When Not to Play Your Position in Poker

There’s a saying where I come from (a place where I make up all the sayings): “The second liar never has a chance.” In this article, we’re going to examine how we can use this truth about lying to our advantage when defending our blinds.

Conventional wisdom has it that position is critically important in no-limit hold’em, and that the later your position is, the better off you are. While I always say that conventional wisdom is for conventional thinkers, for the most part this insight is right on. There are times, however, when position is irrelevant — times, in fact, that early position can come to your aid in stealing pots that would not otherwise be yours.

Consider this example: In a typical low buy-in, capped buy-in ($100 or $200 maximum, say) no-limit hold’em game, you find yourself in the big blind holding… well, for this play it really doesn’t matter what you hold. For the sake of conversation, we’ll give you the Numpty, 6-2 suited (yes it’s a hand – it was named in the same place where my sayings come from), if only to demonstrate that sometimes the cards you hold matter as little as the position you’re in.

It’s folded around to the button, a fairly good, fairly tight-aggressive player. You’d expect her to raise, wouldn’t you? And she does. Why not? She’s only got to get through the small blind and you, and you’re both on random hands. From her point of view if you fold that’s fine, but then again she wouldn’t mind inducing action from your random hands, because she thinks she can take the pot away from you on most flops, thanks to her position and her tight-aggressive style. She’s right on the first point, but wrong on the second, as she’s about to find out.

The small blind, a conventional thinker if ever there was one, folds, leaving it up to you to decide how to play your Numpty. Remember, your foe puts you on a random hand. In other words, she doesn’t have a clue what you’ve got! What do you think she has? She raised from the button, the precious button, where any half-a-hand is good for a raise if no one has already entered the pot. So let’s put her on exactly that: half a hand. Maybe K-T. Maybe 6-6. Maybe some real egregious cheese like 9-6 suited, but probably something a little more coordinated than that. She wants to have at least a little something-something to go to war with on the flop, should you happen to call. Which you do.

Now here’s the cool part: No matter how the flop comes, she‘s an odds-on favorite to miss it. Do you know this? Are you aware of it? Any time a player holds two unpaired cards, she’ll pair the board only roughly one-third of the time. Fully two-thirds of the time, then, any given player will whiff the flop, completely swing and miss it. This is crucial to our understanding of what comes next, because while it’s true that you’re every bit as likely as she is to miss the flop, your position gives you first crack at this one! You get to speak first; the second liar never has a chance.

What you’re specifically looking for here is a certain variety of orphan flop, the sort of flop that’s unlikely for your foe to have hit, and one that doesn’t offer much in the way of attractive draws. 8-8-3 is an orphan flop; so is T-6-2 rainbow. T?-9?-8c? is not an orphan flop. That’s a super-textured flop, just dripping with straight draws, flush draws, and weak made hands like A-8 or A-9. If you bet into that scary flop, or one like it, you’re just asking to get played with, and you don’t want that.

So don’t make this play on just any flop. Save it for orphan flops, very dry, very non-threatening boards. Lead into them. Bet them like you own them. Be the first liar. Remember, your foe puts you on a random hand. And what kind of flops do random hands hit? Why, random ones, of course. You, meanwhile, can put her on a slightly less random hand. You can give her credit for having some sort of coordinated holding, and coordinated holdings hate uncoordinated flops, especially when they miss them completely — as your foe will two times out of three!

So go ahead and bet. Bet about two-thirds the size of the pot. This is a large enough bet to be taken seriously, and not look like a weak steal attempt. It’s also big enough to preclude deny the right price to any draw she might be on. Yet it’s a small enough bet that if she comes over the top with a big bet, you can get away from your hand fairly cheaply. Go to school on this two-thirds pot bet. It’s a real workhorse, and should be a standard weapon in your arsenal.

Could you check-raise bluff here? Sure, you could. In one sense, the situation seems to call for it, since many players (especially aggressive ones) are strong believers in the continuation bet, and feel a moral obligation to bet at any pot they’ve raised preflop. Generally, this is sound thinking – never surrender the lead! The way you’d like it to go is this: You check, she bets, you raise, she folds, next case. And yeah, that could work. A lot of times it will work. But I’d still rather take the lead away from her, for four reasons that I can think of. First, you minimize your financial risk, getting the most bluff-bang for your buck. Second, she might not oblige you by betting, and if she checks behind, you’ve given her a free chance to hit whatever draw she might be on. It might even be a real slim draw, like a two-outer to trips, but she’s paid exactly nothing for it, which means that even a slim draw just got a great price. Third, if the action goes check-check, and you then bet the turn, she can more reliably read your bet for the bluff it is.

Fourth, most important, your goal here is to win the money that’s already in the pot. Be satisfied to do that. Go ahead and make your move now, when the time is right. Bet into that ragged flop, knowing that most of the time your conventionally-minded foe won’t be able to call, and that the times she does call, you can confidently put her on a hand and back off your steal attempt. Plus, if you show a player on the button that not only will you call from the big blind but also seize control on the flop, it won’t take her too long to conclude that she’d be better off attacking other players, less frisky ones than you. This means she’ll stop molesting your big blind when she has the button, and what’s not to like about that?

One last thing: Though you might be tempted to show her how you stole a pot with the Numpty, please resist that urge. Don’t show your cards! You might want to use the trick again sometime (maybe even next time). Let your foes think you’re always lucky enough to pick up a big hand in the big blind and their precious button will become useless to them, at least against someone who knows how to put in the first lie.

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