Bubble Play – Prolonging the Bubble

The bubble is where most good players gain a significant edge over their opponents as optimal bubble play in poker often deviates from ‘normal’ tournament strategy. Most recreational players that make it to the bubble are fixated on finishing in the money and while this is sometimes in line with correct strategy there are times when other less obvious strategies are necessary.

Today’s article on bubble play will focus on one concept that may seem counter intuitive to some. The idea centres on prolonging the bubble when you have the chip lead or at least a big chip stack compared to most. This can mean passing up on opportunities to knock a player out that would be an easy call at any other stage in the tournament.

Why is the bubble so good for the big stacks?

Small and medium stacks will mostly be trying to avoid going bust and will be desperately trying to scrape into the money before they loosen up again. If you are the chip leader (or at least have a large lead on most of the players) you can use the small and medium stacks new found love of playing no hands at all to steal relentlessly.

Suppose you are in a 10 handed SNG that pays three places with blinds at 150/300 and chip stacks as follows:

Player 1 (SB): 2000

Player 2 (BB): 2150

Player 3: 1550

You: 9300

If player 3 folds you can raise all-in with any two cards! The calling range of both the blinds will be so tight here that you can get away with murder and just shove anything.

Stacks that are extremely short pose a slightly different problem in that they need to get it in eventually to avoid being blinded away so will not be playing as tight so you should try to avoid stealing as much from these players.

There is another reason you should avoid the shortest stack though. While the tournament is still at the bubble stage you have a huge amount of fold equity against the small and medium stacks that will diminish instantly if you knock out the shortest stack and burst the bubble. This leads to an interesting situation where you should fold a strong hand rather than take the chance of knocking out the short stack.

Example of prolonging the bubble

Let’s say you are down to the final two tables in an MTT that only pays the final table. You are second in chips overall but have the biggest stack at your table and have been using that to your advantage by stealing often. The next player to go out will burst the bubble. The shortest stack is under the gun and goes all in. It is folded to you on the button and you look down at pocket jacks. What should you do? Fold!

Your jacks are likely to have an edge over your opponents range but if you knock him out you won’t be able to keep punishing the other small and medium stacks. The equity you will gain in future hands by stealing constantly can sometimes outweigh the equity you will gain by making the call.

Recognising exceptions

You will of course come across some opponents that play differently to what you would expect. For example you may find someone with a medium stack that has not tightened up on the bubble, is not concerned with making the money and is clearly playing for first place. Just make a note of players that are playing differently and adjust accordingly.

For more strategy tips, check out the rest of our online poker strategy guide.