Tournament strategy: Stealing the blinds

He’s won over $1m playing live and enjoyed his biggest cash when he came 4th in last year’s WSOP Millionaire Maker for $465,972 – Andy Teng didn’t get there without stealing the blinds

The existence of blinds initiates all action at the poker table, and stealing them is the most basic method of trying to increase your stack in tournaments. As a tournament progresses, it can very often be the only move available.

Factors to consider when contemplating a steal are stack sizes, position, tournament situation, other players and table dynamics. In every hand, gaining and using as much of this information is vital to help us make the best decisions.

Positional sense

The most obvious way to steal the blinds is to do it in as late a position as possible. The later you are, the less people you need to get through, as well as there being an increased chance of playing the hand in position postflop if the hand continues.

Online, most high-stakes tournaments are getting tougher and people are playing aggressively against late position openers. Live, many people still like to flat-call a lot out of the blinds, partly because of the weaker standard of player, but also because live there’s the opportunity to ‘read’ people.

By the same logic, it makes sense to be opening a tight range in early position as you have the whole table to get through, and there’s more chance that an opponent has a premium hand. However, stealing from early positions can be a profitable move because the raise looks so scary that it is unlikely to attract players to play back at you. In fact, your opponents could be folding rather strong hands because of how strong the initial raise looks.

This works best with a tight image or when close to the bubble. It effectively doesn’t matter what hand you open when doing this and the move is more reliant on stack sizes. The shallower everyone else is, the more attractive A-x, pairs and broadway cards are. The deeper everyone else is, the better suited connectors and A-x hands become, while small pocket pairs diminish in value.

Stack sizes

In poker tournaments, stack sizes dictate your options in playing a hand and it is important to be aware of all stack sizes at the table and any opportunities to steal the blinds. For example, a good spot to open light would be when the big blind is short and doesn’t have any fold equity in a re-shove (less than ten big blinds).

In this situation, it’s very profitable to open on them with hands that aren’t super strong but have more than enough equity to never fold. This is emphasised as we approach the money bubbles and final table bubbles in tournaments where it can be the correct strategy for short-stacks to fold tighter than normal to your opens.

This is where ICM comes into play more than at any other point in a tournament as shorter-stacks don’t want to be all-in light as it costs them significant money jumps. Another stack size situation is raising into awkward stack sizes. Something like 30 big blinds is always tough to play with marginal hands, because defending the blinds by three-betting could cost a lot of your stack, while flat-calling causes problems as you have to play hands out of position post-flop.

Not all decisions should be based on stack sizes, however, and when there are weak players in the blinds, it increases the incentive to steal blinds. If they’re too tight, it’s worth opening an extremely wide range of hands. If they call a lot, opening a lot on them is still very profitable but it would be advisable to reduce the amount of total air in your opening range.

Against regulars it’s more important to be adjusting to specific table dynamics, and table images. They will generally not make as many obvious errors as the fish, but they’re all exploitable in their own way.

Bet sizing

Early in tournaments, a standard open-raise can vary from a min-raise to four times the big blind. This depends on table dynamics and position. I define this period as being with no antes, when the average stack is 50 big blinds or more.

I may adjust my bet sizing, depending on what I am trying to achieve by the raise. Early in a tournament, there may be fish behind me who always call no matter what. In this case, I would just go ahead and min-raise every speculative hand that I wanted to play, and bet four times the big blind with all my really strong hands. The fish won’t adjust.

As a tournament enters the middle stages, the antes come in which increases the value of every blind steal. The average stack starts to get smaller, and this means players have to open stronger hands as every time they do a larger percentage of their stack is on the line. However with 2.5 big blinds up for grabs there is also a larger incentive to steal.

In the past, a three times the big blind raise was the standard size for an opening raise in poker tournaments. Then it was discovered that 2.5 times the big blind had virtually the same effect as three times. Now the general idea is to just raise as small as possible. In online high-stakes tournaments the current cool thing to do is get as close to min-raising as possible.

In fact, pure min-raising as a default is something a few players have been doing recently once they have a shallow enough stack size. This is because as tournaments get later and stacks are shallower, people call raises less and re-stealing becomes a huge weapon in the arsenal. Min-raising now accomplishes what 2.5 times raising did, and also saves chips when you are three-bet.

In live tournaments, preflop opening sizes have generally stayed bigger. There’s a higher propensity for villains to flat-call opens, and three-bet ranges are narrower (for the reasons mentioned before). However, this is villain dependent, and against young internet kids it’s probably best to make bet sizes very similar to online.

Opening up your range

Poker tournaments are a balance of chip accumulation and conserving your stack and for this reason you should be more selective with hands as your stack gets shorter. An example would be that 17 big blinds deep, with Q♣-J♣ in the cut-off, I’d usually raise to steal the blinds with what is probably the best hand. However, any time I get re-raised I figure I must have bad equity.

If the villain re-raises all-in with 40% of hands, which is ridiculously wide, I still only have 49.85% equity. Against the top 20% of hands I have 44% equity and against 10% of hands I have 36%. With all the dead money in the middle, I’d basically be priced in to call. An interesting solution is open-shove Q-J suited!

As I said at the beginning, open-shoving will always be an option. A lot of players are already familiar with short-stack open-shove ranges. These ranges are usually pretty tight from early positions, because there are so many people behind, and then slightly more speculative from later position.

But even though 17 big blinds is a lot more to shove, good Broadway hands are great to shove with when there are strong players behind as it forces them to fold hands they might have re-shoved. If they are taking ICM considerations into account they are much less willing to call with hands such as 2-2 to 5-5, medium A-x and even strong Broadway such as K-Q or K-J suited.

Shoving up to around 20 big blinds evolved from online superstar ‘djk123’, who advocated shoving this kind of range in spots where people had previously never shoved before. I would not expect people to fold the strongest part of their ranges, but they will fold hands with bad equity even though they know we don’t have the very strongest hands in our range.

This is of course a relatively high variance play, but has been proven to be a valid option when raise/folding strong hands would be a disaster and raise/calling is unappealing.

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