There is no question that whoever has the bigger stack of chips has an advantage. Once one player has a significant amount of chips compared to the others, he can play much more loosely without fear of making a mistake and going bankrupt for the rest of the game.
Even more fun than that, the dominant chip player can become a mafia bully type who raises $500 on a hand that is barely worth a $20 double blind. When this happens, the rest of the table will fold, while grudgingly knowing that they could have beat him if he didn’t have such a cash advantage. This is called “buying the pot,” and it’s an extremely powerful state of play that you want to get into as soon as possible in any tournament.
Unfortunately, if you go based on the luck of the draw, you will rarely be the powerful one on the table. Even playing solid tight game can put you at the mercy of luck, a lot of the time. If you’re playing a game with antes or a fast moving blind chip, then you risk getting “blinded out,” simply by not playing and winning enough hands. The solution to this is to “steal blinds.”
Stealing blinds means that you raise on a so-so hand before the flop, so you can take the blinds that are already left on the table. However, you need to do things a certain way or this method can actually hurt you and take all of your chips.
Here is the basic strategy:
1. Wait until you’re in late position
If there’s one thing that brings out betters and callers, it’s a big pot. It’s like smelling blood in the water when players realize “This is going to be a big win for whoever gets lucky.” Because of this, you don’t want to bet too early in the hand. If you are right after the blinds and you make your bet, other players may start trickling in and once re-raises start happening, you’ll soon be out of your league. Waiting until it’s just you and the blinds is the safest strategy because they have no voluntary investment in the game yet and will be the least likely out of all players to keep going.
2. Raise enough to intimidate
For a bet designed solely to steal blinds, you’re best off raising by two to three times the double-blind value. This is enough to get people with marginal hands to fold, while not enough to put you in harm’s way if others have good hands. This is a critical point to stealing blinds and having this as part of a strategy gives you a very helpful safety net.
Remember that this is a somewhat different betting strategy from what’s traditional in poker. In most hands, you bet based on the odds of your hand winning the game. When you’re stealing blinds, you’re betting completely on the odds of other players folding right away, with no intention of even making it to the flop. Since this can be a more fickle aspect of the game, you don’t want to bite off more than you can chew. You want to raise just enough to get the job done.
3. Pull out if you need to
Even if you’re the last one to play on the hand, and the two blind-holders are not looking confident, you may be surprised that both of them start re-raising much more than you’re comfortable matching. At this point, you have to look at your hand honestly and see if it really makes sense to stay in. There’s no shame in folding if you’re clearly out of your league. There’s only shame in continuing to bluff while you’re holding back tears. You can always go for the blinds the next time you’re in the same position, so there’s really no rush.
4. Stay in if you need to
There will be times when you play a little more risky, raise too early, and others will follow suit and re-raise. When this happens, you may be facing so much pot odds that you have no choice but to ride it out, at least to the flop. A lot can change at that point, so even if you started out the hand by bluffing, you are now playing for real. Remember that the more money there is in the pot, the more incentive you have to stay in. Still, if you’re not very familiar with pot odds, be conservative and fold. It’s much more costly to get sucked into a runaway bluff hand then to fold and sit the rest of that hand out.
5. Mix it up
As we’ve discussed on this blog many times before, poker is a game of reading people. Because of this, many other players will be looking at what you’re doing and trying to figure out your strategy. Once someone catches wind that you’re stealing blinds, they’ll try to mess up that strategy and attempt to get you sucked in a bad hand.
The solution to this, of course, is to vary your playing so it’s not clear what you’re doing. There’s no law saying you have to steal blinds every time you’re on the button, so use it as part of your player’s toolbox, without doing it like clockwork.
Now, is stealing blinds always necessary? The top tournament players I know say it’s a very important skill for long-term playing. At the same time, there are plenty of big winners that don’t steal blinds during individual tournaments, so it’s not a crucial thing you need to learn right away and it’s not a magic pill. Stealing blinds is a skill you can develop over time, even if you attempt to steal blinds once every game or tournament. As you get better at it, you’ll find that it’s rewarding to get away with it and you’ll do it more and profit greatly from it. It’s just another one of those really fun parts of poker that makes the risk all worth it.