Tournament Hand Scenarios: The Bubble

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Poker tournaments - especially large, multi-table events like those at the WSOP - are their own contained universe when it comes to poker strategy.

And they always create tricky hand scenarios very different from those you'll find at cash games.

Rising blinds, fixed pay-out structures, a finite amount of chips, how much you can afford to lose. All of these can dramatically change the way you need to play any given hand.

A Common Scenario

You're in a $1,500 No-Limit Hold'em WSOP event and have just been moved to a new table of 10 players.

You're at the money bubble, with only a few players left to bust out before the remaining 500 players make it into the money.

Blinds: 10,000/20,000
UTG: 1,254,000
MP: 780,000
CO: 130,500
Hero (BTN): 620,000
SB: 430,600
BB: 1,890,100

Pre Flop: (Pot: 30,000) Hero is BTN with Q Q.
One fold, MP raises to 60,000, CO folds, Hero re-raises to 180,000, 2 folds, MP re-raises all-in for 780,000.


There are a lot of variables to consider here if we want to figure out what MP could possibly have.

He raised, then four-bet all in after you three-bet. This means:

  • He has AA or KK

  • He has JJ or a smaller pocket pair

  • He has AK

  • He thinks you're trying to steal at the bubble and he is bluffing

Jean-Robert Bellande
Jean-Robert Bellande recently bubbled the $10k 2-7 championships.

These are all the options that make sense for this play. Let's look at them in reverse order:

1) Bluffing

A lot of stealing goes on at the bubble, and that could be exactly what MP is trying to do with his original raise.

When you three-bet, he could be putting you on a re-steal, then making the four-bet thinking you won't risk your tournament life on the bubble.

In fact, many players will fold KK or even AA in this spot, choosing to fold everything until the bubble bursts before risking his or her stack.

For this reason, MP could be making this move entirely to make you fold.

2) Ace-King

Given the action to this point there's a decent chance he's holding A-K.

Most players with A-K in this spot would like to end the hand here, without having to see a flop. There's also a good chance you'd three-bet here with hands such as A-Q, almost any pair and maybe even A-J.

For this reason, it can be a decent bet for him to push on you. Even if you do have a hand like QQ, he's got a coin-flip for the win if you call.

3) Pocket Jacks

If he has JJ or a smaller pocket pair, he could be making this move hoping you fold - but also content with a call, thinking he's most likely in a coin-flip

Since he doesn't have to risk his entire stack (just most of it), he won't be completely out if he loses.

4) Pocket Aces and Kings

Finally, this is almost exactly how every player would play AA or KK.

Although he could try to trap, it makes more sense to take down the pot now and lower the amount of risk.

If you do call, he has a very strong hand and stands to win a big pot.

What's Your Plan for the Tournament?

As you can see, all of these hand scenarios make perfect sense.  There really is no way to know what this player is doing without having any additional information.

But because this is your first hand at the table, you don't have any additional information; you're playing this with blinders on.

The only way you can decide what's best to do here is to decide what your plans are for this tournament. Are you playing to cash, or are you playing to win?

Martin Derbyshire
The scared look of a man who knows he's not going to make the bubble.

Is the chance to double-up worth the risk of not cashing in the small money just past the bubble?

The real question: how much is the tournament buy-in worth to you? Most tournaments pay out just slightly more than the buy-in to the first few players after the bubble.

If you can afford to lose this money, and are only playing for a chance at the final table, then calling might be your best choice.

If you spent every last dime you have to get into this tournament, then you might want to consider folding, waiting to guarantee your buy-in back before you put everything across the line.

Some poker hands have no clear answer, and the only person who can tell you what the correct choice is, is you.

In an ideal world, you have a big enough bankroll and are always playing to win the tournament - and not needing to cash to eat.

In the real world though, sometimes limping into the money is the best thing you can do. This choice is up to you.

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Arty Smokes 2011-06-02 20:53:00

The re-raise would probably lead me to fold. I'd still have 440,000 chips, which is more than the small blind or cutoff have. I'm never confident in QQ holding up in any random situation, let alone when I'm on the bubble. With the stacks described in the article, I think you're only justified going all in with AA or KK.
Just out of interest, if someone's already put in a raise making their bet three times the big blind, is a re-raise to nine times the big blind fairly standard for QQ in that sitation? It sounds a little excessive to me, but I'm no expert.

Shannon 2010-04-06 06:31:57

I read this. I agree with this strategy on the MP. Anyway you look at it. It means that someone is gambling with their tournament life. With my style of play, I would have to see how long it took for the re-raise before I decide. If it was instantaneous, automatic fold. If it was calculated, I would gamble and call.

Kevin 2009-08-12 02:17:00

Sorry, I read the article's numbers wrong. The hero didn't get half his stack in, sorry. But I still stand by my words because Shoving with JJ is fundamentally wrong because it basically turns it into a bluff, and it's the same scenario with AQ.

Kevin 2009-08-12 02:10:00

Most likely villain has a premium hand here; the chance that a person will 4-bet as a bluff with his opponent already investing half his stack is next to nil (assuming he knows what he's doing). Neither you or the villain are shortstacked, therefore he isn't likely to be shoving light. You have two options:

1. Call and hope to suck out on AA,KK, or have your QQ uncracked against AK-AQ.
2. Fold and play Ninja with 22 BB.

The scenario which choice 1 is correct is either you have a great tell, or you know that the field's edge over you is so great that you need the chips to even the playing field. (don't know if I expressed this in words properly).

Sean Lind 2009-08-06 18:14:00

Yes, that is Scotty in seat 6.

JB 2009-08-05 23:54:00

Isn't that Scotty Nguyen in the article photo?

In that case "you call it's going to be all over baby."

Vincent 2009-07-27 16:00:00

I also think a call would be the best option here. You have no information about this player, but a three-bet at this stage seems rather low to try to steal the pot, certainly from MP, and 4-5 other players behind him who could call or reraise. So I would assume he has a real hand AA, KK or AK (or even also QQ).

Calling the three-bet will also protect your own hand, he will have to eliminate the choice of you wanting to re-steal the pot and thus put you on a real hand.

After the flop you are in position and are able to gather more information. If he makes a C-bet, raise him and see what he does... If he was bluffing preflop, he will have to let the hand go, if he had a real hand and missed the flop he will have to let go, if he reraises you, you are probably behind and should fold your hand.

Max 2009-07-27 07:47:00

Maybe I'm wrong, but doesn't that put you all in as well?

Cris 2009-06-14 20:33:00

You don't know this player, but you know he's pretty screwed if he doesn't win this pot. He knows that, too. Over 50% of the time, he has AA or KK. Whether you're playing to win or playing to make the money, you're in bad shape over 50% of the time. If you like having the worst of it over 50% of the time, go for it. You know nothing about this player, so try a preflop call, see the flop and see what he does. You have position and this is a good time to use it. You'll have less at risk and a lot more information to work with.

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