Isolating an All-In Opponent

A Hand on the Final-Table Bubble at the World Series of Poker

Many players struggle to distinguish between the situations in which they should attempt to knock out an opponent and those in which they should merely try to accumulate more chips. I found myself in the middle of a scenario during event No. 44 at the World Series of Poker – \$1,500 no-limit hold’em – in which several of my opponents thought I had completely lost it.

There were 11 players remaining in the tournament. I had about \$45,000 in chips, with the average at about \$65,000. Tenth and 11th place paid \$7,222, while first place paid close to \$200,000. We were only one player away from reaching the final table, and the blinds were \$2,000-\$4,000 with a \$500 ante.

My table was fivehanded and the player under the gun moved all in for \$6,500. I was in the big blind, already thinking that this was a great situation for me. The player in the cutoff seat called the \$6,500, as did the button and the small blind. There was \$32,500 in the pot, and I had to call only \$2,500 to see a flop. My opponents were obviously hoping to knock out the all-in player so that we would make the final table. They chose to simply call the \$6,500, which represented weakness, considering the amount of money in the pot. The pot was about half the size of an average stack!

The easy choice would have been to see a flop cheaply and hope to bust the all-in player, just as everyone else at the table was thinking. Maybe I would get lucky and my hand would win the five-way race, but I was not playing to make the final table. There wasn’t even a jump in prize money from 11th to 10th place. My goal was to win the tournament, and there was a pot sitting in front of me that would potentially increase my stack by more than 50 percent. That pot represented a lot of ammunition to help me achieve my goal.

Before I even looked at my cards, I knew what I was going to do: raise!

If I could get the three remaining opponents with chips to fold, I would have to risk only \$2,500 to win \$32,500 in a heads-up situation! I could have had 7-2 offsuit versus A-A and still been happy to take that risk. It turned out that my hand was 5-3 offsuit.

As a side note, the fact that I had 5-3 offsuit was a little ironic in this situation, as it is a legendary hand for all of the regular members of my forum at InternetTexasHoldem.com. One long-term member, RobRobRob, became attracted to that hand a few years ago, and it has since become a long-standing joke within our forum community. Everyone likes to tout the power of 5-3 offsuit. We even created a special forum for members to discuss their big wins with 5-3 offsuit. What was even more ironic is that our annual forum convention was starting the next day and about 20 ITH members had arrived ahead of time to watch the action. I knew this hand would get a rise out of the crowd when I showed it down.

But I wasn’t playing 5-3 offsuit for the crowd. The situation at hand begged for a raise with any two cards. The only question was how much to raise. If I raised too much, an opponent might sense weakness and decide to call with a mediocre holding. If I raised too little, I would be giving my opponents the pot odds to call. I decided to raise an additional \$17,000, which, in retrospect, I think was too small. It surely left my opponents thinking I wanted them to call and showed a great deal of strength, but I was giving them 3-to-1 pot odds on the call. Some of my buddies on the rail even commented to me afterward that they were sure I was on a big hand, given the amount I bet, so maybe the bet amount also convinced my opponents that I was sitting on a monster. Fortunately, my opponents all decided to fold, and I got to play my hand heads up.

I turned over my 5-3 offsuit and the crowd – predominantly ITHers – went crazy. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw my opponent’s hand – a pair of deuces! Not only had I essentially won a free chance at \$32,500, but I also had two overcards! The power of 5-3 offsuit prevailed once again, as I flopped a pair, which held up.

This hand gave me some tremendous momentum going to the final table. First, I increased my chip stack to around \$77,000, which was slightly above average. Second, I angered some opponents who would have won that pot. Lastly, for my opponents who didn’t understand the play, I looked like a complete maniac. If I got any kind of cards at the final table, my image would make it more likely that I would be paid off.

Unfortunately, the ending of this story is not a happy one. As I said to the lady at the cashier’s window at the Rio convention center, I was the saddest guy in the room who had just won \$20,000. I went card-dead at the final table and had trouble finding opportunities to make some moves. My fate was sealed when I lost with A-9 from the small blind versus the big blind’s K-J. That pot would have put me back in the tournament, but it just wasn’t meant to be, and I finished in eighth place.

So, when do you try to knock out opponents and when do you go for the chips? There are several components that should factor into your decision. First, consider the relevance of the size of the pot. If the pot is relatively small, you might go for the knockout. With larger pots, my focus is almost entirely on what I can do to win the chips. Second, consider the relevance of knocking out your opponent. There was no additional payoff in this situation. If you are in the main event of the WSOP with three players left, knocking out your opponent would gain you a couple million dollars! Your specific opponent might also impact your decision. I would be more willing to forego chips for the chance of knocking out Phil Ivey versus an opponent I don’t fear.

Always keep in mind that isolating all-in opponents can sometimes be quite profitable.

This article first appeared in Card Player Magazine Volume 19 Number 20.