Isolating in Tournament Play
In tournaments, isolating isn't as much of a luxury as you'd find in other forms of poker. The reason for this is that you won't have the extra money available to play with. In cash games, isolating means that you can essentially pick on one player endlessly. This is made possible by a theoretically unending supply of chips. Still though, isolating in tournaments can be done, it's simply that it will be more of a matter of convenience. You should be trying to play the players who are getting involved with you as opposed to the other way around. Picking spots is what isolation is all about.
Isolating players is most ideal when you are working with a decent sized stack that's neither small nor massive. Of course, the bigger your stack size the better. Isolation in and of itself implies that you are really trying to outplay your opponent whereas a big stack is more prone to simply pushing players around. While the two are definitely quite similar, it would be unfair to say that they are the same. Isolating could also be a matter of you wanting to thin out the field as a whole, or it could mean that you want one player in particular to be heads up with you. These are the two main examples of times when a player would look to isolate, and it's what this article is going to focus on.
Isolating with Strong Hands
Isolating with strong hands is one of the oldest plays in poker. In fact, it's considered proper standard strategy as it relates to isolation. You shouldn't want several people to be in a pot with you when you have a strong starting hand. Many players have a tough time understanding this concept as it does seem a bit backwards from the outset. A hand like pocket queens plays very well in a heads up pot, but it's very susceptible to losing when it's facing several different hands. Since you are likely to make most, if not all of your money from one lone player, including others is just a recipe for disaster. You want your hand to ensure it has the best chance of winning while still maximizing value.
In tournament play, you are going to have more things to consider with strong hands pre-flop than you would in cash games. You are going to be able to identify the players who you think are most likely to put their money in the middle. With this type of information you'll be able to cater your strategy. You should be gauging how someone's past play in conjunction with their stack size and the blinds is likely to affect their future decisions. With a strong pre-flop hand, this becomes even more imperative.
If there's a player who opens for a sizable amount and forces multiple folds before the action gets to you with KK in late position, what do you do? In a cash game, the answer would almost always be to re-raise. Because of the tournament dynamic, however, flat calling might make a lot of sense. If the player raised so much that a flop and/or turn shove is all but inevitable, raising would do nothing more than scare them off. Stack sizes and other similar factors are going to matter a lot more in tournaments. In this case you already have your target isolated, so applying further pressure isn't going to be very beneficial.
If you are in the same position as the example above and have KK while facing a raise with multiple callers, your strategy is going to be different. You'll want to make a 3-bet and dwindle the field down. Your play here should be to sucker as many people in as you can for the most amount of chips possible. Placing a bet that blows everyone away won't be the best play, but raising enough to commit players is perfect. Bet sizing is usually going to be the single most important skill that you can put into play when you are isolating with a strong hand in tournaments.
Isolating a Specific Opponent
When isolating a particular player, you are going to have a larger concern for who else is involved in the pot. If you feel like one player is exceptionally loose and is likely to blow their entire stack with a marginal hand, you should be trying to get into a heads up situation. The amount of value that you receive out of this example is going to be diminished with each and every additional player that joins the pot. This is because not only do you now need to beat the weak player, but you are also being forced to contend with players that are likely to be more competent.
Isolating specific players in tournaments can be risky. You shouldn't be doing this all too often because you will still need to have a few things go right in order to get paid. Even if you get the bad player in a pot heads up with you, there's still a decent chance that you'll miss and they will have a hand. In these spots, skill becomes largely irrelevant. Instead of trying to play in too many below average situations, the better plan is to increase the times where you play in above average spots.
In other words, your inclination towards a call from a weak player can be increased vs. against a random opponent, but you should not be raising just to get a random player to call. There's a big difference between playing in a pot that was isolated for you at a low cost and trying to isolate a player at your own risk. Sure, in ring games you can try to do this, but the variance of short term tournament results doesn't lend itself to playing in pots that require a long term skill advantage.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
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