A fun thing happens as you get near the money in a poker tournament. You become keenly aware of the payout ladder and you are faced with a tough dilemma. When should you risk elimination (and a much lower payout or even worse missing out completely i.e. bubbling) for a chance at a much higher finish. You hear people talk about “ICM pressure”. What does that even mean and why should you care? ICM stands for Independent Chip Model but rather than talk math, lets look at the common sense of it and take a look at an example.

We all know tournament chips are not money. We only win real money with our chips when we place in a position where they pay us a prize. When we have more chips we are more likely to place higher and vice versa but the relationship between the size of your tournament stack and the chance of winning a certain prize is not exactly obvious and that’s why there’s a bunch of math to model it. What is easy to understand intuitively is that we don’t just play out our hands like a cash game when these prizes get near. We factor in the chances of other players getting knocked out before us (allowing us to move up the money ladder) before we put our own tournament lives at risk against bigger stacks. Sometimes that means our hand has to be that much stronger if we are going to risk our medium stack. Sometimes it means we can play looser than normal with our bigger stack because we know the opponents with medium stacks behind us have to be concerned with busting before the shortstacks.

Its never a great time to bust but when a player is on a medium stack at the final table and another player is very short, its particularly bad to bust before him. This creates all kinds of pressure.

Here’s a couple examples that illustrate the point. The context is the $500 buyin BIG DEAL wsopcom Sunday tournament in Nevada that I played a couple months ago while in Vegas. It’s the final table with everyone in the money but the pay jumps are quite significant. Watch these three hands (video is silent so no headphones required)

 

That’s kind of weird right? I folded the better hand in the better position and then opened two junk hands. The answer is all about context and ICM pressure. Though some might open the button with T9os here, its not that obvious to me because the stack sizes are such that I suspect the big blind is going to shove on me with a lot of hands and i’m not going to like it. I take the conservative route and it proves to be a lucky guess as he jams on the other guy instead. But then why on earth raise the following two garbage hands?

If you ever sat with me in a cash game you know that I’m never opening j5os and T6os there. But notice that on that first hand the bb doubled up and now has a medium stack. In fact, the players behind me are now all medium stacks. What is more, the short stacks have all folded to me (including one player who is very short). Its never a great time to bust but when a player is on a medium stack at the final table and another player is very short, its particularly bad to bust before him. This creates all kinds of pressure. The result is that its such a good spot I open with back to back garbage. By good spot I mean there is so much ICM pressure on the players behind me not to bust before the short stacks.

These are the kinds of situations that are unique to tournament poker. Its part of the fun of playing tournaments and on the rare occasions that you get to wield a big stack opportunities like these may suddenly present themselves.

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