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Pokey’s Guide to Blind Stealing

The pundits correctly state that poker begins as a fight for the blinds. Let’s talk about that fight at its rawest level, and discuss blind stealing. To those of you who consider blind stealing an insignificant part of the no-limit poker game, or perhaps just an "image move" to help get paid off on your big hands, think again – blind stealing can be an extremely valuable part of your poker arsenal.

I’ll admit it: I’m a ruthless, heartless, helpless, hopeless, habitual blind thief. I stole blinds when I played Limit hold’em, I stole blinds when I played tournaments, I steal blinds when I play No-limit hold’em. I’ve stolen blinds from my eight-year-old cousin and from an 85-year-old great-grandmother. I steal blinds when I’m playing my full-ring tight-and-aggressive game and I steal blinds when I’m playing my 6-max loose-and-aggressive game. I’ve always stolen blinds, and I always will.

Furthermore, I’m reasonably good at it. In the last 17,500 hands, I’ve attempted to steal the blinds a whopping 38.31% of the time – that works out to be 313 steal attempts out of 817 opportunities. Over those 313 blind-steal attempts, I’ve maintained a healthy win rate of 2.2 big blinds per hand: that’s a Poker Tracker win rate of 110 PTBB/100. Despite the fact that I’ve only attempted a blind steal one time every five orbits, those steal attempts have generated over 30% of my total profits at the no-limit poker tables. Like I said: done right, blind stealing is a VERY important contributor to your overall win rate.

So, now that I’ve got your attention, let’s turn to the issue at hand: how do you steal the blinds successfully? What’s the formula? What’s the method? What’s the approach? As you will see, blind stealing is quite easy, and, despite this, it’s wildly successful.

Pokey’s Rules for Blind Theft

1. Know Yourself and Know Your Target. Blind steals rely heavily on folding equity. The more frequently you try to steal the blinds, the weaker the average hand you’ll have when you attempt a steal. That means that for the frequent blind thief, you’re hoping NOT to get to a showdown. The good news is that the odds of your remaining opponents having a decent hand are slim – there are only two or three players left to act, and they have random hands. The odds that none of the remaining players have “good” hands are as follows:

- “Super Premium Hand,” AA-JJ, AK: 94.1% chance with two players left to act, and 91.3% chance with three players left to act.

- “Premium Hand,” AA-TT, AK, AQ: 90.8% chance with two players left to act, and 86.6% chance with three players left to act.

- “Great Hand,” AA-99, AK, AQ, KQ: 87.8% chance with two players left to act, and 82.3% chance with three players left to act.

- “Very Good Hand,” all Great Hands plus 88, AJ: 84.6% chance with two players left to act, and 77.9% chance with three players left to act.

- “Good Hand,” any pair, any two broadway: 67.4% chance with two players left to act, and 55.3% chance with three players left to act.

- “Above Average Hand,” any ace, any suited, any pair, any two broadway: 29.5% chance with two players left to act, and 16% chance with three players left to act.

Note what this means: the “looser” your remaining opponents, the harder it will be to successfully steal the blinds preflop. If your blind steals are a standard 4xBB, then you will wager 4xBB to win 1.5xBB. This means if you immediately win exactly 8 times out of 11 you will break even on the deal, even if you were to fold every other hand on the flop. (Eight times you win 1.5 BBs, for a total win of 12 BBs; the other three times you lose 4 BBs, for a total loss of 12 BBs. This is the break-even position.) Since 3 out of 11 is 27.3%, if our opponents are likely to fold 72.7% of the time, we win immediately.

Against players who will only play “very good hands” versus a steal attempt, you should be stealing with literally any two cards from either BB or CO, and doing so will show an instant profit even before the flop. Of course, the hand range your opponent will consider worthy of a preflop call will expand as you attempt steals more frequently, so you need to remain aware of both your table image and your opponent’s play style.

2. Aggression, Aggression, Aggression. When you get called preflop, this is not a tragedy – it’s an opportunity. Most opponents crumble quickly against steady aggression; to successfully steal blinds, we need to apply that steady aggression. However, we need to do so CAREFULLY so as to make sure that our attempts are profitable. The flop is going to improve our hand about one time in three. Let’s assume that when we’re called preflop, we’re typically behind. This will be the case when we are relentless with our steal attempts and our opponents are conservative with their calls. While this sounds like a recipe for bankruptcy, it’s actually not bad at all. Consider that even if our opponent is playing as incredibly tight, his hand range will include unpaired preflop hands like AK. So, what are the odds that by the flop our opponent’s hand is at least strong enough to beat unimproved pocket deuces?

- If our opponent is only playing “Super Premium Hands,” his hand on the flop will beat unimproved pocket deuces 73% of the time.

- If our opponent is playing “Premium Hands,” his hand on the flop will beat unimproved pocket deuces 64% of the time.

- If our opponent is playing “Great Hands,” his hand on the flop will beat unimproved pocket deuces 59.4% of the time.

- If our opponent is playing “Very Good Hands,” his hand on the flop will beat unimproved pocket deuces 56.7% of the time.

- If our opponent is playing “Good Hands,” his hand on the flop will beat unimproved pocket deuces 49% of the time.

- If our opponent is playing “Above Average Hands,” his hand on the flop will beat unimproved pocket deuces 40.1% of the time.
Now we get into the art of blind stealing: how large should our flop bet be? We want to make sure our flop bet is at the same size whether we’ve flopped well or not, but we’re balancing competing issues, including:

How often will our opponent improve?
How often will we have a strong hand?
How often will our opponent improve but fold?
How often will our opponent improve but we’ll improve more?
How often will we improve but our opponent will improve more?

And the list goes on...

As complicated as this all sounds, we’ve got a few things going for us: namely, that we have played the hand aggressively so far and that we will have position preflop and every remaining street in the hand.

Bet Sizes

For people who steal infrequently (say, 20% of the time or less), your flop bets should be sizeable. Given that you are only attempting a steal 20% of the time, you will be stealing with reasonably solid hands yourself: collectively, all suited aces, any pair, and any two broadway cards make up 20.4% of possible holdings, so your hand on the flop will beat unimproved pocket deuces 47.6% of the time. The odds that your hand is worth pursuing is therefore significant enough to warrant a full pot-sized continuation bet from you; if your opponent folds, great, and if not, you have a valuable hand often enough to make this move highly profitable.

I don’t, however, recommend stealing “only” 20% of the time. As an example, my steal rate of 38.3% corresponds roughly to stealing with “any pair, any ace, any king, any two broadway cards, and any suited connector down to 87s.” If that’s your steal range, the chances that on the flop you have at least a pair will be noticeably lower (something like 42.8%). The answer is not to bet less often on the flop, but to bet a smaller quantity on the flop. Opponents who give up on the flop will usually give up for a smaller bet nearly as often as they will for a larger bet, and while a pot-sized bet needs to win 50% of the time to be immediately profitable, a 2/3-pot sized bet only needs to win 40% of the time. By reducing your (constant) flop bet size, you make it easier for your steals to be profitable while still maintaining that constant pressure on your opponents.

Notice what this means...if your opponent plays very tightly against your preflop raise, the odds that he has a decent hand on the flop go up, lowering the value of your flop bets. However, the odds that he CALLS your preflop bet go DOWN, raising the value of your PREFLOP bets. At this stage of the hand, we’ve already had two chances to win the pot: one if our opponent folds to the preflop bet and one if our opponent folds to the flop bet.

Consider the value of a steal attempt from the big blind against the various opponents, assuming they will (a) fold preflop if their hand is outside of the specified range winning 0.75 PTBBs, and (b) only call the flop with a hand that can beat 22 when they fold, we win 2.25 PTBBs, and when they call, we lose 5.5 PTBBs. This assumes our betting is 2 PTBB preflop and 3.5 PTBB on the flop. It also assumes that we lose EVERY time when our opponents call our flop bet, which is a very bad assumption. If we consider only the tightest and loosest opponents, we see this:

- Super Premium Hands: 94.1% of the time they fold preflop, 27% of the time they fold on the flop.

EV = 0.941 * (0.75) + (0.059 * 0.27) * (+2.25) + (0.059 * 0.73) * (-5.5) = + 0.38 PTBB.

- Premium Hands: 90.8% of the time they fold preflop, 36% of the time they fold on the flop.

EV = 0.908 * (+0.75) + (0.092 * 0.36) * (+2.25) + (0.092 * 0.64) * (-5.5) = +0.27 PTBB.

Skipping ahead to the loosest players:

- Good Hands: 67.4% of the time they fold preflop, 51% of the time they fold on the flop.

EV = o.674 * (+0.75) + (0.326 * 0.51) * (+2.25) + (0.326 * 0.49) * (-5.5) = -.18 PTBB.

- Above Average Hands: 29.5% of the time they fold preflop, 59.9% of the time they fold on the flop.

EV = 0.295 * (+0.75) + (0.705 * 0.599) * (+2.25) + (0.705 * 0.401) * (-5.5) = -0.47 PTBB.

Once again, this demonstrates a bizarre truism: the less likely your opponent is to fold, the less profitable your blind-stealing will prove to be in terms of folding equity alone .

That said, you should note two points. First, this assumes that our opponent is calling EVERY time he has a hand that is at least as strong as a pair of deuces. Therefore, the opponent holding 22 on a board of AKQ is assumed to call our continuation bet. Second, our EV calculations have thus far assumed that if we do not win with the flop bet, we lose every time. This should prove FAR from true, especially against the looser opponents. A safe bet is that we will win at LEAST 1/3 of the time when our flop bet is called, and that safely makes all of these calculations +EV.

3. Postflop Play. After the flop, easy and simple rules must be thrown out the window. From here on, there is too much “art” in the play to be easily categorized in a summary like this. I do want to point out a few simple points that might make help you in your blind-stealing adventures:

A. Much like bears in the woods, your opponents are more afraid of you than you are of them. This is your hand – you’ve raised preflop and bet the flop. You’re SCARY. Given that your opponent has exhibited NO aggression at this point, your folding equity remains solid. Use that ruthlessly. If a scare card hits on the turn and your opponent checks to you again, fire that second (third?) barrel! Don’t be afraid to bet the turn ace, the turn king, the turn pair, the turn flush card, the turn straight card, or the turn blank if you think your opponent is running scared. This is another place where knowing your enemy helps.

B. If your opponent gets aggressive, TRUST him. There is no shame in folding your blind steal attempt. If the flop comes A83r and your opponent bets the pot, or check-raises big, feel free to fold your KQo. In fact, feel OBLIGATED to do so. Blind stealing is decidedly a “small pot game” strategy; if you are risking your stack on a blind steal, you’ve screwed up big-time. Similarly, if you are stealing with total garbage (86s or such) and someone reraises, GET OUT. Fold immediately, and without hesitation. Don’t bother seeing what the flop brings – there’s no profit in it.

C. Take free cards if they are beneficial to you. One strength of this strategy is that you’ll often have good draws on the flop, and your opponent will usually offer you a free card on the turn. If you’ve got a good draw, feel free to take it. Don’t ALWAYS take it, though – I’ve often fired another barrel with a hand like Tc9c when the board looked like QcJd4s4c. Not only did that turn card 4c improve my hand by giving me nine more outs, but it also scared the ‘doody’ out of my opponent, making him think that I just turned trips or two pair with an overpair. Why not take advantage of this fear? Instead of playing for my 2-to-1 draw, I can bet immediately and win the pot a significant chunk of the time, and STILL win 1/3 of the time at showdown (usually for even more money, since my opponent won’t see my straight or flush coming).

D. Don’t get discouraged if your steals fail. We’re often worried that because our opponent played back at us the last time we tried to steal, we need to tighten up considerably. Don’t. Our opponents don’t adjust NEARLY as much as we think they do. Just because you got reraised preflop the last time you tried to steal doesn’t mean that they’ve got your number; more likely, SB had AA when he fought back. Now he’s got 92o, and NOT have a pair of balls. Hit him again, and keep hitting him.

E. Know your image! While players don’t adjust very well or very far or very effectively, they DO adjust. If you’ve picked up the pot with preflop bets and flop bets the last four hands in a row, fold your 98s in the CO this time. You are not a slave to your cards; understand your table image, understand that your opponents are getting pissed off at you, and understand that your folding equity falls every additional time you win a pot without showing your cards. After you’ve folded preflop three or four times in a row, you can go back to stealing and bullying, but give your opponents a chance to catch their breaths between steals.

F. DO NOT SLOWPLAY. I cannot emphasize this enough. Your entire strategy here is a bluff that depends entirely on your playing your monsters and your junk identically. There’s always the temptation when you have AA preflop and catch A55 on the flop to suddenly change gears. Don’t! With any luck, your opponent won’t believe you, and will call all-in with QQ unimproved. Not only will you stack him, but you’ll also get even more respect the next time you play fast on a board of A55…only this time you’ll have 98s….Fast play of big hands is CRUCIAL to the success of this strategy. Not only does it boost the profitability of all your weak junk by elevating your folding equity, but it also gets paid off much more frequently than it would if you were only nut-peddling.

To those of you who read this entire article, I hope this gave you some additional insight into the ins and outs of blind stealing. Give it a shot – you will find it more lucrative than you ever imagined.

Copyright 2010