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How to play poker

Position in poker: the importance of positions at the poker table

Here, we go through the basics of table position in poker, including:

How position works

When you sit down at a poker table, the first thing to look out for is the dealer button. This small white disc shows you who the dealer is, so you can work out your own table position (where you are in the betting order).

To the left of the dealer, the first two seats are called the small blind and big blind. They start the betting with a fixed amount to get the action going.

After that, the action moves clockwise round the table, with players choosing a slightly different strategy depending where they sit. The basic idea is simple. Play strong hands in early position , good hands in mid-position and a few more hands in late position . Our guide to poker hands will help you here, but first, here’s a rundown of the different positions and what they mean. 

Early position

The player to the left of the big blind is called 'under the gun', as they’re the first to act (no pressure). Depending on the overall size of the table, this and the next seat are known as ‘early position’ and are the hardest to play, as you have no idea what anyone else is going to do. Therefore, in theory, you should only play the very best hands (pair of two 10s or higher, ace-king or ace-queen).

In this section we’ll:

What is early position?

Pre-flop, early position is the seat immediately to the left of the big blind. On larger tables this can include the next couple of players as well. After the flop, well, it’s the first player to act.

Playing in early position and making good decisions is hard.

Why? You’re acting first, with less information. That’s why it can feel like a guessing game.

What to play in early position?

Simply put - premium hands.

If you’re in early position and first to bet, you’ve got to be a bit of a spoiled brat. Only play with the best hands but bear the following in mind:

  • Mix it up when you’re playing with small pairs to medium pairs like 10-10 and J-J by varying between raising and calling
  • Hands with two big cards like K-Q or J-10 may look good but they can get you into trouble when you land up cornered after the flop
  • Fancy trying a cunning move? Trap other players with a re-raise. The ideal hands to do it with are A-A, K-K and Q-Q. Just call the big blind – hoping this will be seen as a weakness – then raise and finally do the re-raise. This crafty little trick works the best at an aggressive table where raising and re-raising happens often enough that doing it won’t set off any alarm bells

Top early position tips:

Small, but mighty, pairs

Opportunities come in small packages in early position. Small pairs are the easiest hands to play in early position.

Why? Because after the flop you’ve either completed your set and can start working out how to milk the most money out of the hand or it’s a dead end and you can back out without losing much.

Watch out, though. You could still get into a bad situation later on in the hand.

Guessing game

After the flop things get tough when you’re out of position (not one of the first players to act). Do you bet or check?

  • If you’ve got a decent hand and multiple opponents, bet. It’s a handy way to stop players hanging around and getting the cards to make a winning hand
  • When you’re at a table with aggressive players, check-raising is a better move. This’ll mean more money in the pot when you’re confident you’ve got the best hand.

Checking

When you’ve raised before the flop and been called, checking after the flop (with intention of check-raising) can be a good move.

When?
Check-raise if you’ve got a strong hand, like:

  • An overpair (a pocket pair higher than anything in the flop)
  • A top pair (a pair made up of one of your pocket cards and the highest card in the flop)

You can also use this technique as a bluff. For instance, when you’ve got A-K and didn’t make a pair on the flop. If you’re called by another player and the cards that still haven’t been drawn complete your hand, it’s likely to be better than the other player’s.

It’s good because…

  • You’re basically running the show! You’re keeping the betting lead and you’re putting pressure on the other players who are in on the hand

It might be bad because…

  • It costs more to check and then raise that it does to bet straight out because you’re having to improve on what someone else has already bet

Continuation betting

If you’re playing against more passive players, just bet on your strong hands and then continuation bet when you miss the flop because your opponents will probably only call or raise when they have a good hand.

Delayed continuation bet

This is when you check with the intention of betting whatever comes on the turn (the fourth shared card) if your opponent checks too.

It’s good because…

It makes you look like you have a strong hand that you were trying to hide on the flop. It works best when your opponents have seen you check-raise the flop with good hands in the past.

Check-raising on the flop

A great little move to pull out when you’re faced with aggressive opponents who will call on the flop and try and take the pot away from you on the turn.

When?

When you’ve got a strong hand or as a bluff.

It’s good because…

It’ll stop aggressive players from bullying you out of a hand.

It could be bad because…

If you do this move, you’ve got to really go for it meaning it’ll mean putting in a lot of chips.

Control Freak

When you have a mediocre hand (like a pair or even an overpair), it’s important that you try to control the size of the pot so you don’t lose too many chips if you’re beaten.

In fact, one of the best-known sayings among poker pros is ‘only play a big pot with a big hand’.

So, if an opponent is going after you and is fighting for the pot, try checking or calling if he bets. It keeps the pot small and if you end up losing later in the hand it won’t cost you too much.

Why?

It stops you from taking the lead, which would open you up to being raised, and then you’d have to either play a really big pot with a rubbish hand or just throw your hand away.

Also if you check it could trick your opponents into thinking you’re hand isn’t that great. This works really well on the river when you check with an overpair because you might lure your opponent into bluffing.

Blocking bet/defensive bet

By making a small defensive bet – roughly 30% of the pot – you stop your opponent from making a big bet that forces you to make a tough decision.

It works because they will call your blocking bet to stay in the hand but won’t raise it – because that would be too risky. It’s a subtle way of keeping the pot under control and playing the hand on your terms. Whereas if you check you could be bluffed or forced into matching your opponent’s bet.

When?
Post flop when facing a single opponent

It could be bad because…

If you use this move against a strong opponent they’ll see it as a lack of commitment which means you could be attacked.

Now that you’ve got a few more tricks to add to your play, the best thing to do is get out there and practice them, either for real or play money.

Remember though, playing in early position is hard and you’re at a disadvantage so try to wait until you’re in late position to put your chips in.

Mid-position

The next couple of seats are relatively good spots, as you get to see what the first players are up to. You can add a few more pairs and suited connectors to your repertoire here. In the next seat, called hijack (and a sort of halfway house between middle and late position), you should raise with any pair. 

Late position

Late position (the cutoff and button) are the best seats in poker, as you’ve had the chance to see what everyone else is doing. If everyone else has folded, you can have an average hand and still ‘steal the blinds’ (win the pot straightaway). This means you can raise with a lot more cards, like any ace where the other card is of the same suit, and all suited connectors.

In this lesson we’ll get you up to speed on:

Position is as important in poker as oxygen is to breathing. It’s as simple as this – late position is where you want to be.

In late position everyone acts before you so you can pick up info on what kind of hand your opponents have got before you’ve even touched a chip.

Where is late position?

Late position is the button (or dealer), the player to act just before the button (known as the cut-off) and sometimes the previous one to that too. After the flop, late position could be any seat where you act last.

What to play?

In general, you can play any hands that have some playable value, like pocket pairs, any two high cards above 10, any two consecutive suited cards. Basically, it’s fine to play pretty much any two cards that have a relationship to each other.

Top late position tips:

Change with the times

You should adjust how you play depending on how the action started:

  • Fold most of the time when there are a lot of players in the pot and you have a hand like A-9 off-suit
  • When a tight player opens the pot with a raise, you need to become tighter and only go in to a pot when you’re making a play
  • If the pot is unopened you can think about going in with a wide range of hands

Pot limping

If you’re on the button and one or more players limp into the pot, you’ve got lots of possibilities.

  • It’s a great time to play small pocket pairs or suited connectors because they work well in a multi-way pot
  • You can even whip out a ‘pot sweetening’ raise because you’re in a very favourable situation
  • Another option is to punish the limpers and try and take the pot right away with a decent sized raise. Follow that with a largish bet on the flop to make it really look like you’ve got a good hand. Remember that this move will become obvious to observant opponents after a while
  • You could also limp on the button with any two cards. This works really well in games where the other players have plenty of chips. The idea here is that there’ll be a lot of pots after the flop that you can grab when the other players fail to make their hand.

Blind stealing

Swiping the blinds should be an important part of any poker player’s strategy.

Being in late position is the best place to pull off this chip heist because there are fewer players between you and the goal of taking the blinds without a struggle.

Warning: short and big stack danger

It’s risky trying to nab blinds off of short-stacked players because they’re looking to make bold plays. Players with big stacks can afford to come at you or see the flop, so avoid them too.

That best players to rob blinds off of are one’s with medium stacks.

Calling early position raisers

This can open up a lot of possibilities for later in the hand. So, if a player is weak and often gives up their hand after the flop, you can call when you have hands like 6-7 suited. That’s because you’ve got the combined possibility of your hand coming good – and them just giving up – in your favour.

Re-raising before the flop

If an aggressive player opens the pot from middle or late position when you’re on the button, you can re-raise with any two cards because it’s a great chance to take the pot away by acting the way someone with a really strong hand would.

Stay strong on the flop

Keep using your button position to dominate and put pressure on other players.

Flop floating

‘Floating on the flop’ is when you call on the flop – often knowing you have nothing – with the intention of taking the pot. You can only really work this tactic in late position when you’re playing against one other player for the pot.

This move is great for when other players are making continuation bets on the flop and then checking the turn because they’re nervous about their hand.

Watch out though – your ‘story’ needs to be convincing, so this technique works best when the turn gives your opponent a reason to be worried. For instance, if there are two flush cards on the flop, you call, then the third flush card comes on the turn and you jump into the action – other players will think their great starting hand doesn’t seem so hot.

Pot stealer

You should constantly be on the lookout for pots you can take away that no one else wants.

The players who act before you are handing you hints and information on a plate, just with the actions they chose to take. Hunt down weaknesses like checks and small bets, then attack with bets and raises.

As always, you need to consider what kind of players the people in the pot with you are. If they check raise a lot, you should bluff less.

You don’t have to be aggressive on every hand you play in late position. If your opponents hate to fold in the game you’re playing in, then cut down on the moves you make. Remember though, your general mind-set should be to stay alert and play strongly.

The golden rule…

If you only remember one thing from this late position section:

The button is everything in poker. Play often when you’re on it and be aggressive towards tight/weak players who act timidly before you.

The blinds

Finally, play comes back round to the blinds . Here, if most people have called, then you should call with a range of hands you’d play in late position. If there’s been a raise, stick with early position starting hands. If no-one’s raised yet, blinds also have the option to check (pass this turn to bet). But in cash games, it’s better to raise with good hands or fold.

Fold, call or raise?

In poker, you have three options: fold (throw away your cards), call (put in the same as the previous bet – if no-one’s raised, the same as the big blind) or raise. When you raise, you can bet any amount, as long as it's at least twice the previous bet.

Usually, if your cards are worth playing, you’d raise to three or four times the previous bet. Why raise? Well, firstly, to build bigger pot – and win more money. It’s also to get players with weak hands to fold (fewer opponents mathematically improves your odds of winning, whatever your hand).

If someone’s raised in front of you, it’s wiser to call instead of raise – unless you have a really strong hand like a top pair (jacks or higher), or ace-king, ace-queen (in which case raise to three times the previous bet). If they raise again and you have two kings or two aces, go all-in. If not then call.

If no-one’s raised, it’s really a case of raise or fold. As a cash game player, this will give you more options after the flop and win you more hands.

After the flop, things get a bit trickier, but the same principles apply – you can get away with things ‘on the button’ that you shouldn’t think of trying ‘under the gun’.

How to choose the right seat to maximise winnings

Choosing the right seat can mean the difference between cashing in and going bust. Here, we walk you through some factors that will help you pick the right seat.

Pot size

A big pot usually means a lot of betting action, which is good to know (unless it’s just two deep-stacked players getting into a stand-off).

Players seeing the flop

A more reliable sign is the number of players seeing the flop. When this gets to 30% for nine or 10-handed games and 40% for short-handers, the game is going to be loose – great if you’re playing disciplined poker.

Average buy-in

Sounds odd, but the more players buying in at the maximum, the better. Why? It’s hard to play against short stacks and you won’t win much if you do. This goes double when you have a lot of multi-tabling players. It’s not that they’re amazing players, but they know what they’re doing at their particular limit.

Of course, there’s no point going up against big stacks unless you’ve got the edge. Once you’ve been playing a while, you’ll recognise the names that spell trouble and stick with tables where you have the upper hand.

Which position?

Money generally moves clockwise around the table, so once you’ve spotted where the best players are, sit to their left (if you can).

Time to move on

Finally, don't feel that once you're in a seat you're bound to it. In fast-paced online games, especially six-max, players tend to change on a regular basis. If your table takes a turn that doesn’t suit you, move to another.

Poker tracking

If the stats seem a lot to take in, don’t worry – that’s what poker tracking software is for.
 
These programmes do the hard work for you, crunching stats by player or table, so you can really see what’s going on. For example, Voluntary Put in Pot (or VPIP) tells you how loose or tight the game is (the looser the better).