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Can We Please Stop Paying The Bubble?

by Linda Johnson |  Published: Feb 23, 2022

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Linda JohnsonIf I was given the power to change one thing in poker, I would make it against the rules to “pay the bubble.” I know, I know, but hear me out! I’m aware that the topic of today’s column is very controversial, but please allow me to present my case.

I played in a tournament recently in which 12 people were to be paid. When we got down to 13 players, someone asked if there was any objection to paying the bubble. At that point, the Tournament Director announced that it was against their cardroom’s policy to pay the bubble. What? Did I hear that right? Wow, I was impressed!

When I first started playing poker back in the ‘70s, they usually only paid three spots in tournaments (regardless of how many entrants there were). In fact, in my first WSOP event in 1980, I came in fifth and they only paid three places. There was no such thing as paying the bubble back then, and I didn’t expect to be paid.

I’m not sure at what point in time it became customary to pay the bubble, but I am against for a multitude of reasons. First of all, if you are the one that votes against paying the bubble, you are often subjected to player abuse, harassment, and being called names for being “greedy.”

Now, obviously a good Tournament Director will not allow this, but the reality is that in many cardrooms, the TD is not present during the initial discussion and is not there 100% of the time during final-table play, so the badgering does exist. We’ve all seen it and it is wrong.

Secondly, there is a lot of social pressure on players to agree to pay the bubble. The reality is that there are usually at least a couple players who don’t really want to pay the bubble, but they don’t have the confidence to say no and deal with being “the bad guy.”

Let’s face it, when a player has 70 big blinds and there are several short stacks with five or fewer BBs, there is no way that the player with the 70 BB really wants to pay the bubble. Some players are meek and don’t want to be ganged up on, so they reluctantly agree. Having a rule against paying the bubble protects these players that don’t really want to make a deal.

Another reason I don’t like paying the bubble is that it changes the play and takes away the ability to put pressure on the short stacks. During the bubble phase, short-stack players have a lot to lose by going out next, so the bigger stacks can often chip up significantly by aggressive play against the short stacks. I personally love the bubble stage when the short stacks will try to fold their way into the money.

Some proponents of paying use the argument that “we’ve all been playing for X hours and deserve at least a minimum payout.” This is ridiculous. When you register for the tournament, you know you are going to play a long time if you make the money. There always has to be a last player in the tournament who doesn’t make the money.

The bubble isn’t paid in other sports. Let’s take tennis for an example. Prize money starts with round one qualifiers at Wimbledon. Can you imagine someone asking to take money out of the prize pool to pay the player who gets eliminated one player short of qualifying for round one?

I have been short stacked at the table many times and have never asked to pay the bubble. In fact, I have even voted against it when I was the low stack. I don’t play to get my money back, I play to win. When I do win or cash, I don’t want the prize pool diluted because we paid the bubble.

Poker is an individual sport, not a team game. Cardrooms should take the pressure off the players by not allowing any deals or chops to be made until players are in the money, and only then by unanimous decision.

Unfortunately, this isn’t likely to happen. So in the meantime, if you don’t want to pay the bubble, I suggest that as the bubble approaches, you discreetly tell the TD that you are against it. Hopefully the TD will handle it appropriately when the subject comes up and announce, “There has been an objection so play will resume without paying the bubble.”

In seminars or coaching sessions, when asked about my thoughts on paying the bubble, I tell them my mantra is FTB. You can figure that one out! :)

Linda Johnson is a WSOP bracelet winner and member of the Poker Hall of Fame, the Women in Poker Hall of Fame, and WPT Honors. She is a partner in Card Player Cruises. Please contact her at cardplayercruise@aol.com with questions or comments.