Thou Shalt Not Steal

On most lists of the Ten Commandments, not stealing is number eight, right between the prohibitions on adultery and telling lies.  (Perhaps more on those some other time, otherwise I digress…)

In Texas Hold’em poker, “stealing” is often used to describe making a bet into an unopened pot with a weak hand, in late position.  The hope is that the blinds will fold and you gain a few chips with minimal effort.  In the mid-to-late stages of tournaments, the value of this tactic is magnified, as winning the ever-growing blinds and antes reduces the pressure on the person stealing, and increases the pressure on the victims.

Last night I was playing in a 3-table tournament with a regular group.  We started with 30,000 chips and blinds of 100 / 200.  Mathematically, that means each player starts with 150 Big Blinds.  The cost of folding while the dealer button passes one orbit around the table is 300 chips, and there are 8 players per table.  No big deal.

After 2-and-a-half hours, the blinds are up to 1,000 / 2,000 along with an ante of 200 per player.  My table is down to five players, although we will consolidate from 3 table down to 2 tables as soon as another player is knocked out.  I’ve been playing very tight, won a few pots and lost some others, and now have about 25,000 chips remaining.   Mathematically, that puts me at about 12.5 Big Blinds. The dealer button is passing around the table quickly – every 5 hands – and each orbit is costing me 4,000 chips.  Ouch!

Now I’m in the Big Blind with T-8 off suit, and the first 2 players fold.  The villain in this hand – I’ll call him “Marco” – raises to 4,500 on the button.  I’ve played with him many times.  Right now, he has the biggest stack at the table, and I know from history that he will steal the blinds and antes in this situation with modest holdings.  This is not the first time he’s raised an unopened pot from the cutoff or button.  The small blind meekly folds.

Looks like an opportunity to Re-Steal.  By re-raising, particularly if I go all-in, I’ll show strength.  While Marco has a big stack, he certainly does not want to lose 25,000 chips to me.  Yes, it is possible that he has a big hand, but his range for raising from the button,  5-handed, in an unopened pot, is extremely wide.  The risk to him of calling is losing 25,000 chips.  The risk to him of folding is abandoning the hand and losing 4,500 chips.

The benefit to me of folding is losing my Big Blind (2,000 chips) but otherwise keeping my stack intact and hoping another player busts out soon so we can combine tables and play 8-handed again.  That alone would moderate the pressure as the blinds increase.  The benefit to me of raising all-in is I can gain 8,500 chips, increasing my stack by over 30%.  (I would win my big blind back (2,000), plus the small blind (1,000), plus 5 antes (1,000), plus Marco’s 4,500 chip raise.)  The potential gain to me is much greater relative to my stack size than the potential loss is to Marco.

The risk to me is busting out of the tournament.

I just don’t like playing with a short stack for long stretches.  I pretend to think long enough that Marco might decide I’m trapping him with a huge hand, then announce “all-in.”  He quickly calls.  Uh-oh.

I turn my cards over with the 10 showing but the Eight completely covered by the 10.  Okay, says Marco, and he turns over a Seven, with his second card similarly covered.  The flop is 6-2-8.  Bingo!  Now I have a pair of 8’s.  Hopefully his other card is another 7.  I spread my cards now to show my Eight and that now I have top pair.  All of a sudden, I feel good about this.

The turn card is a 3, followed by an Ace on the river.  (Shout out here for Barry Greenstein’s excellent book, “Ace on the River.”)  Marco slowly slides his Seven to one side, revealing an Ace underneath.

He eventually wins the tournament.

For me, it’s a short walk over to the cash game table, to join the other losers.  Every one of them has a story to tell about the tournament.  Every story ends the same.

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