What is Blind Stealing? (And How To Do It Well)

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 pot regardless of what cards you have, without even seeing the flop. When your steal attempt is successful, the cards you hold don’t 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 A-A would prefer if at least someone called a pre-flop raise, but where is the line drawn? Does K-9 suited wish for a call or a fold? For the purposes of this article, we will assume 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), and fixed-limit games often make it easier to grasp principles of equity and expected value. For these reasons, this article will be geared towards blind stealing in limit hold'em.


Why Stealing The Blinds Is Profitable

Picture a situation where you are on the button with 9-8 of clubs, and everyone folds to you. You put in a raise, hoping to steal the blinds. Is this profitable? Let's look at some normal numbers for this situation:

  1. The small blind folds to a steal 85% of the time.

  2. The big blind folds to a steal 45% of the time.

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 you try, your 9-8 of clubs will win the blinds uncontested. In a game where the big blind is double the small blind, that means you are winning 1.5 small bets 38% of the time, and losing 1 small bet when it "fails" (62% of the time). The expected value of this maneuver is therefore:

0.38 * 1.5 + 0.62 * (-2) = -0.67 small bets

Does that mean you shouldn't try to steal? Of course not! You lose a fraction of a small bet if you 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, you have position.

Not convinced yet? Even if you imagine that each time someone calls (62%) the person calling you has pocket aces, you'd still be right to steal. Even up against the best starting hand in poker, you'll still win sometimes with your 9-8s. Let's say that you win 30% of the times that you see a flop, you can see that:

EV = 0.38 * 1.5 + 0.7 * 0.62 * (-2) + 0.3 * 0.62 * 2.5 = 0.167 small bets

For the times you win, it’s conservative to suggest that you would only win the one bet your opponent pays to call. In fact, you'll often win more than that, since they won't always fold post-flop with the worst hand. Then again, the times you lose the hand, you won't always just lose one bet either. But, with position, it’s reasonable to think you can play in a way that doesn't put you at a disadvantage.

Note here that some hand selection is probably advisable in this situation, since while 70:30 grants you 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

In summary, raising from the button with a hand that stands a chance of winning a showdown is a profitable play. Folding a hand like J-9 should not be automatic 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.

Danger Signs

We can see why it's profitable to raise with much-weaker-than-usual hands from the button, but there are danger signs to watch out for that should make you reassess your blind stealing strategy.

First of all, many players will very rarely fold their blinds, even if it's raised and 3-bet before them. It just doesn't seem like an option to them to not see a flop when they already have "money invested." Clearly, you can't steal this player’s blinds, so you have to revert back to raising only for value. Is your hand likely to be better than theirs? Raise. If 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 to 3-bet a lot with decent hands from out of the small blind, and expect the big blind to call more often once they realize 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. You have the advantages of position and 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.

Blind Steals And Reverse Implied Odds

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’re a player who open-raises often from late position, an opponent may call from the big blind with a hand like 9-7s but, if they miss the flop, they’re not likely to invest more bets and will probably check to you and fold.

But when they hit, they will mostly check to you as well, and the only way for you to try and take down the pot is to walk into their trap and bet again. If they call and then check to you on the turn, what do you do? Bet again and hope they go away this time? What if you raise from the button with K-8 suited, and the flop comes A-J-8, and you’re check-raised – do you lay it down?

Here’s the problem: if you can't make the big blind fold their measly pair of fours, what can you do besides check it down?

Of course, if you decide to check the flop, you're giving a free card. Maybe they were intending to check/fold the flop, but now you’ve checked and they’ve scored a pair on the turn. Suddenly, you've given away the pot. But how do you know if they will fold when you bet the flop? You don't, and that's the core of the problem right there: you’re not in control of this hand.


Be Observant and Make Adjustments

So what's the answer? How do you properly balance stealing blinds with avoiding the pitfalls of being an obvious bluffer? These are the two extremes of how you should play:

  1. Against people who won't fold, raise for value. Raise your good hands. Take the fact that you have position into account (unless you're in the small blind) and then simply play the flop and onward straightforwardly; that is, bet if you think you have the best hand and check if you don't.

  2. Against people who play only strong hands

    from the blinds, i.e. the same selection as they would play UTG or so, raise any two. These players barely exist though, at least not for very long before they catch on to what you're doing. It only takes one embarrassed showdown of J-3 off suit for them to realize what you're doing and sometimes it takes less than that. But the principle still applies: You want to be very loose and aggressive against overly tight opponents.

The not-so-simple answer of where on the scale you should place yourself is: "it depends on the players you're up against." Here are the different situations you should be on the lookout for:

Loose or tight?

You should be more prone to attempt a blind steal if the player is tight than if they are loose. This is the key factor, but don't disregard the others.

Tricky or straightforward?

Having a decent hand and being filled with doubt about it is no fun. Say that you have T-8s and raise from the button, the big blind calls, and you flop Q-T-5. The big blind checks, you bet and they check-raise you right back. Now what? If they know you steal a lot, they 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 your opponents are, the less likely you should be to steal.

Good or bad?

This is not quite as important as whether or not they are tricky or straightforward, because good players can be straightforward and bad players can be tricky. In that case, you should prefer to play the good straightforward kind, rather than the bad tricky one. Why? Because you’re able to have more control of the hand, and concentrate on avoiding making mistakes. With the bad tricky player, you can lose control and be lured into bad mistakes, which is less 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 players means try more steals, good players means try fewer.

Aggressive or passive?

Let’s say you’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 you're still borderline raise-or-fold, you can now look at how aggressive or passive your opponent is.

This is not so much going to change how many hands you steal with, but rather which ones you try it with. The answer lies in which kind of hands you'd prefer to hold when you get action on the flop, and that depends on what kind of action you expect to get.

Against an aggressive player, you 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 who thinks you're stealing, you can get rewarded big time if you hit a monster. But against a passive player, they’re just going to call you down when they have something, so you won't realize the implied odds that you need in order to play more speculative hands.


If You're Gonna Play It, Raise It

I said in the beginning of the article that I presume the hands we're dealing with to be such that Let’s look again at the first example used above: 9-8 of clubs. This hand can actually 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.

If everyone's folded to you on the button and you have a hand 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, and you have position and initiative on your side.

However, as with all rules, this one has an exception: 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, while simultaneously keeping your losses small when you don't.

What to Do On The Flop?

So you’ve raised with a medium strength hand on the button, and the big blind has called and checked to you on the flop. Do you bet again?

First, let's look at the reasons to bet or raise at all, in any situation in poker:

  1. A better hand may fold

  2. A worse hand may call

  3. You may "buy the button," meaning that not everyone folds, but you get last position.

  4. You may, if you buy the button or are already in last position, get a “free card” on the next round if everyone checks to the aggressor (you).

  5. You may "buy yourself outs," or make someone fold that, while they’re not a favorite over you, improves your chances of winning by leaving the hand.

  6. Your bet may help define your opponent's hand with more clarity, improving your decision-making later in the hand.

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. And 1 and 2 are always very distinct possibilities when you've open-raised from the button!

Example 1:

If you raise pre-flop with A-7 on the button, the big blind calls, and the flop comes Q-8-2, you should bet if you're checked to. It's statistically unlikely that they have a better ace than you do, just as it's statistically unlikely that they 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 they have a worse hand than you, you're forcing them to make a choice between:

  • Calling with two unpaired cards in the hopes of hitting something on the turn. They won't have pot odds to do that.

  • Folding and give up quite a bit of equity (if they have six outs, it's around 25% for the turn and river).

Either way, they lose. Keep in mind that they won’t know that you’ve missed this flop, either, so they may be underestimating their own chances of winning.

Example 2:

This time you raised with T-9 on the button, and it's the same situation and same flop. You bet again, but this time you know you're far less likely to be ahead (although of course it's not impossible). 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 slow-play really big hands like flopped sets, because they don't want to drive their opponent out. This is generally a very bad idea. If the big blind has some piece of the flop they won't fold for a continuation bet; they may even check-raise you. If they have nothing, you come down to one of two situations:

  1. They will improve on the turn (unlikely). If you then raise the turn, you're representing extreme strength into a small pot and they will be more inclined to fold a weak hand.

  2. They will not improve on the turn (more likely). An aggressive player may attempt a bluff, you raise, and they fold. A tight player will check, you bet, and they fold.

The many bets that you will rarely win if your slow-play 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. And if you're really unlucky, your slow-play will lead to them simply outdrawing you.

And After The Flop?

By now, you will have some idea of what your opponent holds based on previous reads, combined with the fact that they’ve called a raise pre-flop from the big blind and have reacted in some way to a continuation bet. Use what you know to turn the situation to your advantage.

One final piece of advice: intelligent, thinking opponents will frequently check-raise you on the flop, 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, count your pot odds and weigh in the possibility of your opponent making a move on you. And then act accordingly.

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