The Poker Tournament Bubble

In a poker tournament the bubble is the stage of the tournament just before the money, meaning the next player to be eliminated will not receive a prize. There is a significant difference between finishing just outside the money and finishing just inside the money which causes some interesting deviations from ‘normal’ poker strategy.

The specific adjustments are based on your stack size and how it compares to the other remaining stacks. The blind structure, the position of the blinds and even the payout structure also have an affect on how to maximise your expected value in the tournament.

A large percentage of a winning players’ edge in both SNGs and MTTs comes from superior play on the bubble. In this article you will be introduced to some of the strategy adjustments you can make on the bubble to increase your profitability in poker tournaments.

On the tournament bubble with a short stack

So you are down to the bubble but are sitting on a short stack. What do you do? To ensure that you maximise your expected value in the tournament you certainly should make some alterations to your normal strategy.

If your stack is bigger than one or more of the remaining stacks, and stacks are so small that losing one hand will mean elimination then you should avoid any close gambles and even some situations where you would normally have a large enough edge to warrant playing.

However if you are the shortest stack then your play should be based on how the other short stacks are playing. If you think they are playing extremely tight and waiting for you to go bust then you should not play any tighter than normal. You need to give yourself a chance to get some chips so you should not pass up any good situations.

If the other stacks are playing too loose though and trying to increase their stack rather than make the money, you can play tight hoping that they bust.

If you manage to double up or steal the blinds so that you get ahead of another player, then you need to revert back to playing tight and hope the other short stack busts first.

This game of leapfrog between the short stacks might seem like a boring tight way to play but the fact is that you are increasing your EV in the tournament by playing this way in this situation. You are just playing optimally given the situation, which happens to mean playing tight. There are times on the bubble though when you can play extremely aggressively to take advantage of other players’ tightness.

On the tournament bubble with a large stack

When you reach the bubble as the chip leader it opens up many opportunities for you to pile the pressure onto the short and medium stacks. As mentioned previously it is often correct for short stacks to play very tight. Similarly it is also correct for the medium stacks to avoid big confrontations with the chip leaders without a big hand.

As the chip leader you should be extremely aggressive to take advantage of the unusually large amount of fold equity that you have against the other stacks.

The same is also true if you are second in chips, the chip leader has folded, and you still have a significant chip lead on the remaining players.

By using this situation to your advantage you can add significantly to your stack by picking away at your opponents while they put up little resistance. For this reason it can be to the chip leaders’ advantage to prolong the bubble as long as possible.

Prolonging the bubble with the chip lead

This may seem counter intuitive but it can be correct for the chip leader to pass on opportunities where he has a small edge against the shortest stacks. For example if the shortest stack shoves and everyone folds to the chip leader. The chip leader should fold most hands here even if he thinks he is ahead of the short stacks range.

This is true because when the stack sizes etc. will allow the chip leader to take further advantage of the bubble with his aggression, the reward of prolonging the bubble will often outweigh any marginal edge against the smallest stack.

Checking the other tables in MTTs

In MTTs you can check the other tables to see the other stacks and blind positions. This is especially easy online where you have a couple of extra options. You can load up the lobby and have a complete list of players and stack sizes. This can depend on the software though as some poker sites lobbies do not update quick enough for this to be useful.

You can also load up the remaining tables which will not only allow you to see stack sizes but also the blind positions which can be important when there are several players with extremely small stacks.

Use these options to help you assess how likely it is that other players are going to bust out soon and you will find yourself making the money more often and you will see a healthy increase in your ROI as a result.