Poker Tournament Strategy – Bubble Bursting

When you play in any poker tournament and bust out on the bubble, that is to say agonizingly close to finishing in the money, it is extremely frustrating. It is also one of the finer points of tournament poker strategy, and once again there are many scenarios where I am not sure that there is always a clear answer as to how to play.

Poker is a fascinating game both to write about in an analytical dispassionate manner and to play where it is anything but analytical or dispassionate for most of us. There is frequently no right or wrong in poker, and no blueprint for success. Top players will play the same hand in the same situation in completely opposite ways, and the result, namely did they win or lose the pot, does not necessarily prove anything.

That being said there are some basic points of poker strategy when you find yourself playing on the bubble. If you’re in a SNG and they pay out the Top 3 positions then things start to get interesting when there are 4 of you left. At this point a lot of players tighten up hoping simply not to get eliminated next. The first basic point is your chip stack relative to the others at the table, and to the blinds +antes (if there are any).

If you’re playing a turbo or speed single-table tournament where the blinds are raised every 5 minutes you are hardly ever safe, and if you don’t play you might find yourself busting on the bubble purely because you were too tight.

If you do have chips you must use this to your advantage on the bubble by pushing medium-sized stacks around. They have the most to lose, which means avoiding other big stacks as well as small stacks (unless you really do have a premium hand).

You also need to have a clear idea about your goal in the poker tournament. Do you want to cash, finish in the top 3 if the top 10 get paid, or win it all? Clearly we all want to win, but many players would be satisfied with a certain position finish. If you’re playing in a tournament with a high buy in and thousands of entrants the money you receive for reaching the final table could be more than you earn in a month’s work. In that case your first and most significant goal is to make that final table.

Today I played in a Speed SNG where the blinds were large relative to the stack-sizes and there were still 4 of us left with only the top 3 getting paid. The blinds were 300/600 and I was in the big blind with 3600 chips. With 600 in front of me I was down to 3000. The player UTG (4200 chips) folded as did the button (4000 chips). The small blind was the chip leader with the remaining 8200 chips. He moved-all in from the small blind.

He had me covered but he was a loose aggressive player and I looked down to see Ad7d. What would you do?

It’s not a rhetorical question, feel free to email me with your answer.

I was tempted to fold, but eventually called. He showed A8 and his hand held up to win and knock me out with no money earned.

My worst moment on the bubble was in a live tournament where the final table (top 10 finishers) all earned substantial money, but 11th earned nothing. We were hand for hand at the last 2 tables with 6 players at one and 5 at the other. I was in 4th spot in terms of chips and making the final table was very important to me at that stage of my poker “career”. I had the chip leader at my table and he was playing very tight.

He was in the big blind and I was in the small blind. I looked down and saw AsQs. I raised half my stack. He put me all-in. I could have folded and retained half the stack and still limped along to the final table (possibly). There were short stacks at the other table. But I suddenly felt that I could win it all. I could be King Of The World. I called. He showed AK, and I finished 11th.

Is there a moral in that story? I think these things happen a lot and to be successful at tournament poker you need to play in so many tournaments that these moments become anecdotal and do not slow you down…

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