It’s a term that’s seen a lot in poker articles and in books, but never defined to our satisfaction, so let’s take a few minutes and help you understand what initiative is at the poker table and how it can help you win more often. The dictionary defines initiative as “an introductory act or step; a leading action.” In poker terms, that translates to the actions that a player takes to represent that they have the best hand at the poker table.
Taking the initiative in a hand of poker is fairly simple: it means you have to make the last aggressive play in a betting round. This means that you’ll either bet or raise following the bets that other players have made. Here are some examples of how initiative works in a hand of poker.
Example One: A bets and B calls.
Player A has the initiative, as they bet and player B’s play was a reaction to that.
Example Two: A bets, B raises and A calls.
Player B has the initiative as they raised the bet and player A’s next move was a response to that.
Example Three: A checks, B bets, A check-raises and B calls.
Player A has the initiative as their check-raise defines how player B acts.
Example Four: Player A bets, B calls and C rises. A then calls and B calls.
Player C has the initiative because they were the last person to raise and the other players responded to them.
Example Five: Player A checks and B checks.
Neither player has the initiative.
As you can see, initiative is pretty straightforward. Basically, if you are calling or checking to close the action, you are not taking the initiative in the hand. These examples show that the player with the most aggression takes the initiative in any given hand.
The most common place that players get the initiative is in the preflop betting round, as there is generally a raiser that is followed by callers before the flop is dealt. That said, there is absolutely no reason that the initiative can’t be taken on future betting rounds. If there are no calls and raises before the flop, as seen in the fifth example above, then no player has the initiative and the player that shows the most aggression on the flop will be taking the initiative.
By seizing the initiative, you are in the driver’s seat of any given hand of poker. Other players are going to wait to see your next move and you can keep that initiative through subsequent betting rounds with some strategy. If you bet and raise, opponents are forced to follow your lead and operate under the presumption that you have a strong hand. Being aggressive forces other players to make tough decisions, which means that they have less control over the hand and are more susceptible to making plays with negative expected value.