The Importance of Position
Seating position can have a big impact on your chances for success in a tournament round.
When you take a seat at a tournament table, you should be armed with a basic strategy of how you plan to approach the game. But there's one unknown about your round that won't be settled until you sit down at the table. Seating position can have a big impact on your chances for success in a tournament round. Most tournaments assign seats in a random fashion, by having the player draw from a blind set of seating choices. However, some tournaments allow players to choose their seats. When available, this option can give you an extra edge if you know how to take advantage.
Let's take a look at why some seats are better than others. There are two main areas in which position matters. First, there's the impact of the betting button. In tournament play, the first-base button moves around the table, and each player in turn must bet and act in sequence starting at the button. If you're "on the button", that means you're forced to choose your bet before the other players, and don't have the benefit of knowing what they will bet behind you. Also, during play of the hand, you'll have to play your hand before seeing any of your opponents play. By way of contrast, the player to your immediate right has a considerable advantage on this hand, being able to see all players bet amounts before making a decision.
By rotating the button around the table, each player has a roughly equal number of bets "on the button" and "last to act", as well as everything in between. But, not all hands of a round are of equal importance. In particular, the last hand is usually the determining factor of who advances and who is eliminated. With that in mind, there's a big advantage to be gained if you manage to be last to act on the final hand.
If you're last to act on the final hand, you don't necessarily have to be the chip leader to be the favorite to advance.
If you'll have that edge on the last hand, you can afford to be a little more conservative in the rest of the round, knowing that you'll be able to fine-tune your bet at the end by seeing everyone else's bet. If you're last to act on the final hand, you don't necessarily have to be the chip leader to be the favorite to advance. On the other hand, if you're on the button for the last hand, being the chip leader is very important for your chances.
Of course, most tournaments choose the starting button position randomly, meaning you can't pick a seat that is more likely to have a favorable last hand button. There are exceptions. I've played some mini-tournaments where the button always starts at seat 1, to the dealer's left. If you're able to choose your seat in an event like that, it's well worth the effort to figure out the most likely final button position, and ask for the seat to the immediate right of it. For example, if there will be 6 players, and the round has 20 hands, I'd ask for seat 1. If all 6 players stay in for the entire 20 hands, the button will end up in front of seat 2 on the last hand. By asking for seat one, I have a better than usual chance of having last bet on the final hand. Of course, players often drop out before the end, causing the button position on the last hand to be unpredictable. Still, it's a nice opportunity to get an extra edge, even if it doesn't always work.
Much more commonly, tournaments have a random way of choosing the button position for hand one. In the Las Vegas Hilton Million tournament, all players were dealt a five-card poker hand, and the highest ranking hand got the first button. Other tournaments roll a single die, or deal out cards to players until the first Ace is dealt. In these events, there's no advantage available by choosing a particular seat. However, once the random choice of button position has been made, it's still valuable to know where that puts you.
An example might help: Assume you're playing in a round of 30 hands with 6 players. You're seated in seat 3, and after a random selection, the button will start out in front of you in seat 3. If you figure out the final hand button position assuming all the players hang around until the end, you'll see that the final button will be in front of seat 2, making you second to bet on the last hand. So, "winning" the first button is not a lucky thing in this case. But, now that you know you'll likely have poor position at the end of the round, you can tailor your playing strategy to minimize the damage. Knowing you'll likely be second to bet at the end, you may want to try to accumulate a few extra chips along the way. A little extra risk may be worthwhile, because the extra chips you could win will be worth more from early position on the final hand.
If any players at your table lose all their chips in the middle of the round and are eliminated, you'll have to refigure your final position. Because this is pretty common, many players don't bother with the button position until late in the round when the final outcome is likely to be more predictable. I like to know up front, and then refigure if a player drops out.
Players on your left are a bigger threat than players on your right.
The second important aspect of position has to do with the players around you at the table. Players on your left are a bigger threat than players on your right. If a player on your left has a chip advantage over you, it's much tougher to catch him or her than a similar player on your right. A player to your immediate left is said to have position on you, because that player gets to see your wager and action on every hand but one per round of the table. In a 6-player format, the player to your left acts after you on 5 out of 6 hands. This gives him or her the ability to margin any of your attempts to catch up, and to easily guard any lead by matching your bets.
Because of this impact of position, it's helpful to pay extra attention to the players behind you. If you have opportunities late in the round to double or split and pass their chip totals, it's probably worth considering. If you find yourself trailing the players to your left, you might consider waiting until they are on the button before trying to catch up. By seeing the amount of their wager, you can size your bet more effectively. Since you only get the chance once every 6 hands, you don't want to miss the opportunity.
In events where you can choose your seat, it's useful to know something about your opponents. If you have a particularly strong tournament player at your table, it would be best to have them seated on your right, where they have less of an advantage over you. Also keep in mind that the player at third-base is considered to be to the right of first-base or seat 1.
Choosing a seat can be helpful when it is allowed, but being aware of your button position is important in every tournament round. Taking your opponent's relative position into account when deciding how to bet against them in the middle hands of a round can make the difference between advancing and being eliminated. Best of luck out there, and, please, don't sit to my left!