Understanding how to both steal and defend blinds in poker is crucial for success and there’s no way around it. If you have a weak strategy and are fighting for the blinds incorrectly, or worse, not fighting at all, then you are waging an insurmountable uphill battle that is impossible to overcome. The good news is that, with a bit of knowledge and practice, anyone can become blind stealing or defending masters in no time.
Why Is Blind Stealing and Blind Defense so Important?
Today, while many players have some grasp on the theory behind where the money comes from in poker, most still struggle to put those ideas into practice. To that end, I feel that there is one area of the game that dominates and drives where our profit comes from in poker more than any other facet. All things considered, if we put the lion’s share of our focus and attention on that one element of the game, the rest pretty much takes care of itself. To that end, I think that the engine that drives who wins and who loses comes down to a fight for the blinds. Therefore, a correct strategy for offense and defense surrounding the blinds should be the bedrock of our entire pre-flop strategy.
A Battle of Frequencies
Whenever there is information available, any action taken at the poker table should be based on countering what our opponents are doing. The way we do this is through frequencies. In other words, we base our stealing and defending ranges on how often our opponents do what they do at the poker table.
The easiest way to do this is to categorize the frequencies of every possible situation and action at the poker table. The first place to start is to build your own vacuum frequencies around how the average player steals or defends and then use that as a baseline from which to adjust. Once you have established the baseline, you then have a way of knowing when an opponent is deviating from the norm and can adjust your tactics accordingly.
Just like any sport, there is an offense and a defense. In poker, the person stealing the blinds is the offense and the person defending the blinds is the defense. Therefore, you must base your ranges around the frequencies of how often they attack your blinds and how often opponents defend against your steals. Basically, you must guard against extreme tendencies exploiting you by counter-attacking with targeted adjustments.
What Is a Steal in Poker?
A steal is defined as any open raise from the Cutoff, Button, or Small blind after it has folded to you. Traditionally, most players think it is a steal only when they hold a non-value hand. In other words, the raise is made not on the merits of having a “good” hand, but rather just to “steal” the blinds from their opponents.
In truth, this is all a bunch of hogwash that is solely based on people attaching ownership to the blinds. They think because they posted the blind, they somehow own the money. The truth is, the money is up for grabs and they can either choose to fight for it or not.
Why Is Stealing Worthwhile?
If no one was forced to post blinds, there would be no point to the game, and the best strategy would be to fold every single hand but pocket Aces. However, there are 1.5 big blinds sitting there on the table at the start of each hand, even more, if there are antes.
Right now, you may be thinking, “It’s only 1.5 big blinds; why the heck should I bother going out of my way to go after them?” The answer is simple. You should do so because 1.5 big blinds is a ton of money!
In a 6-handed, non-ante game, if you play 1,000 hands in a session, you will be in the blinds fully about 333 times. That’s 250 big blinds per 1,000 hands that you are investing all by yourself before the cards are even dealt. During that same time, the total invested by all players at the table is 1,500 big blinds. In a .50/1.00 cash game, $1,500 is contributed every 1,000 hands. Whoever is able to procure more of that money will be leaps and bounds ahead of the competition.
How Often Do I Steal?
First off, you should have a “vacuum” stealing range that best fits the games you play in. If you typically play in games that are full of staunch blind defenders, you would have much tighter vacuum ranges than if you played in more passive or tighter games. This is because you want to play ranges that are most likely to be optimal against your average opponent. Let’s take a look at some common vacuum stealing range frequencies. You may want to use an equity calculator to see what these ranges might look like:
- CO: 25%-30%
- BTN: 35%-40%
- SB: 30%-35%
Once you have a read on a particular opponent, you can then adjust these ranges accordingly based on an extreme tendency he or she might exhibit. These reads can be obtained either by observation or by use of a HUD via your poker tracking software. Basically, when it comes to attacking the blinds, you want to do the opposite of how the players behind you defend. If an opponent defends wider than normal, you steal less. If an opponent defends less than normal, you steal more.
Example ranges with wide defenders behind:
- CO: 20%-25%
- BTN: 25%-30%
- SB: 25%-30%
Example ranges with tight players behind:
- CO: 35%-40%
- BTN: 50%+
- SB: 50%+
The narrowness or wideness of your range is typically correlated directly with how extreme your opponent(s) are and also how strong your understanding of post-flop equity is.
Stealing Frequency Exceptions
Just because a player defends often, doesn’t necessarily mean you need to open fewer hands. The way an opponent defends also matters. For example, if a player in the big blind defends often by calling and then playing fit or fold after the flop, we can actually expand our stealing range. That is why it’s important that you look beyond just the pre-flop frequency when deciding on a stealing range. You will get better at this with experience as you develop your decision-making process.
Stealing From The Small Blind
Depending on your post-flop competency, your vacuum small blind opening range should range anywhere from 30% to 100% of hands. My philosophy is to just open as many hands as possible and force my opponent to adjust. This has worked really well for me over the years since, even when opponents do try to adjust, they do it incorrectly and spew even more money my way.
The ideal situation is to have a nitty player directly to your player as often as possible. With a steal success of 57%, you would break even if your holding never had value. In other words, you could open fold every hand on the flop and not lose anything. But here’s the good news. Your hand does have value, and sometimes you will hit flops. Optimizing your c-bet frequencies is the key to success from the small blind.
When all of this is factored in, against most opponents, raising anything less than 100% in the small blind when it is folded to you seems like a gross error. Besides, the world is full of nits. You will find that many players will be oblivious to what you are doing. They are completely focused on their cards or possibly playing too many tables to notice. These types of players are getting their pockets picked time and time again and will never realize it. I cannot overstate how important it is to keep the steady stealing profit from these players flowing in. We will talk more about table selection in a bit.
Raise Sizing For Steals
In steal positions I recommend min-raising. One of the main reasons is that it causes many players in the blinds to call too often out of position, gives aggressive 3-bettors the maximum chance to make a mistake against you, and allows for you to correctly fold as cheaply as possible should you face a 3-bet with a marginal hand. Additionally, against strong players, you will want to give no information as to your pre-flop ranges. Having a static pre-flop opening raise size accomplishes that.
When to Open Raise Larger
Against regulars, you should be reluctant to change your raise size at any point, as they will likely be used to your normal min-raise. However, when there are loose or recreational players to your left, there are a few instances where you might consider a change. Against opponents who are oblivious to what you are doing, it’s fine to vary your bet sizing based on your hand strength.
For example, if there are only fish to my left, I might increase my opening size with TT+ to between 2.5 and 3.5 big blinds. The sizing I choose depends on just how loose the table has been playing and how high the VPIP of my opponents are. If play has been particularly aggressive and there are one or more pre-flop maniacs still to act, raising to 3.5bbs or 4.0bbs are both good choices. You will also want to widen your typical value range a bit on tables like this both before and after the flop.
What to Do Post-Flop After Stealing
There is really no secret to post-flop play after you have raised in a steal position and been called by someone behind. Of course, you will typically have a really wide range and your opponents will know this. Even so, having the initiative gives the pre-flop aggressor an inherent advantage that can be overcome only by the really best players.
The key really goes back to fighting a battle of frequencies. As reads are developed, it becomes much easier to attack our opponents on the flop, turn, and river. Once the flop texture is assessed, a plan can be formed based on what we perceive our opponents’ method of defending. Based on this information, we can optimize our c-betting frequencies and exploit whatever tendency our opponent exhibits.
For example, if we know our opponent tends to be a fit or fold player, our c-betting frequency will likely be near 100%. On the other hand, if we have a read that our opponent is really sticky and likes to play back at avid blind stealers we can counter-adjust and reduce our frequencies and take tricker lines to exploit any overly aggressive actions that might be taken against us. In other words, we might trap with the middle to top of our range, give up with our really weak hands, and play back aggressively with our marginal hands that have good potential to improve. These might include backdoor draws and overcards or some other piece of the board.
Of course, if we are readless or playing a player with what appear to be average defending tendencies, we can just use our vacuum strategy and proceed accordingly. This is why building a robust default system is of utmost importance. Keep in mind that when developing your vacuum strategy it should be done based on what the “average” player does on a particular poker site or even live poker room. Anyone who has played long enough knows that the regs seem to almost have a certain pattern of play depending on where you go. Currently, I play on two different poker sites. One is chock full of recreational players and regs who play very vanilla styles of poker. The other is loaded with aggro monkeys and very few completely fishy players. As a result, I have two completely different vacuum strategies that I employ based on where I happen to be playing.
Competent blind play is of importance for any winning strategy at any stack size. Whether amateur or professional, the small blind and big blind are typically where the biggest leaks occur in anyone’s game. It’s critical to develop a strong game plan for defending. Even today, among the vast majority of poker players, hand after hand gets misplayed and the money just melts away.
Most of the time it is a slow bleed that goes unnoticed. Players relinquish their small blind when it folds to them, or worse; they incorrectly limp. And when in the big blind facing a raise, unskilled players make absent-minded calls with no plan. Or, they miss opportunities to profitably 3-bet. The good news is that with a few minor adjustments, anyone can turn things around and stop the constant hemorrhaging caused by their substandard blind defense. However, that does not mean to just go willy-nilly and become a 3-bet monkey or call everything in site.
You Do Not Own “Your” Blinds
Let’s get one thing out of the way. When you post your blind, the money no longer belongs to you. Sure, your posted blind is sitting right in front of your cards, but that fact means nothing. It’s a matter of human nature to become possessive about money, especially if you just stuck it in the pot and it is sitting tantalizingly close. I am sure you have heard people complain about getting their blinds raised. However, they are wrong about owning them since the blinds are nothing but an ante. They go into the pot before the beginning of the hand and no longer exist in a player’s stack.
The awesome thing is that we can use this information to the advantage of our overall strategy. Since we know people like to cling to “their” blinds from the worst positions possible, we can tailor our game to exploit the field. Once we understand the mistakes people are making, we can use this knowledge to form a game plan for our own blind play.
An Attitude Adjustment
There are only two ways people can “defend” their blinds: calling or raising. Most choose trapdoor number one and attempt a feeble defense of the blinds by flat calling a raise. Players typically call way too many hands and play fit or fold post-flop because they had “odds” to do so or because they already had money invested that they need to defend. You have already learned that this is a flawed way of thinking.
As a consequence, if you call a raise from the blinds (unless that raise is by the small blind), then you have to play out of position for the rest of the hand. You will be forced to fight an uphill battle on every street. Believe me, this is seldom a good proposition. I am not saying flat calls are never +EV; I am just saying that you need a very good exploitative reason to ever cold call in the blinds. Just calling for the sake of blind “defense” is a pretty crappy argument any way you look at it.
In fact, one of the core fundamentals of poker is to have the initiative going to the flop. Since calling deprives you of this, it should be a rare occurrence. Even with a reasonable amount of pot odds, most of the time the amount of profit to be had will be difficult to realize, often further exacerbated by a lack of position. Therefore, we should be highly selective and, assuming raising or reraising is not more profitable, only flat call in situations that are overtly +EV.
Choosing Defending Ranges
Today, the vast majority of competent players understand how much a robust stealing game contributes to their overall profit. Therefore, it’s more important than ever to develop a sturdy blind-defense strategy. The frequency and the makeup of those ranges are once again determined by the frequencies of our opponents.
My Sword is My Shield
Ever heard the phrase that the best defense is a good offense? That saying rings true even in poker. If you employ an aggressive blind stealing strategy complemented by an exploitative 3-betting strategy, then you have no need to erroneously try to hang on to something that never belonged to you in the first place. Therefore, our vacuum blind defense strategy should definitely err on the conservative side. In my opinion, we should let everyone else make all the fundamental errors in the blinds and stick to the fundamentals of position and initiative as much as possible.
The way to do this is, instead of looking for marginal ways to get our piece of the ante pie, we need to instead actively take advantage of overtly profitable spots. With this new mindset, we are no longer trying to defend “our” blinds, we are simply looking to make +EV plays while sitting in them.
The Proof is in the Data
To illustrate the correct ways to fight for the blinds, let’s take a look at the positional stats of a few different player types and see what information we can glean from it.
Player 1: The Fish
This guy plays nearly every pot, not to fight for it, but to try and make a hand. This is the ultimate fit or folder and eternal optimist, which simply does not work in poker. He never steals but, instead, defends every steal against him by calling and then playing fit or fold post-flop. This is a great example because if you just play the opposite of this style in every way, you will have a good chance of being a winner. In fact, the awesome thing is, with no training, this is often how most people play poker as a beginner. They see every flop, and only continue if their cards match the board. Unfortunately, these types of players are becoming rarer and rarer.
Player 2: The Nit
This player is not a fish in the traditional sense, because he understands that limping is generally bad and playing weak hands is typically not profitable. That is where his understanding of poker ends. He is not interested in fighting for anything, much less the blinds. He waits on strong hands to get involved and probably wonders why he cannot beat the game.
The first tell-tale stats to look at are his steal percentages. He only steals from the cutoff about 10%, the button 14%, and the small blind 16%. This is a double-edged sword. Not only is he not getting a continuous stream of earnings from stealing dead money, since he steals so narrowly, he is likely getting 3-bet infrequently. This means he is getting very little action with his strong hands, a giant double whammy that is very hard to recover from and beat anything but the fishiest games.
Unfortunately, this player is not making up any ground while sitting in the blinds. He 3-bets less than 4% from both the small and big blind. Once again, he is taking a double hit in earnings since he is not being up any dead money from folds by light stealers, nor is he getting a lot of action from his strong hands. He is, once again, missing out on a huge piece of the “blind pie” in two major ways. In cash games, “tight is right” simply does not work.
Player 3: The Half Lag
This player does much better in the steal department but fails in blind defense. Instead of 3-betting, he prefers to call and see a flop. His cold call percentage is nearly 23% from the small blind and 35% from the big blind. In nearly 1/3 of pots played, he is forcing himself to play out of position and is likely fit or folding most of the time. With a few minor adjustments, it looks like this guy could be a winning player.
Player 4: The Half Nit
This player is exactly the opposite of the Half Nit. He plays very well while sitting in the blinds, calling raises infrequently and 3-betting with more than just nut hands. Unfortunately, he just plays way too nitty with his stealing range on the cutoff and button, and even opens way too narrowly from UTG and the HJ. Once again, this guy could very easily be a big winner with a few adjustments to his strategy.
Player 5: Automatic Poker
Here is my database for the past 3 years playing a 30 big blind starting stack. I have learned a lot along the way, but the basic fundamentals stay the same. Steal a wide range, resteal frequently, and flat call infrequently. With average post-flop skills, it is my belief that anyone can win at poker by just sticking to these basic principles that revolve around fighting for the blinds. Let’s use this information to build a profitable blind defense strategy.
Target the Biggest Offenders
If an opponent opens and his range falls in the “standard” range or tighter, then there is no need to go out of your way to target that player for light 3-bets or loose calls. Since he or she is folding fairly often, there is no pressure to adjust. The exception would be if that player either folds to 3-bet often, say over 75%, or has a low c-bet percentage and does not fight for pots post-flop.
The entire point of aggressive blind defense is to counterattack opponents who are opening extremely wide. Look for people who are stealing greater than 40% from the cutoff and 50% from the button or small blind as they are the best candidates to expand either your 3-betting ranges and/or your calling ranges. How you tailor those ranges entirely depends on the type of opponent you face.
Building Restealing Ranges
Versus aggressive opponents who are weak players or maniacs, look to mostly use a linear 3-betting range that includes hands that are either for value or that flop very well. Against competent regs, it’s usually better to polarize your 3-betting range from the big blind and use a 3-bet or fold strategy from the small blind. The stat to look for in determining which style to use is the fold the 3-bet stat. If a player folds to 3-bets a standard amount or higher, say 55% and up, tend to polarize your 3-bets. Otherwise, punish players who see too many flops with weak hands by using a linear 3-bet range that includes mid to high pairs and broadways.
When we talk about flatting in the blinds, we are almost solely discussing big blind play. Except for some very good reasons, it should be rare to flat any hands from the small blind. This is due to our positional disadvantage as well as the fact that there is much less pressure to defend the small blind due to the small investment in the pot.
From the big blind we should expand all of our defending ranges commensurate with the stealing frequency of the opponent. A general rule of thumb is to 3-bet your value range, flat the hands not quite good enough to 3-bet, and then add in a 3-bet bluffing range that includes some trash that doesn’t flop that great but does well enough to turn a profit when fold equity is factored in. Against opponents who seldom fold, just drop the light 3-betting part of the range.
In cash games, just knowing how to adjust to your tables is only half the battle. Besides just actively adjusting to opponents, we should also be looking to put ourselves in the most profitable situation possible. This is where table selection comes in.
The most profitable situations in poker are typically also the easiest ones to play. Having opponents who either play poorly or don’t adjust well are who we should be looking to play against. Conversely, we should be looking to avoid the players who play and adjust very well, especially if they are really aggressive. Here is a chart showing the ideal table dynamics you should be looking to position yourself in.
As you can see, the best place to sit is surrounded by fish. Of course, this is a rarity nowadays. The next best thing is to keep tight players on your left and aggressive players to your right. Besides playing with a bunch of bad players, being able to steal and resteal wide is about the best you can ask for. My advice is to always seek to have at least one “nit” or tight player to your left and the rest will take care of itself. The absolute worst situation is to have a calling station or super aggressive 3-bettor directly to your left. Those players should be avoided unless there is a huge whale to your right.
Standard Adjustments Versus Common Player Types
Profiling opponents and then making targeted adjustments is the key to success. Once you identify the playing style of a particular player, I find it helpful to take a note or label them with a color code, if possible. Here are a few common opponents and the standard adjustments that I make against them:
- Nits: Color Code Blue
These are the players who fold to steals often, in the range of 75% in the big blind and likely even higher in the small blind. I widen my stealing range accordingly to how often these players fold. Against some nits, I will steal 100%.
- Lite 3-bettors: Color Code Red
If an opponent resteals more than 15%, I will tighten up my stealing range anywhere from 5% to 10%. Once again, the amount you tighten will depend on how aggro your opponent is. In the extreme, there are some aggro 3-bettors out there where my stealing range almost entirely consists of hands I am willing to 4-bet.
- Calling Stations: Color Code Yellow
These are players who fold to c-bet infrequently. Not only do I tighten a bit against calling stations, I also tend to rearrange my range to include more hands that flop well or frequently have inherent showdown value, like small pairs and Ax hands. 22+, Ax, and all broadways is a good range to open with calling station(s) behind. Look to bluff less and value bet wider.
- Fish: Color Code Green
Players with VPIP 50%+. With fish behind, I tend to stick to my normal range or widen just a bit. You want to play as many hands as possible in position against loose players. If they are fit or fold type players, we can just open a wide range and continuation bet 100% against them.
There is one constant in poker. In order to play the game, everyone must pay the blinds. At its most basic level, poker comes down to keeping as much of the blind pool as we can while denying our opponents their fair share. That is why the last 4 seats at the table mostly determine what our win-rate will be.
The real key to obtaining your best win-rate is to actively work at improving your table selection and optimizing the profitability of your average table dynamic. Do that, and the rest will take care of itself. Then, all you have to worry about is maximizing your earnings in every situation by taking advantage of the weaknesses of your opponents. The low hanging fruit is to counter what your opponents are doing with targeted adjustments via their frequencies. Whether they play too loose or too tight, there is a way to extract from them. It’s up to you to be vigilant and take full advantage of the open pocketbooks in front of you.