Isolation Theory

No Limit Hold ’em is all about advantages. Every time we get involved in a pot, we’re looking to exploit some advantage or combination of advantages. Understanding and exploiting those advantages is called isolation.

Isolation: To raise (or reraise) preflop in order to play a pot with a particular player or players.

Often, we’re on the button and a weak player limps in front of us. We want to play pots with weak players, so we become inclined to isolate with a raise. Why? What cards should we choose? Isolation is predicated on three advantages:

  1. 1)  Card Advantage. When a weak player is playing hands like J6o, we get a ton of value out of hands like JT, QJ, KJ, and AJ. If we raise too loosely to isolate, we risk sacrificing all of our card advantage. Thus, if we raise J5o and get called by J6o, we’re actually at a card disadvantage. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, as the better our positional and skill advantages, the more we can sacrifice card advantage. However, if we play hands that give up too much card advantage, we may not be able to play them profitably even if we have a ton of skill advantage. Basically, we can’t isolate with any two cards, but we can start to think about widening our range as our skill advantage increases.
  2. 2)  Positional Advantage. When we are in position, our cards have inherently more value—it’s easier to get the money in when we have a good hand, easier to apply pressure when we want to bluff, easier to control the pot size with average to weak hands, and easier to hand-read. Thus, we should be very inclined to isolate with a wide range of hands on the button, as we have the highest possible amount of positional advantage.
  3. 3)  Skill Advantage. Our ability to make mistakes less often than our opponents and to force our opponents into mistakes increases the value of our hand. Thus, if we’re playing against somebody who is either bad-passive or bad-aggressive, we can isolate a wider range of hands because they’re making so many mistakes postflop that our hands have increased value. The worse they are, the looser we can isolate.

Here’s an example. Let’s say we accidentally sit down in a six-handed game with the five best players in the world. We’re in the small blind, and we pick up pocket aces. Aces have so much card advantage that, even though we are in the worst position and have a massive skill disadvantage, we can still play the hand profitably. Aces are that good.

It’s also important to note that stack size has a strong effect on each of the three advantages, particularly skill and position. When there is more money behind relative to the pot-size, both skill and position become much more powerful. So, while we might be able to play AA profitably at 100bb against the greatest players in the world, we might not be able to at 800bb deep. Or, we might be able to play them profitably on the button at 300bb deep, but not profitably in the SB 300bb deep.

In truth, we can order the advantages in terms of value and importance. The least important of all advantages is card advantage. Position comes in 2nd. But, importantly, skill advantage is BY FAR the most important advantage of isolation. Recently, I had a student fold K4s UTG. I told him he’d made a big mistake as, despite there being 3 good players to his left, there were two huge fish in the blinds.

Then, a couple hands later, he raised J7s in the CO. Once again, I told him he was making a mistake. He said, “How could raising K4s UTG be good, while raising J7s in the CO be bad?” I told him: Skill advantage makes the difference. Playing a pot in position against a bad player is easily worth the risk of playing OOP with K4s, while playing a pot in position with J7s against a bunch of really good players isn’t worth very much at all.*

In this sense, we need to be constantly thinking of who we’re intending to play pots against.

Let’s consider what it means to raise the button. A lot of players think they’re raising the button with a wide range to steal the blinds. Certainly, winning the blinds is a nice bonus. However, we raise the button with a wide range because we have absolute positional advantage and thus we can sacrifice some card advantage when we isolate the blinds. Remember—we don’t raise the button just to steal the blinds, we raise the button to play pots with the blinds.** Stealing the blinds is just extra free money. In this sense, we’re not being inconsistent with our reasons for betting—we’re either raising the button for value (say, with AK), thin value (with J8s)***, as a bluff (with T7s) or as a thin bluff (with 92s), but either way we’re counting on the blinds to be the dead money we need to collect.

So what types of cards should we isolate with when we loosen up our range? Well, we want to play hands that give us good equity postflop, which mostly means high cards and suited cards. So if you want to start loosening up, start adding the Q7 suited hands rather than the 75 offsuits.

Understanding why and how we isolate is the way we can target different types of players and take advantage of their mistakes. It’s how we can attack bad players from all angles and still manage to show up with good hands against good players. At a poker table, we use isolation to control who we play against and the circumstances under which the battles occur. I may be playing 50% of my hands against a fish and 20% against a regular****—understanding isolation gives me the best of both worlds.

*If they are tight, it may be a good idea to open the J7s anyway just to steal the blinds and then plan on giving up a lot postflop. Or, if they are very loose 3-bettors or callers preflop it may be a good idea to open J7s and plan on 4-betting or barreling a lot of streets postflop.
**Against players who won’t call or raise with weak hands this statement is definitely incorrect—if they aren’t going to play hands, we ARE raising to steal the blinds. Playing pots with people with strong hands when we have weak hands isn’t that great. It’s not terrible, especially if we have a good idea of their range and can value-bet or give-up appropriately. For example, I have J7s and a tight BB calls my button raise. The flop is AK4—I’m giving up. However, if the flop was T54 I’m probably barreling.

Obviously if the flop is AJ7 I’m going for three streets of value.
***Now, we’re going to call this a bluff also.
****These numbers are dramatically too low. The concept remains alright though—we do make more money playing hands against fish than regulars. However, many regulars will play tightly from the blinds, which inherently means that we should loosen up significantly and just fold to their 3-bets or give up when they flat.

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