Life on the Tournament Bubble

Professional poker player Phil Hellmuth. David Becker/Getty Images for Showtime/AFP

Tournaments are the best thing to happen to poker since the invention of playing cards. The tournament format took what was a simple card game and turned it into a bona fide sport, with big cash prizes and shiny trophies on the line.

We can thank the World Series of Poker for that. The WSOP wisely switched to the “freeze-out” format in 1971, just their second official year of existence – and they’ve never looked back. Main Event winners like Chris Moneymaker and Phil Hellmuth have become as close to household names as a “mind sport” can get, right up there with Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov in chess.

But with great prizes comes great responsibility. Because the tournament format saves the biggest rewards for those who can survive the longest, you can’t just play these events like cash games if you want to maximize your returns. You have to play it cool instead. Here’s why, and how.

What is ICM?

You may have noticed when you’re playing a tournament – whether live or online – that the chips you’re using don’t have any denomination (like a dollar sign) printed on them. At least they shouldn’t if the poker room is doing it right.

That’s because your tournament chips aren’t exchangeable for money. If you win the tournament, you don’t take all those chips with you to the cage; you just collect your prize for winning. And if you lose all your chips before that point, you still get to take home a prize if you lasted long enough to finish “in the money.”

Because tournament chips don’t map directly onto cash poker chips (aka “checks”), we need a different way to measure their value. Thankfully for us, Mason Malmuth took care of that in 1987, using an older formula (first devised by David Harville) from the world of horse racing and applying it to the poker table. And thus the Malmuth-Harville method was born.

What’s that? You haven’t heard of the Malmuth-Harville method? That’s probably because you’re more familiar with the term Independent Chip Model, or ICM for short. There are a few slightly different ways of calculating ICM, but they all show how important it is for players to emphasize survival over chip accumulation, especially at certain points in the tournament.

Bubbles Burst

The most important point for applying this concept is the so-called money bubble. As you approach the moment where everyone remaining in the tournament wins a cash prize, the risk/reward dynamic goes a bit haywire; shorter stacks that would otherwise go all-in are disincentivized to do so if they’re deep enough to wait it out and sneak into the money.

Once you’re in the money, other bubbles appear with every pay jump in the prize pool. Again, if you have a reasonable chance to “ladder up” and grab a larger prize just by folding, you’ll naturally want to take a more cautious approach with your vulnerable stack.

There is one pay jump where ICM doesn’t play a role: The last one. Once you’re down to two players, there are no ICM considerations, since the worst you can do is finish second.

And there are other tournament bubbles that have nothing to do with maximizing your prize, so ICM doesn’t apply per se. The “final table” bubble is the most obvious of these; many people place a high emotional value on reaching the final table, so they’ll play it just as cautiously as they would the money bubble.

While you shouldn’t be one of these people, that doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage. Any time you have a deep enough stack as you approach any of these bubbles, you can exploit the extra-cautious players around you by ramping up your aggression level. They’re going to fold more often than they would at the cash tables, so you can bluff more.

As for ICM itself, you can use poker software like ICMIZER to do some training while you’re away from the tables. This will give you a good sense of how much you need to pump the brakes in certain situations, given the point you’ve reached in the tournament and the stack sizes involved. Use these tools and these concepts wisely, and may the rectangles be with you.