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Playing the Bubble in Poker Tournaments
After more than 3 hours of play you have reached the money bubble in an online Multi-Table Tournament (MTT). With just a few more players to go before the paying places begin the table may well have tightened up considerably. What is your strategy – use the opportunity to pick up chips? Or stay tight and guarantee yourself a prize?
This article looks at MTT bubble strategy in terms of both your own stack size and the stacks of your opponents. What your opponents are trying to achieve is a primary factor affecting your bubble play. We also discuss the important question of whether playing to cash when at an MTT bubble is correct - or whether taking a positive expectation ‘gamble’ here could be more profitable over time.
Your opponent’s play at the bubble of an MTT is largely a function of their stack size. Small and medium size stacks will tighten up considerably, and may even slow their play down too.
Large stacks will be using the opportunity to raise a wide range of hands to pick up blinds and small pots from the smaller stacks. Large stacks will usually play pots cautiously against other large stacks - at the same time as keeping the pressure on those players that they have covered.
Adjusting Your Play
Adjusting your own play is a matter of understanding your opponent’s motives and how this affects their range of starting hands. The large stacks will be raising a large range of hands which makes re-stealing from them an option. At the same time a very large stack might call you anyway – especially if losing the hand would not damage their stack too much.
Medium and small stacks are your natural targets in any MTT bubble situation. If you are first to enter a pot and there are no big-stacks yet to act then raise a wide range of hands. If you get re-raised by a small stack you will be able to fold in the knowledge that you were most probably beaten.
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The Gap Concept
The gap concept applies directly at the bubble – if someone with a similar stack to yours has already entered the pot then you need a far stronger hand to call than you would to open the pot yourself. This is particularly the case when the raiser was from early position or if there are several players behind you still to act.
Your Playing Style
Whether to play aggressively at the bubble is largely determined by your objectives in terms of prizes. Most online MTT's pay only twice the buy-in for the first in-the-money places. The big payouts are at the final table – particularly the last few places.
Ask yourself the question of whether doubling your stack at the bubble is worth the risk of finishing outside the money. For example you hold a pair of 10’s and a big stack raises, you (correctly) assume this opponent has over-cards and that you are 55% to 45% favorite to win. The question here is whether doubling your stack would compensate you adequately for the 45% of the time you finish out of the money?
To adjust we need to understand that MTT payouts are ‘top heavy’ the final table paying many times the amount that the first in-the-money finishers receive. Folding this hand in order to cash could be easily balanced by reaching the final table just once in every 10 similar situations. The conservative strategy got you into the money – the question is whether this was really the most profitable move!
To summarize, MTT bubble strategy is largely a case of adjusting to exploit what your opponents are trying to do. Stack sizes are the critical factor and medium to small stacks will often give up their blinds without a fight. Adjusting your strategy to accumulate chips, without fearing an out-of-the-money finish may well be more profitable over time than simply ‘playing to cash’.
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