Strategies for Playing Out of Position

In a perfect world, we would play every pot from position. I have certainly spent enough breath in this space extolling the virtues of acting last, primarily the fact that it arms you with more information about your opponent’s hand on every street. While it’s still always preferable to play in position, playing from out of position doesn’t have to be the end of the world. In any given session, you’ll have to do it dozens of times. In this article, we will lay out some common situations where you will find yourself out of position and prepare you for the challenge of acting with less available information.

Gus Hansen has written quite a bit on playing out of position and notes that much of the power that comes from playing in position is actually granted to the late-position player by the early position player. Depending on the board texture, being out of position can give you the opportunity to be the first player to bluff at the pot. If the flop is low and dry, missing most of your opponent’s range, leading out is a worthy option. Let’s look at an example. Say we’re in a 100-200 ring game on Pokerist. The cutoff opens for 450 and I call 250 more with 5s-6s in the big blind. If the flop falls something like 9s-4d-2h, it’s quite unlikely my opponent hit anything. In this situation, a stab at the pot for around 600-650 could fold out a lot of hands, especially if the cutoff is a solid player on the tighter end of the spectrum. If the flop is coordinated and contains high cards that are more likely to connect with your opponent’s range, (say Ac-Qd-Jd) don’t waste your money. Check-fold and move on to the next hand. This play is also very opponent-dependent. Against a loose-aggressive opponent who will continue or even raise the flop with hands like unimproved overcards, proceed with caution.

Many of the hands you’ll end up playing out of position will come from the blinds. Like in the above example, calling a small button raise with a suited connector is a perfectly fine play, but take care not to defend your blinds against late position raises with too wide a range. Sure, a lot of the time your opponents are raising with absolute garbage from late position, but that doesn’t mean you need to put in good money after bad with a marginal offering. Hands you might have no problem raising on the button, like suited gappers, K-X suited below K-9, or weak aces, are best folded when you are guaranteed to be out of position postflop. Why? So often you’ll end up flopping a vulnerable hand. Say you call a button raise with Ah-3c in the big blind and the flop comes Ad-Th-8d. You flopped top pair, but your kicker is useless and the board is draw-heavy. That top pair is easily dominated and you’ll probably have to pay three bets to find out. Additionally, any card above a six and any diamond completes a straight or flush draw. While this hand wouldn’t be too difficult to play in position, it’s a complete guessing game when you’re first to act.

However, there will be times when you pick up a strong but not premium hand in the blinds. It’s tempting to flat-call and see a cheap flop, especially against an unfamiliar opponent, but it’s generally a better idea to three-bet (check out last month’s article to see how I learned this the hard way). Three-betting will force your opponent to further define his hand and most of the time, it will get him to fold and you’ll win the pot right there. Let’s say the cutoff opens for two and a half times the big blind and you look down at Ah-Ts in the small blind. Flat calling is a terrible idea here for two reasons—(1) it invites the big blind to call as well by giving him a better price and (2) you’ll be first to act with virtually no information about your opponent’s hand. Since your A-T is well ahead of a typical late position opening range, you can three-bet in this situation for value and information.

Conversely, what if you’re the player facing a three-bet and are also out of position? Calling a three-bet out of position is far more perilous than making one. Not only is the pot more bloated going to the flop, but by calling you have also lost the lead in the hand. Medium pocket pairs and potentially dominated hands like A-T or K-Q often fall into this trap. Let’s say we’re back in that 100-200 game on Pokerist and raise to 500 with 7-7 in middle position. The action folds to the button, who three-bets to 1,500. What’s your play? If the button is a very loose player, a four-bet isn’t the worst idea, but if his three-bets typically indicate strength there’s a strong chance you’re up against a higher pair. Folding isn’t the worst idea either, especially if the three-bettor is a solid player. The play you want to avoid in this situation is calling. Pocket sevens is a vulnerable hand and it’s a bad idea to play an inflated pot with a hand you’ll often end up check-folding on the flop. What happens if a couple of overcards fall? How do you feel about those sevens on a Q-T-6 flop? Or K-9-4? Or J-T-9? Any flop that doesn’t give you a set is troublesome against a typical three-betting range. Even something as low and dry as 8-5-2 could be dangerous since your opponent has plenty of overpairs in his range.

Playing out of position is tricky, but with preparation, practice, and a little bit of courage, it doesn’t have to be a losing proposition.

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