A blind steal, or steal attempt, is when a poker player raises pre-flop hoping to win the blinds uncontested. If everyone else folds when you raise, you will win the dead money regardless of what cards you have and won't even have to see a flop. When your steal attempt is successful, clearly the cards that you hold do not matter. With this in mind, when the objective is to steal the blinds you can be a lot more aggressive with weaker hands than you normally would be.
There is a very hazy line between a blind steal and raising for value pre-flop. Clearly, a hand like AA would prefer if at least someone called a pre-flop raise, but where is the line drawn? Does K9 suited wish for a call or a fold? Because the "value or steal" definition depends on the opposition you are up against and the range of hands they are likely to play in a situation like this, I will simply assume in this article that the hand you hold is such that you would prefer if everyone folded.
Furthermore, blind steals are a lot more valuable in limit hold'em than in no-limit hold'em (the big exception being tournaments) so this article will be geared towards blind stealing in limit hold'em.
Picture a situation where we are on the button with 9-8 of clubs, and everyone folds to us. We put in a raise, hoping to steal the blinds. Is this profitable? Let's look at some normal numbers for this situation:
P(s) = P(SBf ) * P(BBf) = The probability of the
Small Blind folding, times the probability of the Big Blind folding.
P(s) = 0.38 = 38%.
38% of the times that we try, our 9-8 of clubs will win the blinds uncontested. In a 1/2 blind ratio (e.g. $5 SB and $10 BB, or $1/$2, etc.) that means that we are directly winning 1.5 small bets 38% of the time, and then losing 1 small bet when it "fails." The Expected Value of this maneuver is thus:
0.38 * 1.5 + 0.62 * (-2) = -0.67 small bets
Does that mean we shouldn't try to steal? Of course not! We lose a fraction of a small bet if we never ever win when either the small or big blind calls. This is not realistically true, though, since any hand always has some chance of winning before the flop. And on the button, we have position. Not convinced yet? Even if we pretend that each time someone calls us (62%) the person calling us has specifically pocket aces, we'd still be right to steal. Even if we're up against the best starting hand in the deck, we'll still win sometimes with our 98s. Let's say that we only win 30% of the times that we see a flop we will find that:
EV = 0.38 * 1.5 + 0.7 * 0.62 * (-2) + 0.3 * 0.62 * 2.5 = 0.167 small bets
The times we win, we've been conservative and suggested that we would only win the one bet that our opponent pays to call. In fact, we'll often win more than that, since he won't always fold post flop with the worst hand. Then again, the times we lose the hand, we won't always just lose one bet either. But with position I find it reasonable to think that we can play in a way that at least doesn't put us at a disadvantage. Note here that some hand selection is probably advisable in this situation, since while 70:30 grants us profit, 80:20 (winning 20% when called) does not:
EV = 0.38 * 1.5 + 0.8 * 0.62 * (-2) + 0.2 * 0.62 * 2.5 = -0.112 small bets
So, in summation: With a hand that stands some basic chance of winning a showdown, raising from the button is a profitable play. Folding a hand like J-9 should not be an automatic truth because even with a modest equity of 30%, the cumulative chances of winning the blinds uncontested and the chance of winning the hand despite being played back at, adds up to a profit. You must also take into consideration your opponents. The more likely they are to fold (based on previous play), the more profitable the situation is for the steal attempt.
... despite having shown why it's profitable to raise with much-weaker-than-usual hands from the button, it's not all gold and glory. First of all, I used numbers above to estimate how likely people are to fold from out of the blinds, and these numbers may or may not be applicable to your games. I know players who simply never fold the blind, not even if it's raised and re-raised before him. It just doesn't seem like an option to him to not see a flop when he already has "money invested." Clearly, you can't steal this guy's blinds, so you have to revert back to raising only for value. Is your hand likely to better than his? Raise. Is it not? Fold.
Secondly, there are people who play very well out of the blinds (although they are rare). They will know that you raise with weaker hands from the button than you do from an early position, and will adjust accordingly, defending their blinds aggressively. Expect good players 3-bet a lot with decent hands from out of the small blind, and expect the big blind to call more often when he realizes that your range of hands is wider than otherwise from the button. Tighten up more against good players.
Thirdly, you can't expect your steals to be profitable without playing well post-flop. I mentioned above that I "find it reasonable to think that we can play in a way that at least doesn't put us at a disadvantage" post-flop. Can you play in such a way in a blind-steal situation? You have position and you have initiative but that may not be enough. When you open-raise a hand from late position and the big blind calls, the dynamics of this hand is much, much different from an open-raise from an early position player that gets cold-called from a late position. Understanding how the dynamics change is essential for understanding how to play post-flop. This understanding comes mostly from the experience of being in these situations for thousands and thousands of hands. I give some examples at the end of this article to illustrate what I'm talking about. There are too many nuances to go into any detail in all of them, but I do want to make a stop at what is probably the most important concept of blind-steal situations:
This is really the key problem when you're attempting to steal a good player's blind bet - you'll be offering implied odds, but won't get them. If you are a player who open-raises often in late position, I may call from the big blind with a hand like 9-7s but if I miss the flop, I'm not likely to invest more bets and simply check to you and fold. But when I hit, I will mostly check to you as well, and the only way for you to take down the pot is to walk into my trap and bet again. If I call and then check to you on the turn, what do you do? Bet again and hope that I go away this time? What if you raise from the button with K-8 suited, and the flop comes A-J-8, and I check-raise you - do you lay it down?
You realize the problem, I'm sure. If you can't make the big blind fold his measly pair of fours, what can you do besides checking down? Of course, if you decide to check the flop, you're giving a free card. Maybe I was intending to check/fold the flop, but now you checked and I scored a pair on the turn. Suddenly, you've given away the pot to me. But how do you know if I will fold when you bet the flop? You don't, that's the core of the problem right there. It's me - not you - who's in control of this hand. I decide how many bets I want to invest and you are reduced to simply trying to bully me out of a pot that you're now losing faith in being able to win. This is not good for you.
Sorry, I'll try to be less negative. So what's the answer here? How do we properly balance stealing blinds with avoiding the pitfalls of being obvious bluffers? It's hard, of course. Let's stipulate a few things, though, and I've touched on this already:
These are your two extremes, the two boundaries of how you should play. The not-so-simple answer of where on the scale you should place yourself is: "it depends on the players you're up against." I can't give enough examples to cover all varieties of opponents out there but I can tell you what criteria you should be on the lookout for.
Loose or tight? You should be more prone to attempt to steal if the player is tight than if he is loose. This is the key factor, but don't disregard the others.
Tricky or straightforward? Something that absolutely sucks is having a decent hand and being in doubt about it. Say that you have 10-8s and raise from the button, the big blind calls. You flop Q-T-5, he checks, you bet and he check-raises. Now what? If he knows you steal a lot, he could be check-raising with a only a pair of fives, or even ace high or a straight draw on this flop. You're in trouble. The trickier (= bluff-happy, essentially) your opponents are, the less likely you should be to steal.
Good or bad?This is not quite as important as whether or not he is tricky or straightforward, because good players can be straightforward and bad players can be tricky. In that case, I prefer to play against the good straightforward kind, rather than the bad tricky one. Why? Because I'm already in control of the hand, and I just want to avoid making mistakes. With the bad tricky player, I can lose control and make tons of mistakes, which is not likely to happen with a good straightforward player. That said, you still want your opposition to be bad, generally speaking, it's just not as important as the other criteria. Bad player means more steals, good players means fewer.
Aggressive or passive? If we've already decided that the player in the big blind is loose, good and tricky, it's fairly safe to simply ditch that J-7 suited in the cut-off. But if we're still borderline raise-or-fold, we can now look at how aggressive or passive our opponent is. This is not so much going to change how many hands we steal with, but rather which ones we try it with. The answer lies in which kind of hands we'd prefer to hold when we get action on the flop, and that depends on what kind of action we expect to get. Against an aggressive player, we should be more prone to stealing with speculative hands (e.g. low pocket pairs, suited connectors) than big-little hands like J-4 or K-2o. The reason for this is that against an aggressive opponent that thinks you're stealing, you can get rewarded big time if you hit a monster. But against a passive player, he's just going to call you down when he has something so you won't realize the implied odds that you need in order to play the speculative ones.
I said in the beginning of the article that I presume the hands we're dealing with to be such that we're mostly hoping for the blinds to fold when we raise. However, the closer we get to the point where we should be raising for value, the less we mind if someone will call.
The first example I used was 9-8 suited, a hand that's actually pretty decent. It can win in a lot of ways and even if it isn't best, a continuation bet on the flop can make a lot of better hands fold. So while you can steal with any two cards, you should also virtually always raise when you're opening the betting in late position. Hopefully, you realize why. I've seen far too many opponents who raise with trash and premiums on the button but for some reason only limp with medium suited connectors and such, and against most opposition that's just not good. So if you are looking down at your cards on the button after everyone's folded to you and you see a hand that you'd want to play for one bet: Raise. For just one more bet you may win the blinds uncontested, and that's a very good return on your investment. If someone calls, you will have paid an extra bet to see the flop but you've done so with a hand that is at least decent anyway, and you have position and initiative.
However, as with all rules, even this one has exceptions: If the players in the blinds are really bad post-flop and are very unlikely to fold when you raise, you should sometimes just call for one bet with medium strength hands. Since they are unlikely to fold anyway, you should prefer to keep your own investment in the pot small before the flop and use your skill to make better decisions than them after the flop. You sacrifice a little bit of fold equity before the flop for the chance of winning a larger pot when you improve and simultaneously keep your losses small when you don't.
So you raise with a medium strength hand on the button and the big blind calls, then checks to you on the flop. Do you bet again? From this point onward, experience will be the defining factor in learning how to play correctly but with a few pointers we may make the journey go a little bit faster.
First, let's look at the reasons that generally exist to bet or raise at all, in any situation in poker:
Clearly, 3 and 5 are not applicable in a heads-up situation, and number 6 is of questionable value in a blind steal situation. 1, 2 and 4 however, are very much in play in our case. And 1 and 2 are always very distinct possibilities when you've open raised from the button! If you raise pre-flop with A-7 on the button (big blind calls) and the flop comes Q-8-2, you should bet if you're checked to. It's statistically unlikely that he has a better ace than you do, and it's statistically unlikely that he paired up on any random flop. You are therefore still a favorite to win this hand - statistically - when it's your turn. By betting, if he has a worse hand than you, you're forcing him to make a choice between:
Either way he loses. Keep in mind that he doesn't know that you missed this flop either, he may be underestimating his chances to win.
Next example: You instead raised with T9 on the button, and it's the same flop. You bet again, but this time you're unlikely to be ahead (although it's of course not impossible that he's holding for instance 7-6). But if you bet, most opponents will fold a hand like J-6 which is a favorite to win - and you've scored big time.
There are very few exceptions for when you should not bet heads-up when you've steal-raised before the flop. Some people slowplay really big hands like flopped sets, because they don't want to drive him out. This is generally a very bad idea. If the big blind has some piece of the flop he won't fold for a continuation bet; he may even check-raise you. If he has nothing, you come down to one of two situations:
The many bets that you will rarely win if your slowplay succeeds combined with the stray bet that you pick up from failed turn bluffs don't normally make up for the many, many times you win a small bet by simply betting the flop. If you're really unlucky, your slowplay will lead to him simply outdrawing you.
... you're on your own. By now, you will have some idea of what your opponent holds based on previous reads combined with the fact that he's called a raise pre-flop from the big blind and has reacted in some way to a continuation bet. One final piece of advice is that when you're up against thinking opponents you will get check-raised on the flop a lot, with strong hands, weak hands and sometimes pure bluffs. Before you decide to just drop your ace-high missed hand, be sure to estimate your outs and count your pot odds and weigh in the possibility of your opponent making a move on you. And then act accordingly.