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NLHE Tournament Bubbles

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By Tony Guerrera

In any tournament, a bubble is a time at which a substantial increase in payout is about to occur. In single table tournaments where first place receives 50% of the prize pool, second place receives 30% of the prize pool, and third place receives 20% of the prize pool, the only bubble is when four players remain (possibly five depending on how chips are distributed). In some multitable tournaments, several bubbles exist. Usually, when players refer to the bubble, they refer to the money bubble (i.e. the point in a tournament right before the money). Though another common bubble in multitable tournaments is the final table bubble, and depending on the payout structure, it’s possible for other mini bubbles to exist.

The Bubble in Single Table Tournaments

In single table tournaments, payout structures sometimes dictate that a huge buffer exists between calls that are neutral with respect to cEV and calls that are neutral with respect to mEV (cEV = Chip Expected Value; mEV = Monetary Expected Value). For example, a situation may exist where a player is +cEV as long as he’ll win more than 38% of the time but isn’t +mEV unless he wins more than 44% of the time. As a result, excessive stealing and lots of folding characterize the bubble in single table tournaments (and if you’re fortunate enough to be playing against foes who don’t truly understand bubble dynamics in single table tournaments, then it’s possible that you’ll be the only one stealing).

When you’re on the bubble in a single table tournament, you should be doing lots of raising. Don’t raise 100% of the time; throw away absolute garbage. But generally look to raise with a distribution looking something like {AA-22, AK-A2, KQ-K2, QJ-Q7, Q6s-Q5s, JT-J9, T9s-54s} (if you raise with this exact distribution, you’ll be raising about 45.7% of the time, which is a little under twice an orbit at a four-handed table). Your raises should be all-in with a stack in the range of 4bb-8bb to 2.5bb with a stack larger than 8bb. A few important exceptions to these raising guidelines are:

1.) If you’re second or third in chips, your stack is in the range of 8bb-10bb (where you’d raise to 2.5bb instead of all-in), and a bigger stack remains to act, don’t raise with anything except a distribution looking like {AA-TT, AK}. Big stacks who know what they’re doing will be willing to 3-bet you light, and the buffer between neutral cEV and neutral mEV will dictate that you should fold to these 3-bets with anything but premium hands. So avoid pissing away 2.5bb, and elect to fold instead

2.) If only shorter stacks remain to act behind you, you have more than 8bb (a stack with which you’d raise to 2.5bb), and a reshove by one of the shorter stacks won’t leave you pot-committed, look to raise with pretty much any two cards.

3.) If only shorter stacks remain to act behind you, and a reshove by one of the shorter stacks won’t leave you pot-committed, consider raising to 2.5bb instead of all-in with a stack as short as 7bb instead of 8bb.

Meanwhile, when it comes to calling, be aware that you should be avoiding confrontations that are neutral with respect to cEV. If your opponents are really tight, and stealing against them is very easy, then require more of a buffer above neutral cEV than you normally would. If your opponents are also actively stealing, then don’t extend the buffer beyond what it already is.

These guidelines for playing the bubble in single table tournaments aren’t necessarily hard and fast rules. Deviations are necessary depending on stacks and relative positioning of players. But if your play on the bubble in single table tournaments resembles nothing close to these guidelines, then reevaluating how you play the bubble should produce a noticeable increase in your single table tournament return on investment.

The Bubble in Multitable Tournaments

In multitable tournaments, payout structures are typically top heavy to the point where the buffer between neutral cEV and neutral mEV is almost negligible. An increasing number of players understand this, but a large number of survivalists still populate multitable tournaments. Survivalists highly value moving slowly up the pay scale, and when survivalists get to the bubble, their number one priority is getting into the money. At its extreme, the survivalist mentality is the sort that advocates folding AA to an all-in preflop. Though most survivalists aren’t this extreme, survivalists, driven by their fear of elimination, will usually pass on favorable opportunities to accumulate chips on the bubble.

Players who fancy themselves to think a level higher than their opposition usually see the bubble as a time to accumulate a massive stack by applying relentless pressure to their opponents. When it’s the bubble, players of this mold will steal blinds and 3-bet preflop relentlessly. Some players of this mold will continue their hyper-aggression into postflop play while others will shut down postflop. With all the talk that a lot of poker literature does about abusing the bubble, it’s very tempting to be one of these players.

But in modern multitable tournaments, you can’t automatically assume that your opponents will succumb to pressure on the bubble.

Some players overvalue survival, but with each passing day, the number of players who know the importance of chip accumulation increases. Trying to run such players over is suicide. Therefore, the key to playing the bubble in multitable tournaments is differentiating between the exploitable survivalists and those who know that the bubble doesn’t matter at all in multitable tournaments with top-heavy payout structures. Pressure the survivalists relentlessly with preflop raises (being very cautious once a survivalist nit finally decides to enter a potto the point where you should seldom continuation bet the flop heads-up). Meanwhile, just play your typical game against the others. Here are some things to look for when trying to identify survivalists:

1.) Players who stall

2.) Players who comment about how many places remain before everybody is in the money

3.) Players who play an extremely small percentage of hands

4.) Players in a tournament much bigger than they are accustomed to

Closing Thoughts

A big part of playing the bubble in a tournament effectively is to know, beforehand, how (if at all) the bubble should affect your own strategy. The key considerations are usually:

1.) Payout Structure

2.) Players’ Stacks

3.) Relative Positioning of All Players

By accounting for these factors, you can figure out how much of a buffer exists between neutral cEV and mEV for your opponents. And from there, you can figure out profitable deviations from your typical lines of play.

Tony Guerrera is the author of Killer Poker By The Numbers and co-author of Killer Poker Shorthanded (with John Vorhaus)

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