Position is defined as the place you sit at on the table, relative to the button. Position progresses left around the table from the small blind to the big blind to early position, middle position, late position, and finally, the button. Playing positionally means adjusting your play based on your position at the table.
Understanding positional play is simple: early position is bad, late position is good. The later you are, the more options you have for playing your hand. For example, when you're on the button, you know that you're going to be in position throughout the entire hand, and this allows you to control the size of the pot. As a result, the closer you are to the button, the more hands you can play, the more you can raise, the more often you can raise, and the more options you have for reraising or calling before the flop. It lets you set the pace of the hand after the flop, too: will you play slow for a small pot or fast for a big pot?
When you're in a position like the small blind, the worst position on the table, you can't really dictate that. When someone else bets, you have to decide whether or not you want to play, and let them control the hand, or fold.
In the blinds, you're going to be in the worst position, but you already have some money invested. If you're allowed to check (from the BB) or simply call (from the SB) to complete the blinds, that's usually the right play. So you will play some hands from the blinds that you wouldn't play from any other position, simply because you have a little money invested.
On the button, you're going to be playing a lot of hands, especially hands with two high cards or hands that make straights or flushes. So while you'd be happy to play a hand like , a hand like is really not good enough to even call with.
The reason we would fold this hand is that, if we catch our king, anybody with a better king has us dominated with a better kicker. But you can play more hands on the button than in any other position. I tend to play about 40% of my hands from the button, whereas from early position, I only play about 10% of my hands. As my position moves around the table, I play more and more hands.
That's the basic strategy that every poker professional uses. No poker pro plays more hands from early position than they do from late position and makes money doing it. That's a losing strategy and you won't survive very long if you do that, because position is so important on the table.
If you fail to take your position into account, you're going to be playing hands you shouldn't. One of the first things I look at before deciding whether or not to play a hand is the position I'm in. That's going to dictate whether I'm going to raise or fold and how much I'm going to raise. For example, in early position in a cash game, you typically want to raise four to five times the blind. (This isn't the case in tournaments. More on that in our Tournament series.) Because you're going to be playing such a strong range of hands but have to deal with being out of position for the rest of the hand, you probably want to raise a little stronger from early position. From late position, though, I might raise two or three times the big blind. If I have a hand like , I might want to raise two times the big blind (a minraise) as a pot sweetener.
One important thing to note is that other players in the hand are considering these things too. Where a player is positioned when he raises can help you determine whether or not you're going to play a hand. If an under the gun player raises, and I've got something like , I'm most likely going to fold it. Raising under the gun, the player has indicated he has a very strong hand, and absent further reads, I have to take him at his word that he does. I'm most likely just going to fold and wait for a better hand to play.
A lot of players use a starting hand chart to help them get an idea what hands they should be playing from different positions. I don't want you to follow this chart for very long, just until you get used to the game, because it does change depending on a lot of different factors. Depending on the players at your table, you can play more or fewer hands than the starting hand chart dictates. Nonetheless, you will always play more hands in late position than in early position because it lets you control the pot.
Controlling the pot from late position
When I'm in late position, I can choose how many "bets" I want to put in the pot. I can bet the flop, turn, and river and force a player to call me each street to continue playing. I can bet the flop and then sneakily check the turn if I want to limit the size of the pot or induce a bluff on the river. Or I can bet the flop and the turn to show strength, and if I don't want to put in a river bet, I have the option of checking behind. That's really what it comes down to. The river bet is such a significant bet in a poker hand. It's the largest bet that's going to go in. The option to make or decline that bet is a huge advantage, and that is why we take care to notice our position when we're playing poker.