The Importance of Position

by Chuck on Wednesday, 4 March, 2015

Poker and the GMAT

I like to connect disparate topics. The other day I was reading about the importance of position in poker. For those of you not familiar with the game, a number of players take it in turn to bet on the cards that they have in their hands and the combination those cards can make with any cards on the table. So far so simple. And we’ve already covered the key part of the process: players take it in turn to bet.

The first player to speak is at a disadvantage. He (sadly, it’s almost always he) doesn’t know what anyone else has. If he has a weak hand, he’s almost certainly going to lose. But if he has a good hand, he faces a dilemma. Should he make a strong bet, and risk scaring off all the other players and winning only pennies? Or should he make a weaker bet, and risk other players staying in the game and getting cards that improve their hands? Because he has no idea what anyone else has, he’s in a very difficult situation. Sometimes he just has to guess.

Now consider the last player to speak. She’s seen how everyone else plays. If no one else has bet, her good or even average strength hand may suddenly look quite strong. She may be able to bet and win if everyone else folds. But if several others have bet before her, an average strength hand, and possibly a reasonably good hand too, probably isn’t going to hold up. She can however fold and lose nothing. She has watched the others and learnt by watching. She has information by virtue of her position.

The same is true in GMAT. Recently I covered the Reading Comprehension passage on “minimum efficient scale” (OG, p.382 – at least in my 13th edition copy) in a tuition session. My student was a little stuck when it came to identifying the primary purpose of the passage. The passage is fairly lengthy and contains some difficult words, as well as some easy concepts expressed in difficult language. Would she really be able to read this passage three times until everything made some kind of sense?


Three key areas

I pointed out the importance of position. There are only a few areas of an RC passage in which the primary purpose is likely to be hidden: the first two sentences, the beginning of each paragraph and the last sentence. Here’s why: the first sentence often sets out where the passage is going, but the second sentence often signals a contrast; the first sentence of a new paragraph is known as the topic sentence and should provide a signpost as to where that paragraph is heading; and the last sentence may contain a conclusion, especially if the passage is argumentative.

You might at this point care to watch Jeff Sackmann’s take on the importance of position.


Area 1: The first two sentences

In the passage in question [spoiler alert], these key areas provide us with sufficient information to be able to ascertain the primary purpose. The first sentence runs as follows:

Manufacturers have to do more than build large manufacturing plants to realize economies of scale.

We can reasonably expect that the passage will go on to tell us what more manufacturers have to do.

Now here’s the beginning of the second sentence:

It is true that…

That’s enough. We can begin to suspect that the second sentence will contain an obvious fact, something we might already be expected to know. By extension, the third sentence will contain something less obvious, quite possibly something central to the passage. After all, most authors writing for information aspire to tell us something we don’t already know. Here’s the beginning of that third sentence:


And we have our contrast.

To sum up:

Sentence 1. Context

Sentence 2. What we already know

Sentence 3. What the author thinks we might not already know – quite possibly something close to the primary purpose of the passage


Area 2: The beginning of each paragraph

Now, look at the beginning of the second paragraph:

The importance of investing in intangible capital becomes obvious when …

We can tell from the wording that this sentence, like many good topic sentences, links back to the previous paragraph. That first paragraph therefore must have ended by talking about investing in intangible capital. We can go a step further and say that investing in intangible capital is what the first paragraph must have been leading up to. As a result, we have our second key area.

To sum up again:

Paragraph 1. You might not have thought about investing in intangible capital

Paragraph 2. It’s important


Area 3: The last sentence

Finally, let’s look at the beginning of the last sentence:

And challengers must …

Hmm. It seems as though we’ve stumbled upon the end of a list of requirements for challengers. Doesn’t look like much of a conclusion.

And that’s all we need. Some positions are more important than others.



One final thing. At sentence level, as you might have gathered from my extracts above, position is also crucial. The beginning of each sentence is by far the most important position in the sentence. I’m sure you learnt at primary school that sentences begin with a capital letter and end with a full stop. So you can scan a passage, picking out the capital letters that follow full stops and skimming the beginnings of the sentences to see where they’re going. You should be able to skim-read an entire RC passage in under 30 seconds in this way. Reading Comprehension will never take such a long time again.

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