StarCraft vs. Poker - Position matters

Some of you have probably heard of the ancient Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu. In his book, “The Art of War”, he writes “You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended. You can ensure the safety of your defense if you only hold positions that cannot be attacked.”

What sounds like an obvious statement is certainly true for StarCraft, but can also be found in poker, even though the battlefields there rarely claim a player’s life. No matter if you are attacking or defending, your position plays are large role in whether you will succeed or fail.

What does ‘position’ mean in poker?

Position in poker is always a relative matter as to where you and your opponent are sitting. If you are in the Dealer’s seat (or ‘on the button’ as most poker players will say), you have the best position on the table as all players will have to act before you (save for the blinds in the pre-flop betting round).

But even if you are not on the button, you can still be ‘in position’ compared to your opponent if you are to act after him in the post-flop betting rounds.

And why is it important?

We all know that you win in poker if you show down the best hand at the end of the last betting round or you are the only player left standing. But if it all comes down to comparing cards, how can position at the table matter? The cards don’t change just because of that, do they? Of course they don’t, but it’s important nonetheless.

Basically, the player out of position (the player who has to act first), makes a ‘proposal’ of some sort when he announces his move (check or bet). The player in position (who acts last) then has the power to decide if he wants to ‘accept the proposal’ or not by either folding, calling or raising. And being in a position of power is always good, isn’t it?

It’s good to be king (and in position)

Basically, there are always two scenarios in poker. Either you believe you have a better hand than your opponent (the villain, as poker players call their opponents) or you think it’s the other way around.

If you believe you have the better hand, being the last to act allows you to set the price for your opponent to see the next card. This way you can protect your hand and extract value. Another option for the player in position is to take a free card if villain checks. This makes sense when your hand doesn’t need much protection and you don’t want to inflate the pot but still get to the showdown.

Another frequent scenario are situations in which you don’t have much yourself and not much information on what villain might have, but you are in position. If the other player now checks, you can use this sign of weakness to your advantage and place a bet to take the pot down uncontested. It won’t always work, but this ‘stabbing’ is still an important income source for aggressive poker players.

Strength x Position = Win

At the heart of things, the value of both a hand of poker and an army in StarCraft are the result of it’s naked strength multiplied with the positional advantage. This means that if you have positional advantage, both an inferior hand or army can overcome a stronger foe if executed correctly.

As anyone who has ever played a strategy game knows, having your army fighting down from a high ground is an excellent advantage. Ranged units become stronger and melee units have an easier time defending the shooters, especially if you can block the ramp that leads up to the high ground.

Taking the high ground in poker

In poker, the advantage of being in position is just like fighting from the high ground. Your hand doesn’t get stronger directly, but the additional options of how to play the hand give you the advantage that makes the situations comparable.

The advantage works best when you play against opponents who are passive and afraid to go all the way when things grow costly. Being in position allows you to raise when they bet and to bet when they check and thus putting them in uncomfortable spots, even if they technically have a better hand than yours. What you lack in hand strength, they lack in information.

Many players have to resort to ‘fit or fold’ when out of position, which means they have to let the hand go if they can’t hit a pair or a good draw. Being in position though allows a player to display strength no matter if his cards live up to that or not.

Do the math

Positional advantages don’t just fall in your lap, but are usually the result of gathering information. In StarCraft, being able to fight from the high ground usually happens when you scouted the movement of your opponent’s army or you force your opponent to fight you in an unfavourable position by finding a weakness in his defense.

Same goes for playing a pot in position. Of course, you can always call when on the button, but that advice is just as good as telling you to “just go as fast as you can” to win a car race. Sooner or later you will drive into a wall. You also need the right information to go with your positional advantage to make it work.

If you made your bluff bet after a check and, in spite of all your hopes and dreams, villain had the audacity to call, you are faced with an important decision on the next street.

This call is a bit like finding out that your opponent has some sort of defense at the expansion that you want to destroy. Now you have to ask yourself a bunch of question: How many units will I lose if I take out this expo? Will taking out this expansion weaken the opponent more than it will weaken me for losing units in the attempt?

The questions for poker are similar: How much money will I have to invest to take down this pot with a bluff? How often will I lose the pot and the money?

Usually you can’t answer these questions precisely, but your estimates will grow more accurate over time to make you a winning player. Being a strong and fearless player when in position can result in some losses at first, but become a great source for profit over time. Take a the high ground and take down the pots!