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What Players Get Wrong About ICM: Dara O’Kearney And Lexy Gavin-Mather Dispel Some Myths About The Independent Chip Model

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Nov 30, 2022

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The Pros: Dara O’Kearney and Lexy Gavin-Mather

Craig Tapscott: What do most players get wrong about the Independent Chip Model (ICM)?

Dara O’Kearney: ICM is a concept a lot of players fundamentally misunderstand for a lot of reasons; the biggest single error being ignoring it completely and playing too loose. For most players, simply playing a little tighter in the late stages of a tournament will probably improve their bottom line. 

However, one area where you often see the reverse issue where this is concerned is final tables. Playing a final table like it is a cash game is a massive mistake and playing it like it is a satellite is also a bad idea.

ICM pressure is usually at its most extreme as the final table bubble approaches. A very common misunderstanding people have is that pay jumps are a good measure of how high ICM is at any point. This is completely backwards.

As I explain below, on a final table ICM is at its most extreme at the start (when the next pay jumps are the smallest), and actually goes down with each bustout (and increasing size of next pay jump). The biggest pay jump in any normal tournament is from second to first, yet this is the only point in the tournament when there is no ICM!

Another very common misconception is that short stacks have the most extreme ICM. This is true on the money bubble, but on a final table the short stack, along with the chipleader, is actually under the least amount of ICM pressure.

Lexy Gavin-Mather: The biggest myths about ICM are that the preflop ranges are similar to the early and middle stages of the tournament and that you don’t have to adjust them. This is quite false. Your RFI (raise-first-in) ranges are going to tighten up significantly if there are big ICM implications (specifically final tables).
When it comes to your RFI ranges, it is so important to have blockers. Middling pairs and low suited connectors don’t have any removal effect. So, you are not blocking your opponent’s reraise or shoving ranges.

The main goal of ICM is to increase your fold equity and put maximum pressure on your opponents. For example, let’s assume we are at a final table with 20 big blinds. There are six players left. Our RFI ranges from UTG are going to be quite tight, about 16 percent of hands, and we are going to be folding pairs 2-2 through 9-9.

I know this sounds crazy! (Shout out to Matt Affleck, fellow coach at PokerCoaching.com for doing the math on these RFI ranges.) The hands we want to be opening are very blocker heavy. All of the suited aces, (A-2 suited+) and a lot of our offsuit A-x combos (A-5 offsuit+). Hands like K-Q offsuit+ make for good opens because they block a lot of our opponent’s continuing range. The fact that these hands don’t play well post-flop doesn’t matter as much if it lowers the chances of our opponents three-betting us preflop.

Another myth about ICM is that skill is a factor. This isn’t true. ICM assumes each player is equal in ability.

What most players get wrong about ICM is that they limp in ICM situations. In general, you should be playing a tighter range when you’re on a bubble or at a final table. When you do raise, you should be choosing a larger sizing. Limping allows you to play a wider range, which is not optimal for ICM. Additionally, limping allows your opponents to see a lot of flops, but remember, ICM is all about creating fold equity. So, stay away from limping in ICM situations. 

Craig Tapscott: If you are short stacked at a final table, how do you balance ‘laddering’ for pay jumps and accumulating chips to try and win the whole tournament?

Dara O’Kearney: Laddering is the term we use for when a player essentially sits out until another player busts to ensure the next pay jump. It is 100 percent correct to pass marginally profitable spots if two other players look like they are going to go to war and there is another pay jump. It is also a mistake to blind away at a final table to try and make another pay jump.

I could write a whole book on ICM mistakes (and in fact, I did) but to really simplify my point check out the chart below. Bubble Factor is a measure of how losing hurts more than winning feels good in MTTs. If you have a Bubble Factor of 2 that means for every $2 of equity you risk you only win $1 of equity. I won’t go into the calculation now, but with a Bubble Factor of 2 you need 66 percent equity to justify risking your tournament life.

The bubble factor changes during a tournament for an average stack, however, average stacks are the ones with the highest bubble factor (ICM pressure). At the final table for example, the chipleader has a lower bubble factor because nobody can bust them, but the shortest stack also has a low bubble factor because they have the least amount to lose.

Bubble factors are not reciprocal. When a short stack plays against another short stack, or against a big stack, both players have a low bubble factor. When a short stack or a chipleader who comfortably covers plays against a mid-stack, they have a low bubble factor, but the mid-stack has a high bubble factor. The key as the short stack is to apply pressure to those mid-stacks that you can damage the most and have the most to lose in a confrontation with you.

Lexy Gavin-Mather: If you are a short stack, it really depends on the other stacks at the table. If there are still other short stacks left in the field, then you can pass up on certain edges in hopes that they bust. But if you are one of the only short stacks left, then I would not tighten up or try and ladder up. I would look for a spot to double quickly so that I can build a stack and be a contender to win the tournament.
Remember, there is equity in folding. You make money by your opponents busting each other, so it’s okay to stay tight and try and ladder up. 

Now, I’m not saying don’t ever bluff or take chances at a final table bubble or pay jump, because you are going to want to accumulate chips. Eventually, if you go deep enough, you’re going to be in a situation where literally all of the pay jumps start becoming significant. That’s why ICM becomes less significant at the final table as more players get knocked out.

For instance, if you’ve made it to the top three players and first place is $100,000, second place is $80,000, and third place is $60,000, the pay jumps are significant, but there’s only three players left. So, passing up on certain edges to ladder up would not be smart here. Play to win!

Craig Tapscott: Most people know ICM is important on the bubble of tournaments, but does it matter in the early stages and after the bubble has burst?

Dara O’Kearney: Bubble Factor (see diagram) starts low (but contrary to what most people think is not 1.0 at the start) then rises steeply on the money bubble to 1.6 before going down considerably once the players are in the money. Then it rises steeply before the final table to 1.7 then goes downhill again, not as sharply, until heads-up.

At heads-up Bubble Factor becomes 1, or ChipEV, because ICM no longer applies. These are the average Bubble Factors, they will be much higher or lower depending on your chip stack and the chip stack of the person you are playing against in any given hand.
 
It is not surprising that average Bubble Factor is high on the bubble, that’s where the name comes from. Many are surprised at the final table, however. It is highest just before the final table and goes downhill with every payout. A lot of players would assume it would be highest at the final table where the prizes are the biggest and get bigger with every subsequent bust out, but actually the final two tables is where ICM is heaviest. 

Why does Bubble Factor go down with each bustout at the final table? Because you have all realized a lot of equity. The next pay jumps in a $50 tournament when it gets nine handed might be $1,000, then $2,000, then $3,200 which feels like a lot because the money amounts mean something to you relative to your original buy-in. But at that stage your equity might be $10,000 so it is not much relatively. Also, once you get to the $2,000 pay jump, $2,000 has been realized by everyone left in the tournament, there is less of the prize pool still being contested.

Lexy Gavin-Mather: I would say, you don’t have to worry about ICM in the early and middle stages of a tournament. This is because you are still far from having to make decisions based on money jumps. ICM does in fact exist beginning the very first hand of the tournament, but it becomes more significant as the tournament progresses. 

As you approach the late stages of the tournament, money bubbles, final tables, and big pay jumps, you have to make some significant adjustments to some of your strategies. Where it may be correct to raise a certain hand or make a loose call in the early stages of the tournament, it could be incorrect to raise that same hand or make that same call if you are on the bubble of a final table or big pay jump. 

I think a lot of players make the mistake of tightening up too soon, and they misconstrue when the actual ICM implications begin. They make ICM folds hours before the actual bubble begins, and they either bust or get so short that they don’t make the money.

I wouldn’t worry about ICM right after the bubble bursts. Yes, there are pay jumps but they’re usually small (unless you’re playing a $100,000 high roller or something). There is so much volatility right after the money bubble bursts. The short stacks are desperately trying to double up, the medium stacks trying to punish the bubble abusers, this is a good time to accumulate chips and not tighten up because of ICM. ♠

Dara O’Kearney is a former Irish international ultra-runner turned poker pro. While Dara does have a lot of seconds on his résumé, he actually has far more wins, evidenced by his eight PocketFives.com Triple Crowns. Dara is also a coach, a staker, a ShareMyPair ambassador, and the author of Endgame Poker Strategy: the ICM Book. He co-hosts the GPI award winning Poker Podcast ‘The Chip Race.’ Dara became a Unibet Ambassador in March 2017 and a Cardschat ambassador in August 2021. You can keep up to date with what he’s up to at www.daraokearney.com.

Lexy Gavin-Mather is a professional poker player, coach, and content creator. She splits her time between Las Vegas and Northern California and for the last few years has been among the top ranked women in poker. She is a coach for Jonathan Little’s PokerCoaching.com and owns her own training site Pokerclarity.com. Lexy’s passions include charity work, dancing, and creating content for her YouTube channel (LexyGavinPoker). Visit lexygavin.com for coaching. Follow on Twitter and IG @lexygavinpoker.

*Some photos courtesy of WPT.