see the flop. It peels 7Spade Suit 5Heart Suit 4Diamond Suit. Now if we freeze the hand here, both ranges have about 50% equity, meaning if we just check down the pot, both the out of position (OOP) and in-position (IP) player would win the same amount over time.

However, due to the positional disadvantage of the big blind defender, even on a low board that hits a BB defend range quite hard with some nutty holdings, the IP player will have higher EV, despite having nearly identical equity. The reason for this is simple, the OOP player simply cannot defend enough of his middling equity hands to realize his equity. The OOP player has a lot of high card type stuff, K-Q suited, K-J suited, etc., that are 40-50% equity hands. But they have to simply check/fold the flop to IP continuation bets (c-bet). This hand class is being blown off its equity and forced to fold by some very low equity hands that the IP player uses in his c-bet strategy, such as a 10-9, J-10, and Q-10 type hands, that are 25-30% equity holdings.

This fundamental comparison is at the root of positional disadvantage. If we try to defend this portion of our range by calling more c-bets with high cards, the IP player’s strategy will start instantly profiting from his equilibrium turn and river barreling strategy. As the OOP player, we have no strategic option other than to fold the middling equity portion of our range and allow the IP player to realize his EV advantage.

So now why is this concept so important? Once we nail down our fundamentals and start identifying trends and patterns in our opponents play, we can use position to maximally exploit our opponents OOP tendencies, and generate an even more significant EV advantage.

David Baker: You don’t have to be a world champion to understand that position is one of the most important factors in a hand of poker. This is especially true in a tournament. Every hand could be the last for someone involved, and with position you get to be the main decider of pot size and often times determine how many participants will continue in the hand.

There are multiple ways to use your position for maximum effectiveness. In a multi-way pot, for instance, you may determine your hand plays better heads-up. For example, you flopped top pair on a semi-coordinated board. You may choose a bet size big enough to only elicit action from one player. Then on future streets it’s likely you will be checked to. At this point you can choose to keep the pot smaller or inflate the pot based on the turn or information you get from your opponent. When you are out of position, it makes it much more difficult, because the last to act opponent may have been betting a pair, a draw, or just air. Facing bets is always more challenging than making them. 

Craig Tapscott: How important is having the lead in the hand and being the aggressor?

Faraz JakaFaraz Jaka: Having the lead in the hand, when possible, is extremely valuable. It helps keep your range uncapped so that you can represent a variety of nutted or top-quality hands. Another thing it does, is it allows you to fold your opponent off equity. The person calling can only win by having their hand hold up at a showdown. The person betting can win in two different ways. They can win at showdown, but may also just win the pot by convincing their opponent to fold. When we take the lead in the hand, we can also make opponents fold better hands. Taking the lead usually means going ahead and raising preflop, rather than limping in. It could also mean making a preflop three-bet rather than calling someone else’s raise, so that we become the aggressor with the stronger range preflop.

Here’s an example. The button raises and we call with KSpade Suit 10Spade Suit in the small blind. The board comes A-8-4 and we check. They continuation bet, we fold. Turns out they just had QSpade Suit JSpade Suit. What if we three-bet preflop instead? Then we would be the one continuation betting and they would be the ones folding. Neither of us hit anything, but the player with the lead often forces the other player to fold out equity.

Another example is we raise with pocket threes, the button calls, and the flop comes A-9-5. We decide to continuation bet to represent the ace, and the button makes a very reasonable fold with pocket sixes. Imagine we just limped in preflop, then it’s a lot harder to represent that ace and get pocket sixes to lay down the better hand.

If you aren’t used to taking this more aggressive line, it will likely put you into some scenarios you are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with. This may cost you money in the short run. But putting yourself in these uncomfortable situations is the only way you will learn to conquer them and take your game to that next level. It’s best to think of these chips lost in the short run as an investment in your game.

Nick Petrangelo: Considering only cEV (the positive or negative expected value of your chip stack) for now (we’ll get to positional advantage in ICM scenarios below), when I’m playing IP my dream is to put exactly as much money in the pot as I want to. This applies to being in position in single raised pots vs. an opener, vs the BB, or even being the IP player multi-way. The OOP tendencies that allow the IP player to manipulate pot size and bet sizing based on his hand strength are usually rooted in overall passivity and/or poor c-betting fundamentals. There are a few prevalent population trends relevant here.

Whether we’re playing a single raised pot IP vs the BB, or against an opener, most players struggle to hit the check-raise frequency they’re supposed to. This means we get to punish the OOP player with light value betting, protection betting with good high card hands or small pairs, and generally sizing our bets based on exactly what we think our hand is worth.

Let’s stick with our HJ vs BB 7-5-4-rainbow example from before. If we have Q-Q here, we put our 70% pot c-bet in, and the BB calls. The turn is an offsuit king. We’re probably supposed to put money in here about 60% of the time with our range, and much less frequently with Q-Q. Why? Because we may get blown off our hand by an aggressive check-raise with a 9-6, A-8, 6-2 suited, etc. However, if we determine our opponent will either fold or call his draws and one-pair hands and he’s lacking this check-raise strategy, we can go ahead and put in value and protection bets with impunity. Especially with a hand class like ours that strongly benefits from extra value and protection. Putting in these thin value and protection bets is my number one exploit IP vs OOP players that are too passive.

Along with missing check-raise bluff frequencies, OOP players tend to miss slow plays more often than they should as well. And if they do find the flop checks with slowplays, they often miss the flop check-raise. This mostly applies to a single-raised or multi-way pots with an initial opener and an IP flatter. For example, we’re playing 100 bb deep, and the HJ has raised, and we’ve called the button. The flop comes K-5-4 rainbow. In theory, the OOP player is supposed to have a very passive c-betting range here, putting money in the pot less than 30% of the time, and building a substantial check-raise strategy. This means checking a lot of strong value hands, such as A-A, A-K, 5-5, 4-4, etc. I believe in practice, OOP players tend to over c-bet their value here, and not find as many check-raise value lines and definitely not check-raise bluff lines.

When I’m confident my opponents are not finding the random A-6 check-raise here, or some gutshot check-raises, or A-x suited hands, I can bet a ton more for value and protection with the middle of my range. I can also use some of my high card “bluffs” to clear out equity and start barreling. As the hand goes on to later streets, if I perceive my opponent won’t have check-raise jams on the turn after check-calling the flop or will lack a huge raise size vs. my small turn bets, I can punish him with thin value and protection betting. I can also add some high equity bluffs I may normally have to check more often, and can choose the sizes that make the most money for my hands in a vacuum.

In addition to these cEV exploits and strategies positional advantage unlocks, it’s also equally relevant and more powerful under ICM conditions. When a covering stack has a positional advantage near a bubble or at a final table, he is able to put maximum ICM pressure on the OOP ranges, as the OOP player will often be forced to play more passively post-flop, and bluff catch significantly tighter than equilibrium bluff catching ranges. Ultimately, positional advantage is a strategic area where the sharper your reads on your opponents are, the more you can maximize the impact the advantage has, and the more EV you can steal.

David BakerDavid Baker: Having a lead in a hand can be a very valuable tool. Not only in the hand, but over a series of hands. A well-timed lead or a leading strategy can be an effective way to confuse and set up your opponents. When I’m confident I will be playing with my opponents throughout the day, I like to take a lead approach many times. Since this is a rare strategy it puts them in positions they haven’t been in often. Lead with marginal hands, lead with nothing, lead with monsters.

I like to occasionally take this strategy. Let them try to “set you up” by calling or raising your weak lead. Then be ready to lead with monsters and get them to make massive mistakes. I used this strategy at the final table during my win at the L.A. Poker Classic. It often left my opponents wondering what I was doing, but I had a plan.

The important thing to remember when leading is to actually have a plan. If the plan is lead and fold, then stick to it. Not all plays have to work on their own. The tourney is the long game. Use each hand not only to maximize that particular hand value, but also to maximize your value throughout the tournament. Don’t forget to make sure you are using these strategies against opponents paying attention. If you are trying to set up a play, make sure you execute it against an opponent aware enough to fall for it. ♠

Faraz Jaka was the 2010 WPT Player of the Year and has won more than $6.7 million in live tournaments, along with another $4.3 million in online cashes. Follow Jaka on his journey on poker tours around the world on YouTube by searching for FarazJakaPoker. You can find his training videos at PokerCoaching.com/Faraz or reach out to him for one-on-one coaching at [email protected] 

Nick Petrangelo is one of the best poker players on the planet and is among the top winners on the high roller circuit with $17.9 million in career live tournament earnings. In 2018, he won the $100,000 buy-in high roller at the WSOP for his second bracelet and $2.9 million. Petrangelo is a top coach at UpSwingPoker.com.

David Baker pocketed a cool $1 million when he won the 2019 WPT L.A. Poker Classic main event. He has $6 million in total live tournament earnings, which include a pair of WSOP bracelets and a final-table finish in the $50,000 Poker Players Championship. Most recently, he and fellow poker pro Mark Gregorich teamed up to win the Las Vegas Super Contest sports betting title.

 

 

 





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