Optimizing Your Bubble Decisions In Poker Tournaments

The bubble stage of a tournament presents the greatest opportunity for chip accumulation. However, it also often leads to the most costly blunders in a tournament.

Walking the bubble tight-rope can be tricky so let’s go through important points that will help you navigate through your next tournament bubble as profitably as possible. Giving yourself the best chance of cashing, and getting set-up for victory.

The bubble effect arises because of the non-linearity of chips value in tournaments due to the varying payouts. If you’re in a tournament where 36 get paid, with 37 players remaining, and with a relatively short stack, calling a preflop all-in without a very high likelihood of winning against an opponent is a disaster.

Whilst if you were by far the shortest stack it might not be as bad.

It’s even more of a disaster if the player next to you was trying to hang on and make it into the money with a tiny stack.

So let’s dig into some of the common pitfalls around bubble play, how to combat them and how to take advantage of unsuspecting opponents during bubble time.


Depending on how close you are to making the money, and the size of the stacks around you, different stacks clashing have different bubble extremes or bubble factors. A bubble factor is a measure of how your odds in chips differ from your odds in dollars with a lower value being better. See this bubble factor definition by PokerGlobal for more information.

ICM, the independent chip model, does a good job of calculating the discrepancy between chips risked and gained where they don’t have a 1:1 ratio like in a cash game. And in extreme situations, the bubble factor might be so high, even folding aces is the correct play as this video demonstrates.

Close to the money, good players are aware of the bubble factor at all times. Whilst they won’t actually calculate an exact bubble factor, they’ll be taking into account the principles of bubble play when they make decisions. We can see these principles in this 2×2 matrix.

You can see a situation which we can work in our favor, is when we have a somewhat low bubble factor and our opponent has a high bubble factor. So when we have a big stack and clash with a medium stack. Those medium stacks have a lot to lose since they should be able to outlast the shorter stacks and survive into the money.

But we can threaten their chance of doing that with aggressive play. Whilst at the same time they can’t eliminate us from the tournament.

Remember the two key points here that increase the bubble factor are:

  1. How big is the upcoming payout and how close are we to it? This could be the typical money bubble where players go from receiving nothing to cashing, or possibly a final table where say 4th place receives a lot more than the player who busts in 5th or 6th.
  2. Are there short stacks in play and how short are they? If there are multiple tiny stacks in play this is really going to make an extreme bubble factor, especially for those medium stacks.

Here’s a look at a typical sort of bubble situation in an  MTT where the top 9 players make the money, with 10 players remaining.

In MTTs, most players these days have some idea about bubble strategy but don’t always adjust well. This opens up opportunities for savvy opponents to anticipate their actions and be one step ahead. Often taking advantage of their play with some well-timed aggression.

Reference: Kill Everyone by Lee Nelson and co.

We can see here the Sunday millions money bubble sits at around 1.6ish, with varying payout jumps represented by these spikes. MTTs generally have a lower bubble factor than SNG’s because they have large top place payouts. However, this doesn’t mean MTT bubbles aren’t a prime time to be taken advantage of by savvy players.

Regulars and pros will be aware of imminent pay jumps allowing you to cash in on times when you can assert pressure on them. Better still a lot of amateur players will be overly cautious in the bubble, placing a huge emphasis on just getting paid. Causing them to make some ridiculously tight folds. Prime-time for some serious chip accumulation.

Enjoying this content? Get a 40 minute video lesson on bubble play and ICM over at PokerNerve.com for free.


Here’s an example of bubble play which also leads into an important point for bubble strategy:

So loose players calling too wide in the bubble could also hurt our own tournament EV. So be sure to take this into account the next time you plan to assert pressure and move all-in on a wild recreational player! Look to pick your spots.

Putting pressure on in the bubble isn’t just about jam or fold. A lot of the art of bubble play comes with asserting ‘perceived pressure’ on poor unsuspecting stacks trying to survive. With a big stack, we can look to raise more liberally.

In some instances, any 2 cards will do. If players are playing tight and aren’t standing up to you, as in the following hand example, steal away! Let’s hear from player’s of differing skill levels, to see how attitudes and player’s approaches to bubble play can really vary.

Whilst having a big stack can allow a lot of freedom to steal, especially with medium to shorter stacks behind playing tight, they’ll often be times when you find yourself nursing a short stack.
In such instances playing tight is often the way to go.

What might normally be a profitable chip EV jam could be a losing money play. Especially with a short stack and a marginal hand. If called, you’ll often be in bad shape. If everyone folds, an additional 1M (the blinds and antes in the pot at the start of the hand), isn’t going to make a big difference to your stack.

Furthermore, the error of jamming too wide during a bubble period is often compounded by the fact your opponents aren’t adjusting correctly and may be calling you too wide. Increasing your chance of elimination. Taking this into account, I decided to fold the pocket 6’s here since I can easily coast into the money.

Usually, pocket 6’s here would be a very profitable all in far from the money. However, in this Pokerstars Hot $55 tournament there’s 153 remaining. The payouts start at $91.89 for 152nd. Although I can pressure a couple of the stacks behind with an all in, there are a few stacks that have me covered, some had me well covered. So to avoid busting out in the bubble, we can wait a few hands and are guaranteed at least a minimum cash.

Large tournament fields often have quite fast bubbles. Due to the combination of tiny stacks that have been hanging on being blinded out, and players ignorant of the bubble still splashing around leading to bust outs. So hanging on as a short stack is often a viable option, ensuring a piece of the prize pool.

With fewer players remaining when the ITM bubble comes about, hanging on might be more difficult. And tightening right up whilst leading to a greater chance of cashing, could leave you with a tiny stack by the time the bubble bursts making it really difficult to continue much further in the tournament without a lot of luck. So ideally, strike a balance between patience and aggression. Look to assert pressure on other medium-to-short stacks, especially if they seem on the tight side. Whilst avoid the looser and bigger stacked players.

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This workbook contains a variety of exercises to help you explore hand reading, ICM spots, range building, and more. Each exercise has questions that an actual coach would ask you to help you internalize a sort of checklist that you can use in real-time to assign better ranges and take better lines.

Learn more and grab your copy of the tournament workbook.


Have no fear whilst at the same time taking into account the ICM considerations. Here in a short video from the PokerNerve road to Success course, we see a couple of examples. Firstly opponents do battle in the Pokerstars Big $162, then I demonstrate taking full advantage of the bubble period by anticipating opponents play during this critical phase of the tournament.

Table dynamics is really important to making the most of the bubble. Be on the look out for targets, or those you need to refrain from doing battle against. Information on your opponents is extra useful during this stage. And when used correctly, can make for some really profitable bubble periods.

Sometimes you might notice players online tanking in order to make the cash. There’s a good chance these opponents aren’t going to contest the pot when you bring it in for a raise. Likewise in the live arena, often players will give off clues as to how important it is for them to cash. By their playing style, or often even verbally – Announcing how they would hate to come this far then not cash!

Take advantage of such situations and apply pressure whenever possible. Opportunities will be especially prevalent with a good stack size. Providing you with the chance to turn a good stack, into a really big stack. Setting you up for a final table run and ultimately victory.

Remember whilst bubble factors typically peak around the first payout, other significant pay jumps may also see a considerable change in your opponents play and present great opportunities.

Be on the lookout for players capable of putting you in tough spots at critical stages of the tournament. This may force you to open raise first in the pot tighter. Or perhaps defend your blinds tighter if you suspect your opponent is going to fire multiple barrels at you post-flop. In fact, we can see here as the pressure of the bubble factor increases, so should your defending range from the blind narrow.

Reference: Kill Phil by Lee Nelson.

So anticipating the play from the getgo is important when it comes to strong bubble play. Always be scanning the table to check the stack sizes. And monitoring the stacks as chips move around the table. Anticipating how each player is going to use their stack each hand.


Let’s recap this important poker tournament strategy concept of bubble play and bubble factor:

The bubble factor rises significantly as the money looms closer or considerable pay jumps are in effect. With a healthy stack, this is a great time to get aggressive and pick up a lot of chips.

Tight players are great to steal from. However, if it’s a $5 tournament and you’re playing against a Russian maniac, he’s likely not thinking about bubble play or ICM. This hurts his, but also your tEV. Ultimately helping remaining players not in the hand since there’s a chance you bumping heads with a maniac could result in a player being left short or even busting out of the tournament. Laddering up is important especially at final tables. So be careful in such situations.

Most players will back down from dicey high-pressure confrontations in the money bubble.  And especially at final tables. They’ll be those looking to move up in the pay, but alternatively, sometimes you’ll come across ICM predators looking to apply pressure at every opportunity, as you should be. This could allow for some profitable counter-moves. It might take a gutsy all in jam, or perhaps you can leverage your stack effectively to make your opponent feel they need to commit to continue in the hand.

If short stacks are in play, players have more to risk and less to gain. Or a higher bubble factor. Look to attack in these situations when you’re in a position to do so. You’ll get even more leverage out of your steals and raises. Remember the key is to be the last aggressor.

Sometimes you will need to be careful defending your blind or opening light on final tables when aggressive ICM aware players can leverage their stack effectively against you. Sometimes you will be at the mercy of ICM, especially when you on a semi-short stack and some real shorties are in play. Play smart at such times. But don’t leave yourself as an easy target. Strike the right balance between patience and aggression by anticipating your opponents play.

Always consider how your opponents are handling the ICM pressure and adjustments they are making based on the changing stack dynamics, and use that to your advantage – be one step ahead. By putting players with high bubble factors in really uncomfortable situations, you can pick up a lot of chips and set yourself up for the win.

Your next bubble have no fear! Love the bubble and the opportunity it presents!

If you want to learn more, head over to PokerNerve.com and get a 40 minute video lesson on bubble play and ICM for free.

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