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An introduction to ICM in poker tournaments

An introduction to ICM in poker tournaments

The second you buy into a poker tournament and receive your starting stack, those chips have a monetary value.

You can’t take them to the cage and exchange them for cash, nor can you buy-out of an online tournament once you’ve registered. But your stack size has a certain amount of equity in dollars related to the prize pool, and the bigger it gets, the more it’s potentially worth.

This is the thinking behind the Independent Chip Model, or ICM – a mathematical formula which converts your stack size into equity in dollars. The model determines how often you’re likely to finish in the big-money payout spots based on your chips, and only really becomes relevant on the bubble, in the money, and on the final table.

Being aware of ICM and understanding how it should impact the way you play in the late stages of tournaments can give you an enormous leg-up against opponents who don’t.

Here’s an introduction to ICM in poker tournaments that will help you reach the big payouts more often.

Understanding the value and vulnerability of your stack

ICM math is complex. Trying to work it out in-game will probably leave you confused and looking like Zach Galifinakis at the blackjack table in the Hangover GIF.

That’s why we study with ICM tools and coaching material away from the tables. They prepare us for the scenarios we’re likely to face.

In BBZ Poker’s ICM Pre-Flop Masterclass, BBZ coach Jargo “bungakat” Alaväli introduces the course by explaining how ICM is calculated manually. We won’t go too deep in the complicated math, but here’s a simple scenario.

Jargo “bungakat” Alaväli

In his example, three players remain in a Sit & Go tournament:

  • Player 1: 5,000 chips (50% of the chips in play)
  • Player 2: 3,000 chips (30% of the chips in play)
  • Player 3: 2,000 chips (20% of the chips in play)

And here’s the money they’re playing for:

  • 1st place – $700
  • 2nd place – $300
  • 3rd place – $0

Whoever busts first leaves with nothing, so they’re on the money bubble. Were it possible to make an ICM deal, Player 1 would receive $451.70, Player 2 would receive $322.50, and Player 3 would receive $225.80.

As it stands, Player 1 has a 50% chance of winning, Player 2 has a 30% chance of winning, and Player 3 has a 20% chance of winning.


ICM Pre-Flop Masterclass

  • ICM GTO Strategies Revealed
  • Exclusive ICM Video Content
  • Access To MonkerSolver & PioSolver Charts

No doubt you’ve been in the position of all three players before. With the chip lead, Player 1 is the most likely to win and should play aggressively to apply pressure on the bubble. Too aggressive, however, and they could lose that chip lead and lessen the value of their stack.

Player 3 is the least likely to win based on stack sizes, and therefore the most incentivized to play aggressive and seek a double-up. After all, their stack is currently ‘worth’ less than the first payout, according to ICM, so they have the least to lose. In their ideal world, Players 1 and 2 would collide in a huge pot and Player 2 would be eliminated, but that’s unlikely.

It’s unlikely because Player 2 is under so much ICM pressure. They have a 30% chance of winning, but they have a significantly stronger chance of finishing second (37.5%) and in the money compared with Player 3 (28.6%). This means they’re going to be playing considerably tight, particularly against Player 1. Busting before Player 3 would simply be disastrous.

This is a very simple example from a very complex model, but it highlights how important it is to recognise the value of your stack and your opponents’ when you’re next on the bubble or at a final table.

TIP: If you really want to take your understanding of ICM to the next level, check out our ‘ICM Pre-Flop Simulations’ video. Through our custom made online viewer and charts, we’ve built ICM Pre-Flop GTO strategies that will provide you with a valuable edge against the competition.

Learning ranges (and tightening up!)

Sounds simple, right? After all, the whole idea of ICM is to understand the true value of your chips and use that understanding to make more money in the tournament.

But you might be surprised at just how tight you often need to be when you’re a short or middling stack at a final table.

When you’re the chip leader, you’re loving life. You can open frequently and really apply some pressure. But even big stacks have to be wary when facing aggression.

For example, let’s say you’re chip leading a final table and you open a standard range with 34 big blinds to 2.1 big blinds. If the big blind then shoves on you for 10 big blinds, PioSolver suggests you fold 57 per cent of your hands.

57 per cent! That’s a lot and includes hands like AJ-offsuit, KQ-offsuit, and A9-suited.

Why? Because the big blind shoving range at 10 big blinds is so tight and your stack is so valuable that it’s probably not worth making the call and losing almost a third of your chips.

Knowing which hands you should call, raise, shove and fold at different stack depths is crucial to making more money in tournaments.

So get studying!

In BBZ Poker’s ICM Pre-Flop Masterclass, Jordan “BigBluffZinc” Drummond and Jargo “bungakat” Alaväli break down ranges for every stack size and position with solved pre-flop ICM solutions and charts.


ICM Pre-Flop Masterclass

  • ICM GTO Strategies Revealed
  • Exclusive ICM Video Content
  • Access To MonkerSolver & PioSolver Charts

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