Tournament Bubble: The Cruelest Part of a MTT

The bubble stage of any poker tournament is by far the most exciting part. When all the players are nervously watching the number of players fall until finally everyone remaining is going to win a prize.

By: Mark Patrickson

For new players the money bubble is a nerve wracking time, with each decision having the potential to lead into another that might lead to a sharp exit from proceedings. For amateur players who don’t play very much volume this can be extremely stressful. Imagine waiting all month to play your tournament only to blow it moments before locking up some profit.

This is not to say that making sure you cash at the expense of everything else is the most profitable strategy, but just to highlight that this is the most crucial stage of the event. In fact, once the bubble bursts you will see everybody dramatically change their strategy to match the new tournament conditions.

Why the Bubble Is a Critical Moment

In a poker tournament the value of the chips in plays changes based on how close you are to the money and how many chips you are holding.

To illustrate with an extreme example, if there are a handful of players with a single chip left in their stack and you are holding the second largest stack in the tournament, it would be a huge mistake to take an all-in spot where you expect to be a marginal favourite. This effect drastically changes how you must play your ranges.

To understand how we must adjust our play we use a concept called Independent Chip Modelling (ICM). ICM allows us to understand the result of our decisions in terms of money won rather than in terms of how many chips we win or lose. Knowing how the bubble and the large jumps in pay at final tables will change your strategy will turn you into a killer player.

The bubble stage of a tournament is the best chance you will get to accumulate chips - but beware, it’s is also the time that you will make the most costly mistakes yourself. Navigate your way through this tricky stage correctly though, and you will give yourself the best possible chance of overall victory

Short Stack Bubble Play

This is obviously the worst stack to find yourself with on the bubble. You are in a battle for survival and have no leverage to take advantage of many of the exploitative spots that frequently arise.

That said, it is important to not retreat into your shell and play passively. You must study ICM situations with a trainer program so that you know just how aggressive you can be. The bubble can be your best opportunity to get right back into contention for the win. Although cashing is a huge bonus, don’t let it be your only aim.

Medium Stack Bubble Play

This stack size can be awkward and tricky to play. It’s like being torn between two equally valid courses of action. On one hand you’re not in immediate danger, yet on the other your not in good enough shape to go messing too much with the biggest stacks.

Being able to pinpoint the tendencies of your opponents is the key to maximising your opportunities here. Don’t ever forget that just because somebody has a big stack that you can’t put them under pressure. Many players will shy away from aggression for fear of ending up a short stack themselves. Definitely avoid having this tag placed on yourself, or else people will come looking for you.

Big Stack Bubble Play

Clearly this is the best situation you can find yourself. Every time you have a player covered - most of the time - you can threaten their tournament life. Shorter stacks will be forced to tighten their opening ranges when you are still to act behind them knowing that you can apply heavy pressure anytime you feel like it.

You will have so much freedom to abuse the other players at your table that opening any two cards will be possible a lot of the time. This isn’t a license to spew though. Remember, if the other players start to play back at you it’s likely they have it, rather than they’re getting fed up of you abusing them.

Final Thoughts

This article only scratches the surface of proper bubble strategy. To become a true ICM Ninja, you will have to spend many hours honing your ranges to perfection. Every hand is an opportunity to make an adjustment that gives you an edge over your opponents. Most of this work is all about putting the hours in, a big effort really does pay off.

This is also an area of the game that must be mastered in order to regularly win multi table tournaments, so start learning right now!

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