Stealing the blinds
When playing poker, one of the tricks that most people pick up on early on is stealing the blinds-- also known as stealing the pot, stealing the button position advantage, or a blind steal. Many new players figure out pretty early on that if they're the last player to bid, they have a chance to bluff when other players have folded or called, thereby scaring off the remaining players and being able to claim the blinds for themselves, since players in early position are less likely to bid large amounts on weak hands, but few rookies understand that there is actually a lot of skill involved in stealing. Professional players know whether or not a steal is worth the effort (whether or not it's likely to succeed), how to work position to their advantage, how this works in heads-up play. For serious poker players, stealing isn't something that you just happen into-- it's something that you plan. In this advanced poker strategy guide, we'll go over the ins and outs of stealing so that you can make it work to your advantage every time.
Why to steal
There's always an advantage to stealing, although how advantageous it is really depends on the type of poker that you're playing. Limit games offer more benefit than no-limit games, because chips are harder to come by during the course of a game as the rise and fall of invested funds can never exceed a certain amount. Texas Hold'em and Omaha offer the greatest advantage where stealing is concerned, because of the bet-heavy nature of these games.
Another reason that it's worthwhile to steal lies in the value of the specific hands that you could have. Not every hand that you have is worth holding onto, and some hands are more valuable if you can get other players to fold-- letting you steal the blinds-- than they would be if you held on to them and tried to get other players to commit to the pot. This can be especially important with cards with medium strength, such as a K or Q and a middle card like an 8 or 9. Chances are that this hand isn't going to take you too terribly far, but the hand still has some value. How you determine whether the hand has more value than you would gain by stealing the blinds is key-- current blind values, pot limit, hand strength, and position are all factors in this equation, and loads of statistics have gone into developing formulas aimed at helping you calculate this.
How to steal the blinds
Typically, when people talk about stealing the blinds, they're talking about one of two strategies: either making a substantial bet while in the button position the first chance you get or making a small raise on the first round and then following it up with a continuation bet (if one or both of the blinds calls).
The reason that you only want to attempt to steal the blinds from the button position, when the other players have folded to you, is simple: if you have the button, you only need to make two players fold in order to take the blinds. If you raise from an earlier position, you're going to be playing behind the button (or other players in late position) for the rest of the game if they call, and that's not to your advantage. Playing from the button allows you the opportunity to assess the actions of the players before you. If players are limping in with weak bets (or just checking), then they probably have weak hands and can be scared off if you place a strong bet-- if you were sitting anywhere else at the table, you would be in a much more precarious position because you wouldn't have a chance to read everyone before you bet.
While it's sometimes said that one shouldn't raise from the button because people expect button raises to be bluffs, you give away control of the game if you don't raise. If you limp into the hand and a blind raises, they now have the power at the table, and you have to evaluate whether or not to stay in the hand, whereas before you had the advantage of keeping them wondering about the value of your hand. If you raise when you're in the button, not only will you make them wonder whether you're just button raising or you actually have a good hand, but you can set yourself up for a continuation bet, after which the blinds will most likely fold.
This isn't to say that it's not possible to steal the blinds from another position, but it requires substantially more finesse, and players who can pull this off are typically very experienced at both advanced poker strategy and reading and profiling their opponents. In fact, the better you are at reading your opponents, the more flexibility you have when trying to steal the blinds-- it is hands and away the most important skill that you can possess when mastering this particular strategy technique. If you're the last person before the button, consider what you know about the player after you-- are they likely to fold if you look like you're holding onto a great hand? If so, you might want to consider making a decent-sized bet and getting them to fold, as this will make you the new button while also making you look more like a player with a decent hand and less like a player making a button raise. What about the players who are the blinds? If you're looking at a couple of players who have a tendency to throw good money after bad cards, there's a chance they're not going to fold at all. It's better to use what you know about the other players than to make any generalizations when it comes to betting and stealing-- there are no absolutes when it comes to poker!
When not to steal the blinds
There are a couple of reasons that you don't want to try to steal the blinds every time you're in late position. The first is simple-- if you make too many raises from late position, other players may become wary of you and start calling your raises, which could mean that you end up either limping into a hand or pot-committed with a weak hand. This is one of the reasons that it's best to change it up from time to time, and while that means that perhaps there's a few hands where you might not steal the blinds when you easily could have, in the long run, it's better to keep your opponents guessing in terms of what you're doing. You never want to reveal too much or become too predictable to your opponents!