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How to Play Profitably On a Tournament Bubble Using ICM

Everyone who plays poker tournaments or sit-and-gos will inevitably find him- or herself in a bubble situation.

These are situations where all but one player will make it into the money and one player will leave with nothing.

Play before and during the bubble is usually tense and can be quite daring at times.

Some players pretend not to care about making the money in tournaments, but usually when the bubble approaches nobody wants to be the last guy to leave without money.

How to Play a Poker Tournament Bubble

tournament Bubble play
Bubble time can be quite tense.

Bubble situations are extremely prevalent when playing sit-and-gos (also called single table tournaments). These are tournaments with up to 10 players and usually three players share of the total prize pool.

The winner typically receives 50% of the prize pool, second place gets 30% and third place 20%.

So in sit-and-gos the difference between finishing 4th and 3rd is 20% of the total prize pool. That's the same difference as between 2nd and 1st place.

This goes to show how important bubble situations are and that you'd be well advised to spend some time practicing for them.

So let's do just that and take a look a fairly common bubble situation in a sit-and-go.

A Practical Example of Bubble Play 

how to play on bubble
Let's say you know the player in the small blind is very aggressive.

Let's say you're playing a $50+$5 sit-and-go with nine players and you've managed to reach the bubble. These are the payouts:

  • 1st place: $225
  • 2nd place: $135
  • 3rd place: $90
  • 4th place: $0

You're in the big blind with 3,000 chips. The blinds are 150/300 plus a 25 ante. These are the stack sizes (before posting antes or blinds):

  • UTG player: t2,000
  • Button: t3,500
  • Small blind: t5,000
  • Big Blind (you): t3,000

After posting the antes and blinds the first two players fold. Now the big stack in the small blind moves all-in. You know the player in the small blind is very aggressive and loves to push smaller stacks around.

In fact, you estimate in this situation he will go all-in with the best 80% of all possible hands. So he's throwing away only truly awful hands like 83o or 52o.

What to Do with a Good Hand on the Bubble

You look down and find a decent hand:

What do you do?

Okay, this question should be really easy. You have a really good hand and an extremely aggressive raiser in the small blind. Of course you call.

Now let's make it a wee bit more interesting. Say you have

Do you still call the all-in?

Although it's a pair and an above average hand, your pair of threes does not look too good here. You're roughly a coinflip against the small blind's range.

This doesn't sound too good. Surely it's quite likely you'll find a better spot in future hands and don't have to jeopardize your chips with a silly small pair. So you should fold.

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The More Difficult Questions

bubble strategy poker
Which range should you call this all-in with?

Now we've learned to call an all-in with a very good pair and to fold with a weak pair. While that's nice to know, it's also fairly trivial and by no means the pinnacle of tournament knowledge.

What is more interesting is: What do you do with medium strength hands (like

) in this spot?

And more generally: Which range should you call this all-in with?

A good tournament player knows on the spot which hands are good enough for calling and which aren't.

What do you think – should you call with the top 10% of your range? The top 20%? Or even more hands?

You might argue that you'll think about those questions when you're in this situation. Surely it's easier to assess a situation when you know your own hand instead of vaguely looking for percentages and ranges.

But at the table you only have a limited amount of time (especially online) and your gut feeling might be misleading, resulting in potential disaster. For example when you call this all-in with a good looking but inferior hand.

To train your gut feeling and to be able to make proper decisions at the table, it's vital to try some exercises away from the table.

Solving the Poker Bubble Puzzle

how to play on bubble
Pot odds aren't the way to go in bubble situations.

Let's find a way to assign a proper calling range for this all-in on the bubble.

First, let's take a quick glance at the pot odds. We'd have to invest all of our stack (2,675 chips after posting the big blind and the ante) and can win 3,400 chips.

Meaning we only need to have 44% equity for this call to be correct when looking at pot odds.

But pot odds only tell part of the story in a tournament. Because if we lose we don't just lose the chips -- we're also guaranteed to leave the tourney without any money.

If we win it's quite likely that we'll make at least some money, but it's not certain.

So pot odds aren't the way to go in bubble situations. We have to look deeper.

ICM is Magic

poker bubble strategy
What are your chips really worth here?

ICM is the magic acronym here. It's an abbreviation for Independent Chip Model and earlier this year I wrote a piece explaining it.

How does it help here? The Independent Chip Model takes future situations into account and evaluates the value of chips in a more complex manner.

Twice as many chips aren't worth twice as much in a tournament and staying alive is often times much more important than gaining more chips.

The explanation linked above shows how ICM works and we'll just apply this logic to our example.

First: Let's take a look at the stacks of all players should we fold our hand. We can evaluate the value of each stack with an ICM calculator:

  • UTG: t1,975 ≅ $80
  • Button: t3,475 ≅ $120
  • Small Blind: t5,375 ≅ $149
  • Big Blind (you): t2,675 ≅ $101

Now let's see what happens should we call and win the all-in:

  • UTG: t1,975 ≅ $84
  • Button: t3,475 ≅ $122
  • Small Blind: t2,000 ≅ $85
  • Big Blind (you): t6,050 ≅ $159

And lastly what happens when we lose the all-in:

  • UTG: t1,975 ≅ $122
  • Button: t3,475 ≅ $144
  • Small Blind: t8,050 ≅ $184
  • Big Blind (you): t0 ≅ $0

Now let's put those numbers together. If you fold your remaining chips, they're worth $101. If you call and win, your chips are worth $159. And if you call and lose, you'll have zero chips worth $0.

Meaning: You have rather terrible ICM odds. You need to win approximately 64% of the time for this call to be profitable.

This is the magic number we need. To call profitably you need a hand which has at least 64% equity against the Small Blind's range.

Since we know (or assume) the Small Blind is pushing very liberally and shoves with 80% of his hands, we now just need to find all the hands which win at least 64% of the time against this range.

Finding Your Calling Range

poker tournament bubble play
It turns out very few poker hands have 64% equity here.

It turns out very few poker hands have 64% equity against the Small Blind's range -- despite this range being insanely wide. Those hands are:

  • 88 or any better pair
  • Ace-Jack suited or better
  • Ace-Queen or better

That's it.

In total those are only 6% of all possible starting hands! So according to ICM you should be tight like a tiger in this situation.

Was 6% your guess when we asked for your calling range earlier? Most likely not, and that's why it's important to train your instincts for this stuff and learn how ICM works.

It's not always very intuitive and needs a lot of practice. But going through examples like this one helps to develop very good gut feelings for correct decisions during play.

ICM > Pot Odds on the Bubble

bubble strategy poker
Unfortunately, we can't punish him by calling more.

Let's take one final look at this example. Judging by pot odds we only needed 44% equity to call profitably. But judging by ICM we needed a whopping 20% more: 64%.

This shows how much a healthy stack is worth, especially on the bubble. Your stack is worth so much more than just the chips you have.

It's your tool, your instrument to maneuver through the tournament and it's your insurance. As long as you have chips, you're alive and have a chance to reach the money.

ICM takes this into account. Pot odds don't. That's why using the Independent Chip Model is much more appropriate in situations like this. Especially during the bubble ICM aspects have tremendous significance and dictate how you should play.

In our example the player in the small blind is rightfully playing recklessly and daringly, knowing you can only call with very few hands.

From his perspective it would even be correct to shove with any hand without even looking at it. He's simply exploiting the bubble situation.

Calling More Just Punishes You

ICM generally advises tight play when calling shoves at the bubble and there's absolutely nothing one can do about it.

Even the fact that we know our opponent is shoving almost all his hands doesn't help us. We cannot punish him by calling more.

If we do we just punish ourselves in the long run. We also help the other players at the table by giving them a good chance to reach the money without having to jeopardize their own chips.

On the bright side, though, ICM will most likely also force our opponents to fold to our shove in one of the next hands and give us a lot of fold equity!

More on the Independent Chip Model (ICM)

More on Poker Tournaments

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Thank you for sharing this very informative article! Keep on posting

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