Breaking the Bubble in MTTs

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The build up to the bubble in MTTs is the most important part of the game because it’s where you’ll finally break into the first payoff places and guarantee yourself an ITM finish.  Whether it’s the Full Tilt 90 man $3 KO or the $10k Daily Dollar, there are a number of advanced concepts that you’ll need to be aware of in order to play this stage profitably and boost your ROI.  A lot of weak players will particularly be lacking in this area, which is why it is so advantageous for you to punish TAG players and nits who under-play the bubble.        

ICM and “Tournament Equity” During the Bubble           

A relatively new, yet extremely important concept for playing tournaments up to the bubble revolves around ICM (Independant Chip Model).  ICM changes the emphasis from making decisions based on cEV (chip equity), to a newfound principle $EV (also known as “tournament equity.”)        

Adjusting to $EV: Tournament Equity         

In a typical 6-max cash game, you’ll be used to the standard cEV chip equity function for making profitable decisions.  A lot of the decisions you’ll make will be based on pot equity calculations, by using tools like Poker Stove.  When deciding to make a value bet on the river with AQ on a missed draw for example, you’ll take into account your opponent’s likely range of hands and whether your equity in the pot is higher than his. In tournaments however, a different concept is required because of several key differences from MTTs to cash games.         

Firstly, in multi-table tournaments, the value of each chip decreases as the game progresses and you get further into the money.  This can be explained because of the unequal structure of tournament prize distributions.  For example, in a $100 buy-in tournament you might start with 1,500 chips, which makes the value of each chip about $0.07. However, let’s imagine that there are 100 entrants in total, and after hours of play, we win the tournament with 150,000 chips and earn a $1,500 1st place prize.  The value of each chip at the end is now $0.01, hence we can determine then that the value of each chip steadily decreases as the tournament progresses.        

Your probably wondering what this all means right?  Well, the reduction in the value of chips in MTTs is a crucial concept because it means that basic chip equity functions in tournaments won’t always mean +EV.  The diminishing value of chips makes risking your own chip stack to gain extra chips less profitable than in a cash game.  In other words, the reward of earning 100 extra chips in MTTs is lower than the risks of losing 100 – hence it doesn’t make sense to pull of risky moves where you’re marginal favourite at showdown.          

Imagine for example, that we’re sat in a satellite tournament with 4 players left. The top 3 players will win a live package, and there is a small stack with less than 3xBBs who’s going to go our shortly.  Now, if a deep stack player in MP shoves all-in and we have QQ on LP, it would obviously be +cEV to call him.  However, in the wider picture, we should be folding this in the satellite because risking our entire tournment stack and live package is unnecessary. The short stack player will inevitably bust out soon and it would have been stupid to make a dangerous move that could end our tournament before him.          

What is Tournament Equity?          

 Tournament equity is the “true” expected value of each chip with regards to the tournament prizepool, your chip stack, and your opponents.   For example in a $1 MTT there are three players left at the final table:          

  • Player A – 5,000 chips
  • Player B – 2,500 chips
  • Player C – 2,500 chips
  • 1st place – $50
  • 2nd place – $30
  • 3rd place – $20

To calculated the true value of everyones chips, we need to use a good $EV calculator such as SNGWizard to automatically do this for us:           

Each Player’s Tournment Equity Results.        


  • Player A: (5,000 chips) = $38.33 equity.
  • Player B: (2,500 chips) = $30.83 equity.
  • Player C: (2,500 chips) = $30.83 equity.
  • The figures above now displays each player’s tournament equity.          

    Click here to visit the SNGWizard homepage

    Making Profitable $EV Decisions in the Bubble Stage         

    The reason I’ve taken the time to explain the concepts above in such detail is because they are directly relevant to how you should play through the bubble.  Making correct decisions to call, shove or fold against different opponents should be based on these points.  By looking at the expected value of $EV of calling players all-in, we can make better decisions based on the risks/rewards of tournament equity.  Basically, if the risks are too big, they will reduce our expected tournament equity; however if they are small enough then it will be profitable to call or shove over.        

    Importantly, because the value of chips decreases in tournaments, it means the risks of losing your current chipstack is greater than the rewards of doubling up.  This means we should be playing extremely tight during the run up to the bubble because it’s usually negative $EV to call an effective stack player’s all-in unless we have far superior odds to beat him (e.g. 70%+).  This is a crucial concept to understand for bubble play because even if you know you are a marginal favourite (e.g. 1010 vs AQ), tournament equity means it’s still probably unprofitable to call.  In terms of which games to apply ICM to, I’ve read many players say it’s mainly important concept for $50 MTTs and above.  From my experiences however, as well as the increasing ability of MTT players, you should take ICM into account for all games, and you should invest in software such as SNGWizard too to help make ICM decisions.  

    Your Stack Size & Objective         

    If you set out to win a tournament like the 180 man $5 MTTs, then you should play more agressively and steal more pre-flop from position.  On the other hand, if you’ll settle for an ITM finish then playing tight ABC poker and avoiding confrontational play against deep stacks with 50BBs+ is important.   

    The next most important factor in determing how you play up to the bubble is your chip stack.  A healthy stack at this stage is around 30xBBs+, and if you have this you should continue playing tight-agressive poker and taking advantage of opportunities when they arise (value shoving a weak player or stealing the blinds off BB in later postion for example).  However, when you’re short-stacked (<10xBBs) your mtt strategy is limited, and you either need to push or fold to double up by jamming your stack in the pot as early as possible (read article moving all-in in tournaments).  

    How to Take Advantage of Players after the Bubble Bursts         

    A lot of players loosen their game up after getting into the bubble because they’ve reached their goal. From now on, a lot players will play more speculatively to see how far they can get.  A typical player will adjust from a tight-ish VPIP%/PRF% of 10/8 up to 17/12 once the bubble is over.    Taking advantage of loose player at the MTT bubble stage should be an imperative, and I recommend reading about tips for re-stealing or floating to exploit these loose player pre-flop.  You need to realize that most short stacks with less than 15xBB chips are going to be jamming with up to 50% of their hands – far from unbeatable showdown hands.  Short stack hand ranges for going all-in include suited connectors, pockets, face cards and any Ace.  You need to adjust your strategy and loosen up to take advantage of these players by playing a higher range of hands (A10, KJ) and calling shorts stacks.  You’ll receive plenty of value for these calls because the blinds at this stage will be extremely high and even if you’re not a favorite calling a small stack’s all-in you’ll still tend to get favourable pot odds.                    

    Take Advantage of Tight Players During the Bubble   

    Here’s where pro MTT strategy shines.  Remember that while it’s important to tighten up towards the bubble, it’s also very profitable to make early position steals and overbets on tight tables.  If I’m looking at an average VPIP/PRF of 10/7 or less, than you really need to be 3betting light with more hands and making early position shoves with J10+.  Your fold equity will be highest during  bubble because of ICM principles, and this which is why you should always grab the opportunity to jam your stack on tight tables.               

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