Playing to Win on the Bubble

The bubble. For some it inspires fear, for others, it reveals an incredible opportunity. Simply put, the bubble is the final finishing position in a tournament before entering the paid places. Make it past the bubble, and you’re guaranteed at least something for your time. Finish on the bubble and you’ll be the “bubble boy” (or girl) — poker vernacular for the unfortunate soul who happens to finish in this spot. It doesn’t matter if it’s a sit n’ go or the WSOP Main Event — bubbling a tournament is one of the worst feelings in poker, and in this article, we’ll do all we can to help you avoid it.

Play to win, not to min-cash

For beginners, the bubble can be the most stressful stage of the tournament. Many players will try to fold their way into the money, bypassing profitable situations in order to avoid even the possibility of busting out without anything to show for their efforts. While it’s understandable to feel this way, it’s actually counter-intuitive to what should be your ultimate goal — winning the tournament. Here’s why.

A “min-cash” or the bottom spot on the payout ladder, typically pays about twice the tournament buy-in. First place can pay anywhere from 30 times the buy-in (in a small live event at your local casino) to nearly 1,000 times the buy-in (in a large-field online tourney). Consider an example from a recent event on the World Poker Tour. The2012 WPT Parx Open carried a $3,300 buy-in and drew 500 entries. 54 players were paid, a little over 10% of the field. Places 46-54 took home $6,402, not quite twice the buy-in. But the top three spots paid $416,217 (126x buy-in), $244,877 (74x buy-in) and $158,450 (48x buy-in). In order to make more than five times the buy-in in this tournament, a player needed to finish 12th or better. With the bulk of the prize pool so highly concentrated in the top three spots, over the long run it pays far more to shoot for the win instead of simply trying to slide your way into the money.

(Stack) size matters

Two factors figure in to optimal bubble play—stack sizes and table conditions. If you have already built a large stack, you won’t be sweating the bubble too much and should take this opportunity to put pressure on the players at your table who are. By loosening up, stealing more blinds, and continuing to put pressure on your opponents, you’ll pad that stack even further. Make the average stacks your prime target. While these players don’t have to worry about being blinded down like the short stacks might, more often than not, they’ll be playing tighter than usual and will fold to raises far more often than they’ll play back at you.

With an average stack you can’t exactly start opening pots with any two cards, but you should focus on identifyinggood opportunities to accumulate chips. Look for spots not only to steal blinds, but to three-bet weak opening raises. Let’s say a fairly loose player opens from the cutoff, a move he’s been prone to make with a wide range of hands, and you’re holding [Ac][Jc] on the button. This is a great spot to put in a three-bet. Hopefully, you’ll just take down the pot right then and there, but even if the cutoff calls, you’ll still have the advantage of position after the flop.While your first instinct might be to play it conservatively and just call (or even fold!) since you probably have enough chips to survive into the money, you’re throwing away a great spot to accumulate even more. These opportunities won’t come around too often, and the best players understand how crucial it is to capitalize on them.

Short-stack play on the bubble is more of a delicate dance. With ten big blinds or less, you’ll be looking for spots to move all-in and take down pots without a showdown. Look to be the first player to enter the pot and adjust your range according to your position—play only strong starting hands from early position and loosen up as you approach the button, adding in smaller pairs and suited connectors.

Pay close attention to the table conditions on the bubble. If everyone suddenly tightens up, take advantage and open up your starting hand range. If a few players start raising a lot more hands than they were before, look for good re-steal opportunities. Perhaps most importantly, be aware of your own image. If you’ve been card-dead or playing tight, your opponents will give your raises more respect than if you’ve opened the last three pots in a row.

Ascending the pay ladder

Once the bubble bursts and the tournament reaches the money, it’s important to be aware of the pay jumps and when they happen. Although the differences in payout levels are small at first, they grow increasingly larger the more players are eliminated. Looking back at the WPT event we discussed earlier, the difference between the bottom payout level ($6,402 for 46th-54th place) and the second payout level ($7,202 for 37th-45th) was only $800. However, the difference between 10th place ($18,406) and 9th place ($24,008) was $5,600. The largest pay jumps came at the final table.

WPT Parx Open 2012

1. $416,127

2. $244,877

3. $158,450

4. $108,034

5. $76,824

6. $61,619

7. $47,215

8. $33,611

9. $24,008

While the pay jump between seventh and eighth place was$13,604, the difference between first and second place was$171,250! Since the differences between each payout spot are so massive, it’s worth it to try and outlast as many of your final table opponents as possible. This notion is especially true if there are a few short stacks at the final table. If you’re one of the middle stacks, it’s worth it to tighten up a bit and let one or more of the short stacks bust out before making a big move. Using the payouts above, hanging back with an average stack at the beginning of the final table and waiting for two small stacks to bust could earn you an extra $23,000 or more. However, if you’re short on chips and surrounded by medium and large stacks, you aren’t going to have enough time or ammunition to wait out a pay jump. Focus instead on finding the best possible spot to double up and give yourself the best chance possible at finishing in one of the top three positions.

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