Stealing The Blinds 101
Sunday, 21. February 2010

Stealing the blinds is when a player raises preflop and wins the blinds without contention. When everyone folds, the player wins the blinds without even having to see the flop regardless of what hole cards they are holding. When the objective is to steal the blinds, the player is, by definition, required to be more aggressive with a weaker hand than they normally would be.

Many times the line between a blind steal and raising pre-flop for value can be quite hazy and will generally involve some degree of overlap. A pre-flop raise when a player is holding a pair of aces is clearly a value bet in the sense that the odds of winning are highest when one is holding a pair of aces. What about in the situations where a player makes a pre-flop raise holding, for example, [Q♥][9♥]? While [Q♥][9♥] isn’t a pair of aces, it is certainly a playable hand. In a sense, a large part of whether a pr-flop raise is considered a value raise or an attempted steal is dependent on your opponents and the range of hands that they would be willing to play when facing a pre-flop raise. For the purposes of this article, let us assume that we are discussing a situation where you would rather that your opponents fold.

Additionally, stealing the blinds when playing Limit Texas Hold’em has greater value then when stealing the blinds when playing No Limit Texas Hold’em. While the sums you may win in both cases are equal, you stand to lose more in the case of No Limit Hold’em. It is for this reason that we will also assume for the purposes of this article that we are discussing cases where Limit Texas Hold’em is the game we are playing.

A discussion on the potential profitability of stealing the blinds is best begun from the beginning, with the math behind it.

Let us assume, for the sake of example, that you are at the button holding [7♥][6♥] and all of the players before you folded. This isn’t a hand that you would necessarily play aggressively; the question is whether it would be profitable to make a raise hoping to steal the blinds.

Probability Of Stealing The Blinds
There are two statistics that we must take into consideration when making our calculations. The first is that the small blind folds to a steal attempt 85% of the time. The second is that the big blind folds to a steal attempt 45% of the time.

Probability of stealing the blind = (PSF)X(PBF)
= (.45)X(.85)
= .38

Where:
(PSF) = Probability of small blind folding
(PBF) = Probability of big blind folding

This means that attempting to steal the pot will be successful 38% of the time.

Expected Value
Now that we know that an attempted pot steal will be successful 38% of the time, it is time to figure out what is the expected value of making an attempt at stealing the pot. Let us assume that we are dealing with a blind and limit ratio of 1:2, e.g. $1/$2, $5/$10, etc. This would mean that in attempting to steal the pot you stand to win 1.5 big bets, the small bet of the small blind and the big bet of the big blind, 38% of the time and lose 1.5 big bets, the cost of raising on the big blind, 62% of the time.

Expected Value = (Expected Value In Stealing Pot) – (Expected Cost In Being Called)
= ((PSB)X(EW))–((PNS)X(EL))
= ((.38)X (1.5 BB)) – ((.62)X(1.5 BB))
= (.57 BB) – (.93 BB)
= -.36 Big Bets
Where:
(PSB) = Probability of successfully stealing the blind (.38)
(EW) = Amount earned when successfully stealing the blind (1.5 Big Bets)
(PNS) = Probability of attempted steal not successful
(EL) = Amount lost when attempted steal not successful
BB = Big Bets

This means that as strategy, the expected value of attempting to steal is actually a loss of .37 the value of one big blind. According to our calculations, stealing the pot is a losing strategy. Well, our calculations do not take into consideration the fact that while you would have preferred that no one call your raise, your hand might very well still win. In other words, if one player was to call your raise and that player was holding pocket aces, you would still stand a chance of winning holding your [7♥][6♥]. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that overall you would win only 30% of the time at the showdown when attempting to steal the pot. This means that 30% of the time you would win a minimum of the value of 2 big bets, half a big bet from the small blind and 1.5 big bets from the big blind. The possibility of winning your hand when one or more players calls your bet changes the Expected Value of attempting to steal the pot:

Expected Value = (Expected Value In Stealing Pot)–(Expected Cost In Being Called And Losing)+
(Expected Value In Being Called And Winning)
= ((PSB)X(EW))–((PLD)X(PNS)X(EL))+((PWD)X(PNS)X(ED))
= ((.38)X(1.5 BB))–((.70)X(.62)X(1.5 BB))+((.30)X(.62)X(2 BB))
= (.57 BB)–(.65 BB)+(.37 BB)
= .29 Big Bets
Where:
(PSB) = Probability of successfully stealing the blind (.38)
(EW) = Amount earned when successfully stealing the blind (1.5 Big Bets)
(PLD) = Probability of losing when attempt not successful and it comes to a draw (.70)
(PNS) = Probability of attempted steal not successful (.62)
(EL) = Amount lost when attempted steal not successful (1.5 Big Bets)
(PWD) = Probability of winning when attempt not successful and it comes to a draw (.30)
(ED) = Amount earned when attempt not successful and you win the draw (2 Big Bets)

An expected value of .29 Big Bets is nothing to sneeze at. In fact, we have been conservative in the assumption that their won’t be any further betting after the flop and that you wouldn’t actually win more than the value of 2 Big Bets. The truth of the matter is that you might win quite a bit more than that as your opponent won’t always fold post flop with the worst hand. The flip side of this is also true; the times that you lose at the draw, you might lose more than the value of 1.5 Big Bets. That having been said, it is reasonable to assume that with your superior position, it is possible to play in such a way that negates a disadvantage.

It is important to bring attention to the fact that one of the assumptions that we made was that in the event that the attempted steal is not successful you stand a 30% chance of winning to the draw. This will not always be the case, take for example the situation where you are not holding [7♥][6♥] and you are holding an off suit [7][2]. Let us say that your chance of winning to a draw is 20% and not 30%; then what would the Expected Value of attempting to steal the blinds be?

Expected Value = (Expected Value In Stealing Pot)–(Expected Cost In Being Called And Losing)+
(Expected Value In Being Called And Winning)
= ((PSB)X(EW))–((PLD)X(PNS)X(EL))+((PWD) X (PNS) X (ED))
= ((.38)X(1.5 BB))–((.80)X(.62)X(1.5 BB))+((.20)X(.62)X(2 BB))
= (.57 BB)–(.74 BB)+(.25 BB)
= -.08 Big Bets
Where:
(PSB) = Probability of successfully stealing the blind (.38)
(EW) = Amount earned when successfully stealing the blind (1.5 Big Bets)
(PLD) = Probability of losing when attempt not successful and it comes to a draw (.80)
(PNS) = Probability of attempted steal not successful (.62)
(EL) = Amount lost when attempted steal not successful (1.5 Big Bets)
(PWD) = Probability of winning when attempt not successful and it comes to a draw (.20)
(ED) = Amount earned when attempt not successful and you win the draw (2 Big Bets)

We see here that with a chance of winning to a draw of 20%, attempting to steal the blinds is no longer a profitable option. Basically, with a hand that stands a reasonably good chance of winning a showdown, raising from the button can be a profitable move.

Despite having shown that it is profitable to raise from the button with a relatively weak hand, it is not as simple as that. There are three main issues with our calculations.
The first issue with our calculations is that we assume probabilities of what the likelihood is that the blinds will fold when facing a raise. The truth of the matter is that there are people that simply do not fold when raised from the blinds, the psychology being that they do not see folding an option with money already invested in having to post a blind. Clearly, you will not have any success trying to steal the blinds from an individual like this so you can only raise for value.

The second issue is that if you make it a regular practice of trying to steal the blinds, people will eventually pick up on the fact that you raise with weaker hands from the button than you do from an earlier position and will adjust accordingly. In general, good players will 3-bet with decent hands from the small blind and call from the small blind when they realize that you allow for a wider range of hands than otherwise when you are sitting at the button. With good players, you should moderate your stealing strategy.

The third issue is that the profitability of your attempted steals is affected by your post flop play. The question is whether you are at the level of play to take advantage of your superior position and initiative. In other words, if you feel your opponent has an OK hand at the flop and he checks when you have drawn nothing, will you lay down another raise from the superior position getting him to fold?

Reverse Implied Odds
The real key difficulty in attempting to steal the blinds is that you offer the other player implied and yet get none in return. If your opponent is a good player that realizes that you often place a raise with superior position pre flop with lesser hands, they might call from the blind with a hand that they would normally fold like and off suit [9][7] and they most likely won’t invest any more money in a bet and simply check and fold to you if faced with a bet. However, if the player does hit on the flop with their off suit [9][7] then they will most likely check to you as well leaving you with betting as the only option to winning in which case you walk into a trap. What do you do if you are checked on the turn? Do you lay down a bet and hope that they lay down to your bluff? What do you do if you raise from the button with [J][7], your bet is called, the flop falls [A][10][7] and your opponent checkraises?

The problem is control. If you draw nothing at the flop and decide to check, then you are giving your opponent a free card with the turn. If your opponent drew nothing on the flop and would have folded to a bet and you decide not to bet on the flop and your opponent then scores a pair on the turn then your not having posted a bet on the flop has just cost you the pot. How do you know whether your opponent will fold when faced with a bet on the flop? You don’t know and this is the core of our problem. Your opponent has control of this hand and not you. Your opponent has to decide how many bets they are willing to invest and you are reduced to trying to bluff them out of a pot that you have little optimism that you could otherwise win.

Balance
The key is to balance stealing the blinds with avoiding being characterized by your opponents as an obvious bluffer. There are two extreme types of player where this balance is a non-issue. The first is the player that always calls from the blind. Against this player, it is simply not possible to steal the blinds. You are reduced to playing your hand straight. Against this type of player you raise great hole cards, check medium hole cards and fold bad hole cards. The second is the player that plays only strong hole cards from the blinds. Against a player like this, you would be inclined to raise regardless of the hole cards you were dealt simply due to the fact that this type of player would more likely than not fold your raise. That having been said, once you are caught a couple of times in showdowns holding poor hole cards after having raised from the button, they will certainly catch on and the jig is up.

These are two very extreme types of players, most players fall somewhere in the middle. The key to balancing stealing the blinds with avoiding being characterized as an obvious bluffer comes down to knowing your opponents.

Tight Or Loose
The key opponent characteristic to be aware of is whether they are loose or tight players. You should be more inclined to steal from a tight player then from a loose player because there is a greater likelihood that the tight player will fold to your pre-flop raise.

Straightforward Or Shifty
There is nothing more difficult in poker than having a relatively decent hand and being in doubt. Let us take the example where you’re holding [10][6], your raise is checked and the flop falls [A][10][7]. Your opponent checks after the flop, you bet and he checkraises. Now what do you do? If he’s a shifty player then you know there is a good chance that he might be checkraising the flop with only a pair of 7s, ace high or even a straight draw. The bottom line is that you are less likely to steal against a shifty player than you are against a straightforward player.

Good Or Bad
Whether a player is good or bad is not as important as whether they are straightforward or shifty because good players can be straightforward just as bad players can be shifty. Given a choice between the two, it is always better to try and steal the blinds against good straightforward players because you are in control of the hand and you just want to avoid making any mistakes. Against the bad shifty player, it is easy to lose control of the hand and make many mistakes that you simply would not make against the good straightforward player. That having been said, it is always preferable to play against inferior opponents. For the most part, bad players are more susceptible to steals than are good players.

Passive Or Aggressive
Let us say that we have determined that the player in the big blind is loose, good and shifty and you are dealt an off suit [J][7]. In this instance, you might want to just simply fold pre-flop. However, if you find yourself teetering between folding and raising for a steal then you have to take into consideration how aggressive the player is that you are facing. Your opponent’s aggression shouldn’t be a determinate as to how often you try to steal; rather, which hands you choose to try and steal with. The answer to this lies in which kind of hands you would prefer to be holding in the event that you do in fact see action at the flop which, in turn, is affected by the kind of action you can expect to get. Against an aggressive player, you should be more likely to steal in situation where you are holding speculative hands (such as suited connecting cards and low pocket pairs) than big-little hands (such [K][3]). The reasoning behind this is that when an aggressive player suspects that you are stealing and you end up hitting a big hand on the flop, you will, in all likelihood, be rewarded big time. Against a passive player, the situation is different as they will just call you down when he has something so you will not realize the implied odds that you need in order to play the speculative hands.

Raise With Decent Hands
As mentioned earlier, one of the assumptions that we made was that we are holding hole cards that would make you prefer that the blinds fold to your raise. The truth is that the closer your hole cards are to a point where you should be raising to value, the less that you would mind should your raise be called. Even in the event that you are holding inferior hole cards, you still stand a chance of winning and, in many cases, a continuation bet on the flop will cause you opponent to fold better hands. Many players may raise with bad hands or premiums on the button only to limp at the flop, in some cases to opponents that really do have inferior hands which just gives their opponent the opportunity to see a free card with the turn. This simply is no good. The lesson here is simple. If you find yourself at the button with everyone before you having folded and you look down at hole cards that are good enough to call the big blind for, it is best to raise. The raise may make you successful in stealing the blinds which is an excellent return on your investment. At worst, someone will call your raise and you would have simply paid an extra bet in order to see the flop with a hand that is relatively decent to begin with and you will have superior position and initiative.

As with all rules, this one has its exceptions. If you find yourself against a poor player at the blind that is unlikely to fold to a raise then sometimes it might pay off to call for one bet when holding a medium strength hand. Since they are most likely going to call anyway, it’s best to keep your investment in the pot to a minimum before the flop and use your skill to take the pot after the flop. In doing this, you sacrifice the payoff in stealing the blinds for the opportunity of winning a larger pot if your hand improves and losing a smaller amount if your hand loses.

After The Flop
Let us say that you raise with a medium strength hand from the button and the big blind calls and checks to you on the flop. Your next course of action will be defined by your level of experience. Following, are a couple of examples that might help you get going in the right direction.

First, let us take a look at a couple of reasons that would cause someone to bet or raise in any situation in poker:

1. A player with a better hand may fold.
2. A player with a worse hand may call.
3. You might buy the button, meaning that not everyone folds, and still maintain last position.
4. You may choose to take a free card in the next betting round if one or more players calls when you buy the button or are already in last position.
5. You may buy yourself outs in that you make one of your opponents fold, that may have a better hand than yours, making your total chance of taking the pot greater.
6. Your bet may help define your opponent’s hand which can improve your decision-making further down the line.

Obviously, reasons 3 and 5 are not applicable when discussing a heads-up situation and reason 6 is not of much value in a situation where you are trying to steal the blinds. Reasons 1,2 and 4; however, are applicable when trying to steal the blinds.

Example 1
You raise preflop holding [A][7] from the button and the big blind calls followed by a flop of [K][9][2]. In this case, you should make the bet if you are checked to. Statistically speaking, it is unlikely that either your opponent has a better ace than you or that they paired on a random flop. You are therefore a favorite to win the hand. If your opponent draws blank on the flop, your betting on the flop will force your opponent to make a choice between calling with two unpaired cards in the hopes that they’ll hit something on the turn (pot odds are against this) and folding their hand and forgoing the money that they have already bet. It’s lose lose for your opponent. You must also keep in mind that your opponent doesn’t know that you missed the flop as well and might be underestimating their chances of winning.

Example 2
You raise preflop holding [10][8] from the button and the big blind calls followed by a flop identical to that in Example 1, [K][9][2]. Again you bet; however, in this example it is not as likely that you are ahead. In most cases, opponents will fold a hand like [J][6] when faced with a bet after the flop so you stand a good chance of successfully bluffing your opponent.

There are very few exceptions to not betting heads-up once you have raises in an attempt to steal the blinds before the flop. Generally, if your opponent has some piece of the pot, they will not fold for a continuation bet and might even checkraise you. In the event that you make a bet on the flop that is checked by your opponent and they have drawn nothing, you find yourself in one of two situations.

1. Your opponent’s hand will improve on the turn (unlikely). Should you now raise the turn, you are representing a very strong hand into a relatively small pot and your opponent will be inclined to fold even an average hand.

2. Your opponent’s hand will not improve on the turn (more likely). If your opponent is an aggressive player then they may attempt to bluff in which case you would raise and then he would fold. If your opponent is a passive player then they will check the bet in which case you would bet and he would fold to the horrible pot odds that he is getting from the situation.

At the end of the day, you are on your own. You certainly will have some idea of what your opponent holds based upon previous reads as well as the fact that your opponent has just called a preflop raise from the big blind and has surely reacted in one way or another to a continuation bet. The one piece of advice worth giving winding down this discussion is that when you are up against a solid, thinking opponent; you will, on occasion, get checkraised on the flop regardless of whether your opponent is holding a weak hand or whether they are going for a straight-up bluff. Before reacting to aggression by folding a decent missed hand, be sure to count your outs, calculate your pot odds and consider the possibility that your opponent is making a move on you and then act accordingly.

Go to PokerStars for additional reading on the topic of stealing blinds and take advantage of their incredible sign-up bonus while your at it.

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