What I’m going to show you here is typically called “stealing” the blinds. I prefer to call it winning the blinds or earning the blinds, because we’re going to do it via sound math, not through violence – real or implied – nor by stealth; just good, old-fashion, solid mathematics that anyone can understand. The specific situation I’m going to address here is when the betting is folded around to you and you’re on the button. In other words, there are now three players left in the hand: you, the Small Blind (SB) and the Big Blind (BB).
From Lesson 8, you already know how to play when you’re in this position, but the strategy there is based upon a more-or-less “average” game where players before you have called or raised or reraised and so on. However if all of the players acting before you fold, you’re now left with two opponents who have bets riding on what are essentially random hands. Certainly, a player in the SB can find that s/he has a pair of Aces and there’s nothing to stop the BB from being dealt a great hand, but in the long run, these two players will have an “average” hand. In fact, that’s almost the definition of random – either player might have a great hand or a terrible hand, but in the long run, they’ll each have an average hand.
Of course, we have no way of knowing what their actual hands are when it comes time to make our bet, but we do know what an average hand is. As I explained in Lesson 12, the hand of Q-7o is often called the “computer hand” because it’s basically the average hand one gets as their pocket cards. In this context, “average” means that a Q-7 will win 50% of all the hands played heads up versus any other random hand. Just to keep the record straight, that’s the winning percentage; the hand that produces a 50% pot equity return is J-5 suited. So, if we’re facing two average hands, what better to choose than Q-7o and J-5s for our analysis?
But before we get into strategy, let’s quickly review the financial aspect of winning the blinds. Of course, the only way to accomplish this is to raise the bet, in the hope that both blinds will fold. While I use a $10-$20 game as the example in these lessons, the reality is that both blinds will not likely call a raise in such a game. However, in the lower limit games of $3-$6 and below, they probably will, but I’m going to keep the math at the $10-$20 level for continuity’s sake. Hopefully you’ll recall that the “expected value” (EV) is for one round of $10-$20 Hold ’em is about $1-$1.25, because we need to compare that with our “wiining the blinds” play.
Let’s set the scene: The BB has $10 in the pot and the SB has $5; you’ll have to bet $20, which will make the pot $35. If both blinds call, the pot will total $60 (your $20, plus $20 from each of the blinds). This means you must win at least 33% of these hands to break even. Of course, there’s no reason to play for a break-even situation because all it does is increase your variance with no long-term gain. So, I’ll just arbitrarily assign a minimum probability of 40% as the threshold for our play, which will give us an EV of 40% x $60 = $2.40; twice the EV of the average winning hand. If only the SB calls, the pot is now $40, so we must win 50% to break even. If only the BB calls, the pot is now $45 ($20 from you, $5 from the SB and $20 from the BB) and we have to win 45% to break even. But, if either of those situations occurs, we now only have one player to beat and I’ll cover that situation in part 2 of this.
What this all boils down to is that we need a chart of hands that will win 40% of the time against Q-7o and J-5s. My “Basic Strategy Matrix” already tells us to raise with a variety of hands when we’re on the button and that doesn’t change in this situation. What does change, however, is that we can expand that list considerably. I need to make one important point here: If you’re re-raised by either blind, you should fold unless your hand allows for re-raising again as shown on the matrix. (Just A-A, A-Ks, A-Ko and K-K). The basic premise here is to raise in the hope that the blinds will fold, but if they don’t then you’ll at least have a hand that can make you a profit if it’s played all the way through to the river. Of course, you might ultimately choose to fold the hand after the flop, depending upon how it “hits” you, how your opponents bet and so forth, but remember that the percentages I’m going to show you assumes that your hand is played through to a showdown.
Okay, take a look at the chart and I’ll meet you down below to discuss it:
|Winning the Blinds: Limit Hold ’em Poker|
Much like the chart I presented in the last lesson, this one doesn’t present absolute strategy – like raise only with K-9o or higher – but it at least will give you an idea of the types of hands you should be raising or not raising with in this situation. Again, the percentages come from Poker Stove, that fantastic, free tool available at https://www.pokerstove.com/ . In looking at the chart, it’s easy to see that hands containing an Ace or King usually have our minimum 40% equity, although A-6o doesn’t. That’s mainly because the 6 in the hand is lower than the 7 of the Q-7o hand and you cannot make a Straight with an Ace and a 6. Therefore I recommend that you raise with an “unsuited” Ace only if the other card is 8 or higher. If you run some of these simulations on your own, you’ll see that hands like A-4o – from which you can make a Straight – are just below the 40% minimum, yet are over the 33% break-even level, so you’ll have to make up your own mind on how to play them. If the players in the blinds have not been aggressive about “defending” them, a hand like A-4o is probably worth a raise, but it’s a definite fold if you’re re-raised.
Pocket pairs do pretty well in this situation, but I included 2-2 and 5-5 to demonstrate they’re not a “no-brainer” here. The two average hands dominate those pairs, so betting them is a gamble; something we don’t like to do around here. That said, if you hit a set (Trips) on the flop, you’ll likely win the hand, so if you choose to play them, my suggestion is to just limp into the pot rather than raise. Then, it’s a case of “no set-no bet” on the flop. Remember, you’ll still be acting last, so position is in your favor in these situations.
A nice corollary to this study is that it’ll give you a feel for what you might be up against when you’re in the blinds. How to react to a raise from any position is covered in the Basic Strategy and you should follow that 90% of the time. But the matrix assumes the “average” situation, where a raise could come from any position, so if you’re up against a player who’s constantly raising in these situations, you might want to loosen up your calls a bit.
Poker is more art than science, so my mathematical recommendations carry only so much weight; the rest is up to you. A question that may pop up is: “Will this work if you’re in a position earlier than the button – say, the ‘cut-off’?” Well, yes, if you can assume the button will fold, but how can you make that assumption with 100% certainty? Otherwise, you’re gambling and we all know that gamblers don’t win at poker for very long.
If you don’t already have a copy of Poker Stove, get it and expand upon the chart I’ve presented here. When I made it, I generally kept suits out of the way; in other words, I didn’t have your Ace suited with the blinds’ Jack or Queen and, while that doesn’t make a huge difference in the percentages, it does have an impact. I’ll also recommend that you print out a copy of this chart and keep it near you if you’re playing online. Yes, I know I have your desk cluttered with tons of paper by now, but I’ve really found this to be helpful. I don’t feel like a pirate, exactly, but I do like the extra $$$ this is making me and I think you will, too.
I’ll see you here next time.