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The World Series of Poker Bubbles

Take advantage of them

by Matthew Hilger |  Published: May 21, 2008


I've been fortunate enough to cash in three of the last four main events at the World Series of Poker. Looking back, I've learned a lot about playing in the main event, and I think I probably haven't exploited bubble situations as much as I should have. This column will share some of those lessons.

Before discussing the WSOP bubble, we need to first define what a bubble is. Typically, players refer to the cash bubble and the final-table bubble. These are the two most distinct "bubbles" in a tournament. Most players want to cash, especially when getting close to the money. There is also a certain amount of distinction and accomplishment that comes with making a final table, so players often refer to the final-table bubble. The World Poker Tour has a distinct TV bubble, since it shows only the final six players on its broadcast.

The World Series of Poker has another bubble that most players don't recognize. I call it the day-one bubble. It is a unique bubble situation, probably unlike any other tournament, as there is no cash on the line. The day-one bubble is simply the result of so many players who are playing the main event whose primary goal is to survive day one (note that players typically don't make the money until day three of the main event).

This may surprise many, but it is indeed a special situation that can be exploited. In 2005, I was sitting at a table of unknowns, except for Doyle Brunson. I was on an amazing early run, busting out many players, including Doyle, and was the chip leader after a few hours of play. One particular player at that table still sticks in my memory. She was a rather young schoolteacher, and basically a beginning poker player who was very much out of her league and playing extremely tight. She commented, "I just want to survive until day two." She was the one who enlightened me regarding the day-one bubble. There are many other players just like her who just want to survive until day two. Once players make the dinner break, they start sensing that this "achievement" is within their grasp.

This is a great time to pour on the aggression against the amateur players who appear to have this goal. They will be playing tight, not looking to bluff, and will be playing very straightforward poker. These are great players to play against, as you can steal so many pots post-flop. So, be sure to remember the day-one bubble!

The cash bubble is another great bubble situation. There are so many players who are playing the World Series for the first time. Even if they have played before, most of them are still looking forward to their first main-event cash. None of these players want to be knocked out right before the money. I have heard some pretty crazy quotes from players at the table. One player back in 2005 said, "I am only playing aces until we make the money!"

At the time, I didn't believe him, and thought I could put some pressure on him, so I three-bet him after he raised. He promptly four-bet, and I went into the tank. What happened next is still hard to believe. He literally flashed me his cards! It wasn't a blatant flash, and not everyone could even see it, but he raised his cards just enough for me to see. He was so intent on making the money that he didn't even want to gamble with aces! If some players are that risk-averse, you can imagine how they might play A-K, A-Q, J-J, or 10-10.

Later that night, someone limped in from middle position, which I read as extremely weak. We were close to the end of day two and also close to making the money early on day three. I was in the cutoff and everyone seemed intent on surviving. I didn't even need to look at my hand, but did so for appearance sake. I raised, and the big blind called. An ace flopped, and I took the pot with a hand like Q-2. The big blind showed J-J. He just wasn't prepared to gamble near the bubble.

Last year, I heard someone say, "I will probably fold queens." Players aren't shy about telling you how intent they are to make the money.

Looking back over the three years that I cashed, I am sure that I haven't exploited the money bubble nearly as much as I should have. In fact, I think the default strategy ought to be to raise every hand and then adjust accordingly. Most players just don't want to gamble, and they will let you run over the table. Hopefully, I will be in this situation again this year, and will be able to test how such an aggressive strategy might work.

Of course, table dynamics always play a role. Last year, I was playing with Gus Hansen and John Duthie, which probably led me to play a much more conservative strategy on the bubble. However, looking back, I still think I should have been much more aggressive even with them at the table (Hansen was directly on my right, which helped).

Of course, the WSOP final-table bubble is the one I want most to experience. Unfortunately, I have no advice in this area, as the highest I've finished is 33rd. However, I imagine that this is another excellent time to accumulate chips. To be honest, when I start the main event, I try to keep my goals realistic. Thinking you are going to win a tournament against 6,000-plus players is hard to put a handle on, but striving to make the final table is a lot more realistic. One in about 600 players makes the final table, and that is something I can mentally imagine accomplishing.

There is a lot of prestige, drama, and attention for making the final table of the main event. As much as I want to say I am there to win, I can see myself eyeing the final table first. I suspect that practically all of the players remaining have similar goals. With that in mind, a player with the right aggression could really set himself up well to make a run at winning the tournament while everyone else is sitting back. If I'm ever in that situation, I hope that I keep my eyes on the big prize and exploit the final-table bubble appropriately.

Good luck, and I hope to meet you at the final table!

Matthew is the co-author, with Ian Taylor, of The Poker Mindset: Essential Attitudes for Poker Success, and the author of Texas Hold'em Odds and Probabilities. You can read Matthew's blog, and more than 150 other blogs, at