As your game develops over time, one skill you must develop is the ability to play without the cards. One of the first stepping-stones to developing this skill is stealing the blinds. In this article I will cover various features of this play that need to be considered before attempting it.
What is a blind steal? You find yourself in late position, you raise with two cards, and everyone folds. Congratulations, you just successfully stole the blinds. The play is deceptively simple. Let's peel back the surface, however, and take a look at what's involved in stealing with success rather than failure.
The first thing to consider is the type of players to act behind you, particularly the big blind. At the micro stakes, a lot of the players are unaware of the blind steal play. This doesn't matter all that much, since these players are calling anyone if they have something "playable." Should you try and steal these players' blinds? It all depends on what range of hands this player considers "playable" and how he/she plays post-flop. If this player is a calling station, then a steal attempt is not a good idea. Just wait for a real hand; raise and collect from an inferior hand. If this player is loose and passive, folding on the flop when he/she misses, then go ahead and raise it up. Even if you get called, most flops will miss the big blind's hand, and you can ‘continuation bet' and take down the pot most of the time.
Now consider a different type of player. This player is not an expert, but plays okay, may have read a book or two and has some clue about hand values. If this player happens to be tight and passive, what is generally referred to as weak-tight, then you have yourself an excellent steal candidate. These players will fold in the blinds the vast majority of the time, but will fold the vast majority of flops as well unless they mange to hit top pair or better, and even then you can win the hand, as I will explain.
Even a tight aggressive opponent (or TAG) is a good candidate to steal from. Let's say that a TAG is in the big blind and plays roughly 20% of his/her hands. If you raise, the chances that this player calls your raise are only 20%; so 80% of the time, you win the blinds. Of course, depending on what position you are in, there are other players to consider as well, but the point is that a TAG is not going to be calling your steal attempts with any regularity. As the percentage of hands that a player is willing to enter pots with increases, your expectations for a successful steal should drop. As the player's aggressiveness post-flop increases along with his/her willingness to play hands, the more you should look for other players to steal from.
The best player type to steal from is the tight passive player, while the worst is the loose aggressive player. The reasons why should be fairly obvious. I'll take a passive player (who isn't a calling station) over any aggressive player as a preferable candidate for the steal play. The passive players are followed by the TAG, since I can win most hands preflop and not worry about handling this player's post-flop aggression.
The next factor to consider is your own table image. Are you perceived as loose, semi-loose, or tight? The tighter your table image is, the more respect your raise will get. It is easier to steal the blinds with a tight image than a loose image. If you happen to be a semi-loose aggressive or loose aggressive player, I really don't need to encourage you to steal blinds. If you are a TAG, then you are leaving money on the table by not stealing blinds. Your raises generate respect among the players at the table. Your image is of someone who plays only good starting hands; hence no one will suspect that you are raising with two rags. I should amend that; no one who thinks about what his/her opponent has will suspect that you have two rags. Let's say you are a TAG; can you steal with immunity? No, beyond the general table image you have, you need to consider your recent table image. What's your recent table image? How many pots have you been involved in recently? How many times did you raise? How many hands did you show down? If you've raised the previous two hands and won the pot on the flop, your recent image is not conducive to a blind steal. Conversely, if you haven't played a hand for the last round, you have a recent image that bodes well for stealing.
Now let's look at the actual mechanics here. Let's say that you are in the cutoff position, have a good candidate selected in the big blind and two tight opponents between you. How much should you raise? You should raise whatever amount you normally raise from this position. A blind steal attempt should look exactly like your normal raise. If you have different amounts for when you have a real hand versus trash, observant players will pick up on this and that means that they will only give you action when you don't want it. If things go smoothly, everyone will fold and you will steal the pot.
The big blind may have something, however, and decide to call your raise. What now? Don't give up on your steal attempt just yet. On the flop you should make your standard continuation bet. Just as with the preflop raise amount, you want a seamless transition between your steals and your real hands. Most of the time you should win the hand right here. Occasionally, however, you will meet resistance. If you are check-raised, then you must fold unless you have hit the flop hard. Similarly if the big blind bets into you rather than checking to you, and you have not hit this flop well, then you should fold with no hesitation. When you steal a pot you want to do so with minimal resistance. When someone bets into you, it's time to abandon the steal.
Let's say the big blind checks and calls your continuation bet on the flop. You will need to use your hand-reading skills from this point on. What sort of opponent are you up against? What sort of hand does this player likely have, given a check-call on the flop? Once you have a rough range of hands, consider what cards will likely scare your opponent into folding on the turn. If one of those cards hits, bet. If the flush hits, bet. If a straight hits, bet. If an ace hits, bet.
Let's consider an example. You raise four times the big blind and only the big blind calls. You see a flop of . The big blind checks and you bet six big blinds, which the big blind, who is a tight passive player, calls. When this player calls your preflop raise you need to already be thinking of a range of hands. Preflop this includes all pocket pairs, A-K, or A-Q. Depending on this particular player, you may also include suited connectors, but for the sake of this example, let's assume that suited connectors are not calling hands. Now this player has called your flop bet, so what does this indicate about that range? A-K and A-Q are out. This player is also unlikely to call a bet with a small pair that hasn't made a set, so we can rule out 2-2 or 3-3. Sevens through fives are unlikely as well. The weak tight player will call a flop bet with an under pair like 10-10 or 9-9, however. If that is the holding, then this player is looking for a reason to fold on the turn, and you should happily provide it. If an ace hits, this player is folding figuring you have A-K or perhaps A-A. If a spade hits, this player will fold, figuring you have . If any over card hits the turn, this player is going to fold figuring you could have A-K or A-Q. The weak tight player is looking for an excuse to fold and you should keep the pressure on. How much should you bet? Your standard amount - just as before with your raise and your continuation bet - you want this to look perfectly normal. If this bet is called or raised, you are pretty much done. If a weak tight player calls two barrels, there's a big hand lurking.
What if we have a different opponent such as a semi-loose passive player? The preflop range now expands quite a bit to include suited aces, off-suit aces, suited connectors and broadway cards. Now when you bet this flop and the big blind calls you need to consider what sort of hands he/she can now hold. The flop is draw-heavy and you are unlikely to push a typical bad player off a draw. You may be up against any number of single-pair hands, but because the range of the big blind is so large, you can't be sure. In this situation I wouldn't bother with a second barrel on the turn because the board is so draw heavy and the big blind could easily be on either draw.
Now if we change the flop to make it less ‘drawy', things change. Let's say the flop is . You bet on the flop and the big blind calls. There are no draws so you can remove those hands. Aside from pocket pairs, you are likely against hands like A-J, K-J, Q-J, J-10, A-7, 8-7, 7-6, and A-2. If this player has any pocket pair or 8-7 or 7-6, another paint card or an A will be too much pressure and will likely result in a fold. Of course, these cards may make two pair for the big blind if he/she has one of the J card combinations or A-7 or A-2, but it is more likely that the over card will miss your opponent's hand. On this board against this type of opponent, I'm betting any over card, but I'm waving the white flag on any other card, and I'm also mucking should I be bet into or should my bet get raised.
One factor I haven't mentioned is your hand. That's because it isn't all that important if you are stealing the blinds. In fact, you really shouldn't worry about what you have until your flop bet is called or raised. At this point, take a look and see what you have relative to the board. If you've hit well, continue with the hand aggressively. There are few pleasures in hold'em equal to winning big pots with hands like J-2. If you end up showing down some junky hand, you need to keep in mind that everyone at the table saw it, and even though they may previously have thought of you as a tight player, they will quickly revise this opinion. People remember what the see. I wouldn't try to steal any blinds after this for several rounds. Sit back, hope for some cards, and rake in the profit with some ABC poker.