AngusD switched from pro chess to poker two decades ago and has been professionally involved in the game on numerous levels since the very beginning of online poker, including playing as a poker ambassador both online and at major festivals around the globe. He has written much about the game over the years, and brings to YPD a wealth of experience in all aspects of the poker industry. Meanwhile, his many years on the pro chess circuit (he’s an International Master and prolific author) afford him an interesting perspective on the psychology of poker.

· Published 02.12.2020 · last updated 16.12.2020

Part 1

Because poker is such a rich game, with so much to learn and so many different skills to work on, we have only ourselves to blame if we fail to build up an armoury before sitting down for another bout of psychological warfare. Games and sports have countless strategies and specific plays that can give us an edge, and poker is absolutely no exception.

We tend to come across some situations more than others, so it’s worth giving them thought away from the table in order to save time essentially reinventing the proverbial wheel each time this or that scenario inevitably presents itself. Indeed, given the limited time we have in online poker to make what are often difficult decisions, then all the more reason to have done some homework in advance by incorporating certain strategies into our repertoire. Of course, no two situations are going to be identical, but some things are simply variations on a specific theme, so it’s nevertheless worth investing time actually thinking about the implications of a particular scenario.

One such is the re-steal. We’re aware of ‘stealing’ in poker generally, which typically happens when there seems no interest in anyone staking a claim for the pot, nobody has bothered to bet, the Button throws in a raise, everybody folds and another hand is dealt. This uneventful scene is played out tens of thousands of times an hour in online poker and is so ‘normal’ that it’s universally accepted as part of the game. Moreover, in this example what tends to happen is that nobody takes much notice that the Button raked in the chips, and it was ‘only’ a small pot, anyway, so what’s there to even bother about when a brand new hand is waiting in the wings?

Well, there’s quite a lot to bother about, as it happens! First, we can get through literally hundreds of hands during a typical session, and if we can get away with stealing the occasional pot here and there rather than passively letting these thieves have all the fun, then it will make a not insignificant difference to our overall result. And that’s why these crafty players want us to not think too much about what they’re doing. They obviously want to continue stealing because it’s practically free money, and if their opponents get wise to the fact that much of the time these raises are made with trash hands, then that money tap will suddenly switch off.

Beat the thieves at their own game

But we need more than to just be aware of what they’re up to – our plan is to first be on the lookout for such players who are getting away with highway robbery, and then to steal from the thieves themselves! Note that this re-steal strategy is even more profitable than stealing as described above, because here we get to pocket the extra chips added by our victim’s raise! Also, they’ve done quite a bit of the work for us by creating this re-steal situation in the first place! Without these greedy players we wouldn’t have this potential earner in our bag of goodies.

So, now that we know to be on the lookout for thieves, the next step is to concentrate on targeting them with a view to cheekily stealing the spoils all for ourselves, and this will be discussed in Part 2.

Part 2

In Part 1 we discussed how to recognize a pot-stealing thief and how, rather than sit back and let them get away with it, our mission should in fact be to steal from them!

Aggression is often the key to successfully implementing this or that strategy. In the case of hijacking a thief’s plan, aggression features in two ways. First, and ironically, we get to exploit the thief’s own aggression, like a springboard we can use to jump ahead and assume the initiative when we put in our own hefty (re)raise. In fact, our mission is by no means as difficult as it might seem to pull off, not least because the factors that contribute to our target setting up their own steal, in turn, help us carry out ours! Essentially, they’re doing the groundwork for us.

Typically, a thief will be sitting on the Button as this is the best spot relative to the rest of the table, and therefore the most appropriate position from which to execute a steal, as was described in Part 1. With this in mind, the Button’s range is going to be wider than usual as it is positional considerations and previous (lack of) action rather than starting hand strength that more determines whether or not a steal attempt is feasible.

It is this relaxed starting hand range that presents us with a weakness on which to focus our attention, and which leaves the thief susceptible to attack. Consequently, when the expected pre-flop raise comes from the Button, setting up their would-be steal of an uncontested pot, we come in to spoil the party with a re-raise. And this is where a bit of psychology comes into play that makes this re-steal strategy surprisingly simple. We could be reraising for either of two key reasons. First, we could simply have a very strong hand with which we’re willing, out of position, to get busy right from the off. We could be announcing that we don’t care about position, and are simply looking to get the Button’s chips in the middle. Alternatively, we could be in possession of a hand strong enough to bully our way into taking the pot for ourselves, the point being that, while we’re carrying out a re-steal, we nevertheless are sufficiently confident that we’re ahead anyway. Assuming that the Button is indeed trying to get away with stealing the pot, then they can reasonably deduce that whatever our motive, we have them dominated regardless. They could try bluffing, but they’re not in the business of taking such risks when there’s easier money to be made. Therefore, as long as our bet is big enough, they have little choice but to accept they’ve been caught with their fingers in the cookie jar, and fold. Of course, we could also be bluffing, but the point is to put on a show of strength and invite the opposition to make what they consider to be a sensible fold. Giving our opponent good reason to make decisions that we subsequently benefit from is all part of this kind of re-steal strategy. Incidentally, this is why such a tactic can be an effective weapon against good players who routinely steal in late position but are wise enough to keep their losses to a minimum and stand down. To get the most out of our plan, it also pays to have a tight(ish) table image.

Obviously, there is a time and place to execute the re-steal, and it isn’t a move we should try to execute at the drop of a hat, without first taking into account certain factors. Nor do we want to become predictable. Meanwhile, in this scenario we’re out of position, so that needs to be taken into consideration, too, as we might see our thieving re-raise called, after which we’re playing the rest of the hand with a positional disadvantage.

But sometimes we have to strip the game down to the basics and reconstruct a golden rule in order to come up with an effective play, and this is such an example. Of course, I’m absolutely not advocating habitually reraising players when out of position, rather that we should be on the lookout for opportunities like this where we’re essentially hijacking someone else’s own attempt at daylight robbery.

Finally, note that it shouldn’t automatically be assumed that any bet from a late position in an unraised pot is a steal! They might well have a strong hand, in which case our throwing our weight around with a reraise out of position could well get us into serious trouble. The idea is that we observe players closely in order to recognize when they’re up to no good. Obviously, a player will raise more in late position anyway, but if they’re making a habit of it, then it’s fair to say that a good number of times they’ll have nothing, and are simply taking advantage of their position.

Happy thieving!

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