Trigger Happy

Pre-flop stealing happened from the button, but when that became too obvious, players did it from the cut-off

Raising from the cut-off had a lot to recommend it – at least it did until the blinds realised they were being hoodwinked

In Joni Mitchell’s classic song, The Circle Game, there’s a line which says: ‘We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came. And go round and round and round in the circle game.’ I don’t have any idea whether Mitchell is a poker player in addition to being a singer/songwriter, but her lyrics are as applicable to poker as they are to the cycle of life.

After all, poker theory also moves, turns, and changes with time, and the poker strategies that worked incredibly well a year or so ago might not work very well today. As players begin to adapt and change their game based on what many players are doing at the table, the smart, savvy player has to stay one step ahead of them, and adjust his strategic thinking to stay ahead of the curve.


Every poker player has learned that position is critical in hold’em, and it’s even more important in no-limit games than in fixed-limit games. The reason is simple: you get to see what your opponent does before you act.

When an opponent shows weakness by checking, you can show strength by betting from late position. A player on the button gets to act after everyone else has played their hand. If no one else has chosen to call the blind before the player on the button acts, he can raise – showing strength – whether he has a strong hand or not.

Even if the blinds suspect him of bluffing, unless they have a strong hand rather than the random hand they’re likely to have in that position, they really can’t call. If they have a middling hand, the guy on the button – the one doing the betting – probably has at least as good a hand as they do, and might even be bluffing with the best hand.

When the light bulb went on, the majority of savvy players discovered that they needed to find a counter- move to this apparent larceny. So they began playing back at button raises, figuring that since the raiser was on the button, much of the time he was probably raising with hands that weren’t as strong as advertised.

The likelihood was that the guy on the button was raising with random hands too, because he acted last on succeeding betting rounds and could use his position and leverage to pound on the blinds and force them to fold.

So the savvy players did the only thing they could under the circumstances. They upped the ante by re-raising. Re- raising from the blinds was an entirely new strategy when its popularity took hold a few years ago. The players who were re-raising from the blind were saying to the button, ‘Hey, I know you raised with position just to steal the blinds. But not this time. I’ve got the goods, and I’m making it expensive if you want to continue to play.’

If you’ve never seen this play before, consider its effect. You’re on the button. You’re stealing with a hand that isn’t likely to trump anything a solid player would re-raise with, especially if he’s out of position. So what do you do? The only thing any sane poker player would under the circumstances: you fold.


The next time you’re in the blinds and suspect the button is stealing, try re-raising. The button can only call or play back at you if he has a big hand


Awareness of raising from the button as an obvious steal move took a little bit of lustre away from this jewel of a play, and proponents eased off the throttle a bit, since opponents had become wise to it.

No problem. The savvy players just took a side step to the right. They began to raise from the cut-off seat – the seat immediately to the right of the button. Now the raiser is hoping that the button doesn’t have much of a hand either and will fold to a raise just like the two blinds. Only now they are more prone to believe that the raiser in the cut-off seat has a legitimately strong hand, since he raised before the button acted.

Raising before the button means the raiser will be snapped-off on those occasions when the player on the button has a hand that’s strong enough to re-raise with. But when push comes to shove, using the button as a hostage in this situation is not all that risky to Mr Cut-off, simply because the button is unlikely to wake up with A-A, K-K, Q-Q, A-K or anything else you consider a re-raising hand all that often.

This ploy gave the cut-off raiser a big edge for a while. Not only did he legitimise his raise because he was raising from the cut-off seat instead of the button, but his raise stood a good chance of causing the player on the button to fold, allowing Mr Cut-off to act last on the remaining three rounds of wagering.

Raising from the cut-off had a lot to recommend it – at least it did until the light went on again, and the blinds realised they were being hoodwinked, this time by their savvy, aggressive opponent in the cut-off seat. Since re-raising from the blinds seemed to be such a good play when used against the guy raising from the button, why not use it against the cut-off? They did, and it worked.

A new equilibrium was formed. Re-raises from the blinds began to keep the button and cut-off in check. Oh, sure, you can still raise from those two positions, but you just can’t do it as frequently or with the total impunity you had before the guys in the blind started playing back at you.


So where next in this little game of cat and mouse? Is under the gun the new button? Will an attempt to steal the blinds by players who act early work better than the now semi- transparent steal-raises from the button or cut-off seat?

It hasn’t come to this quite yet. Although an under the gun raise carries with it the highest possible stamp of validity, the raise is still predicated on seven other players folding before the blinds decide to act. This is where the likelihood concept comes into play, and it’s a lot more likely that someone will wake up with a big hand when seven players remain to act than when there are none – or maybe just one, if you’re raising from the cut-off – even if that steal-raise on the button looks fishy.

Each step a player takes to the right of the button in order to convey the aura of legitimacy upon his act of thievery is met with an opposing force: the increased likelihood that someone will actually have a big hand and play back at the raiser, leaving him trapped in the sunshine with nothing to do but to fold his hand or call with the worst of it and hope for a miracle on the flop.

From my perspective, I love bluff raising from the cut- off seat. The likelihood of just one player having a big hand is not all that great. When combined with the fact that a cut-off raise stands a good chance of being able to act last on each of the three remaining betting rounds, it makes for a very viable play even when the blinds choose to call rather than fold.

After all, the ability to act last gives a substantial amount of leverage to the raiser – more in a pot-limit or no-limit game than in fixed-limit poker, and much more in a tournament – and that leverage has substantial value in and of itself.

Unless you’ve got very tight, tentative, cautious, and conservative players to your left who are prone to fold whenever you raise, under the gun isn’t the new button quite yet. Neither are any early-position or mid-position seats most of the time. Save your bluff raises for opponents who have shown a propensity for folding to raises even when they come from late position, and avoid trying to steal through an entire table full of players. One of them might just wake up with a big hand.

While under the gun isn’t the new button, the cut-off seat still has a lot going for it. A higher legitimacy factor, a lowered likelihood factor, and the ability to purchase last action for the price of one small raise – all these point to the cut-off as the seat of choice in today’s hold’em games. But that’s today, not tomorrow. Even as we play, others are busily devising new tactics to give them an edge, even if it’s only a temporary one. Maybe under the gun will eventually become the new button after all.


A raise from under the gun carries the highest degree of legitimacy, but the reality is that there are a lot of players still to act behind you who could wake up with a monster. Unless the players at your table are tight and cautious, save your UTG raises for when you have premium hands

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