The bubble is where pros gain a lot of their expectation as they aren’t afraid to play very aggressively.

The Bubble

In SNGs the bubble is when only one more player needs to be eliminated for the remaining three to make the money. In large tournaments with more than 500 entrants, an extended bubble begins at the table before the money. So if the tournament pays 45 spots, from 54 to 46 is the extended bubble . If it pays 100 spots, then 109 to 101 is the extended bubble, et cetera.

Although technically the bubble is still defined as one from the money in MTTs as well as in SNGs, in the modern game with big fields it doesn’t adequately address the pressure players are under when their goal is to get to the money. online, you run into players who’ve won satellites and who’re only interested in making the money, so they play exceedingly conservatively and slowly. The same thing can happen in bricks-and-mortar events, of course, but somehow having the anonymity of only a screen name gives some players more courage. In person they have to pretend on every hand to be interested in what they hold, far harder for them to do. Ultimately, if they’re blatant enough about what they’re doing, they can be warned or penalized. In some extreme cases, they’ve even caused the rules to be changed so that the playing field is more level.

Hand for Hand

As a good example of this, several years ago a player from Las Vegas/oklahoma used to sit for many minutes while “deciding” what to do, while other tables continued to play hands. This resulted in
the hand-for-hand rule that’s now implemented one spot from the money in most tournaments. This requires all tables still playing to complete each hand before the next hand is dealt. This is seldom applied to more than one spot from the money, thus unfortunately allowing the angle-shooter to stall when two from the money. online, this is less of a problem; the players are always on a clock, which begins to tick about 15 seconds after the action moves to a player. They can, of course, use their full 15- second allotment without losing any time from their extra-time clock and some players will do so every hand. The tournament clock that determines when the blinds and antes go up keeps ticking, so fewer hands are usually played near the bubble.

Deep Stacked … or Not

of course, there’s a big difference in tournaments: In deep-stack events, you have time to select your situations, hands, and plays. often, these are multi-day events. In the typical “fast” structure used on the Internet or in smaller buy-in bricks-and-mortar events, you may be forced to “push and pray,” as they often say in the trade. In either case, I strongly suggest that you use CPR and CSI to decide where you stand and what action you should take.

Playing Aggressively on the Bubble

Since many players tighten up on the bubble, some players take advantage of this situation by playing very aggressively. At the 2007 Aussie Millions I was at the table with Patrik Antonius at this stage (one from the money) and he raised every single hand! No one challenged him for something like 13 consecutive hands. Phil Hellmuth has also been known to raise every hand. In the Main Event of the Aussie Millions several years back, I raised about 2/3 of the time during an extended bubble period, going from a short stack to chip leader. This is a time when aggressive pros go to work!

Getting to the bubble is a rare opportunity. Don’t waste it by playing to get your money back.

The Psychology of the Bubble

When the smell of money approaches, most players begin dividing themselves into two camps:

  1. Those who are trying to hold on and make it to the money.
  2. Those who have their sights on the top prizes.

Players in the first camp will tighten up, often to an extreme, and never get involved without a premium hand. Medium and short stacks (as long as they’re not extremely short) are more likely to want to avoid confrontation. Also, if this is a big tournament, especially if lots of people earned their buy-ins through a satellite, you’ll see more players trying to hold on for a payday that may be huge compared to the paltry online-satellite buy-in that got them there. Play is much tighter on the bubble of the WSoP Main Event than in a $5 tournament online.

In the 2006 Aussie Millions that I went on to win, with 53 plus players left Phil Ivey asked how much 48th paid (the lowest spot that paid money). He asked this with a straight face, even though he clearly couldn’t have cared less, having about the 5th biggest remaining stack and risking far greater amounts nearly every hand in his everyday cash games. Why did he ask this question, which he repeated again as we lost more players? I theorize that he wanted to make sure that the other players at the table knew they were approaching the money and how much they were in line to win. He wanted to emphasize what was at risk, so he could steal from them more freely with his aggressive play. This worked for him for a while, but he went out about 50th when he tried to run over the unbluffable Jamil Dia by firing at the pot with all four barrels (betting on every card) on a complete bluff. Ivey showed a willingness to go broke in this spot in order to acquire a mountain of chips that could enable him to win the tournament.

The key point to these stories is that as you approach the money, the top competitors step on the gas and get even more aggressive.

John Juanda wrote a magazine article about raising a lot when you’re near the money, as it gives any aggressive player the opportunity to replenish his stack. The defense against this strategy is to re- raise, but if you decide to stand up to against hyper-aggressive players, it’s probably best to push all-in. If you just re-raise, be prepared for them to move in. If they think they can push you off the hand and have significant fold equity, they won’t hesitate to pull the trigger!

Avoid Re-raising Conservative Players
I strongly recommend that you don’t try to run over a conservative player who’d raised or re-raised you at bubble time. It’s one thing to stand up to a bully; it’s quite another to take on a tight player. If a tight player raises, or worse still re-raises, your AK is a piece of Swiss cheese! A re-raise almost certainly represents AA or KK; what else would be worth risking his tournament life?

Examples for Bubble Play in MTTs

You’re four spots from the money and have Ah 9h in the cutoff at an 8-handed table, with blinds and antes of 400/800/100 (CPR 2,000) and a stack of 14,800 chips (CSI is around 7.5). The tight- aggressive (TAG) player UTG raises to 2,800 off a stack of 22,000. what should you do? Pass.
A tight-aggressive player has raised UTG and you’re not desperate with a CSI of more than 7. Your A9 suited is probably behind. Even though you have position, it’s best to fold.

You’re four spots from the money and have As 9h on the button, with blinds and antes of 400/800/100 and a stack of 14,800. The cutoff raises to 2,400, off a stack of 18,000. what do you do? Move in! You don’t love your hand, but he’s in a steal position and will give up the pot about 90% of the time, because if he loses it, he’ll be crippled. Even if he calls, you can still win. The combination of fold equity and the chance of winning if you’re called makes this a positive EV play 

You’re four spots from the money at a 9-handed table and have the Kc Qh on the button with blinds and antes of 600/1200/200 (CPR = 3600) and a stack of 52,000 (CSI of about 14.5).
A player raises to 4,000 from mid-position off a stack of 11,000. what do you do? Pass. You’re not committed, but he is, and will call any re-raise. You have no fold equity and probably have the worst hand. Look for a better spot to invest your money. 

You’re four spots from the money and have Kc Qh on the button with blinds and antes of 600/1200/200 and as stack of 52,000. The player sitting in the hijack seat raises to 3,600 off his stack of 26,400. The cutoff now calls this raise off his stack of 31,000. what do you do? Move in! As I’ve said before, no-limit isn’t for the faint of heart. This is an ideal situation to make a move. They both have enough chips to pass and are still likely to make it to the money. If the blinds fold and the raiser has anything besides a top 2% hand (JJ-AA or AK), you’ll probably win 10,800 uncontested. Occasionally, you may get called by a medium pair (66-TT) and be in a “race” as
a small underdog. Even so, if you lose, you’ll still have chips left. Occasionally, you’ll run into a hand that dominates you, such as AK. Even if that happens, you can get lucky. Don’t let fear of the worst scenarios keep you from making the right play. 

Calling All-in Raises Near the Bubble

As I’ve been saying, most players tighten up too much near the bubble. Some tightening up is called for, but not as much as you might think. During the table before the money, I suggest you tighten your calling requirements by 1 category. If you’d normally call with a Category 4 hand, call with Category 3 now. If you have more than an average stack and are contemplating an all-in for at least 80% of your chips, tighten up another category. Since so many players are more reluctant to push near the bubble, you might be facing a stronger than normal raising hand.

For very large field tournaments, tighten this way during the table before the final table as well. In many big tournaments, the “final table bubble” can be even more significant than the money bubble. This is especially true in the WSoP Main Event, where making the final TV table is a particularly big deal.

Learning from Your Mistakes

We all make mistakes in tournaments. In every tournament I play in, I look back and realize that
I’ve blundered. To continue developing as a player, I try to be brutally honest with myself in post- tournament introspection. If I don’t recognize that I’ve erred and instead choose to complain about my “bad luck” or try to justify a wrong decision, I’m hurting my growth as a player. It’s incredibly hard to play really well and most mistakes go unnoticed at the time. Remember them and try not to make the same mistake twice.

Mistakes come in varying guises. In a tournament in which I recently finished fourth and only the
top three places were paid, I made a mistake by not heeding the payout structure closely enough. First paid $50,000; second $30,000 and third $20,000; fourth paid nothing. Unlike most tournaments, the jump between fourth and third was as big as any other step and twice that of the difference between third and second. Additionally, it was clear to both myself and my opponents, who played in a straightforward manner, that I was the most competent and experienced player at the table. The payout combined with these favorable intangibles should have persuaded me to make sure I had at least third place locked up before taking any big risks, but as I said, I made a mistake.

one player had 50,000, the other two had just over 15,000, and I was marginally low-stacked with 13,400. The blinds were 400/800 with a 100 ante, so it was costing 1,600 per round. I had a CSI of 8+ and was in medium-stack territory when I picked up KQ off-suit in the small blind, a Category 5 hand. It was passed around to me and I raised to 2,400. The Kill Phil play with my hand and this stack size would be to move in. I rejected this, however, because I thought a smaller raise would do the trick or I might well be able to outplay my opponent post-flop, since I had a lot more experience in this type of situation than he did. The big blind, a TAG, re-raised 5,000. Calling this bet would pot-commit me, so I thought awhile before making my decision, then decided to move in. Note that this is practically an automatic call
for my opponent, considering the pot odds he’s getting, so my all-in move here has practically no fold equity. Indeed, he called, showed me pocket queens, and my long day came to a sudden unrewarding conclusion. you could just stop at thinking I was unlucky, but the truth is I made a mistake.

In reflecting on this hand after the tournament, I realized my error. There was virtually no hand my tight-aggressive opponent could have against which I’d be a favorite. The best I could hope for would be a pocket pair, JJ or lower, against which I’d be about a 6/5 underdog. I’d be getting a good price against these hands as the pot was offering me 16,200 (1,600 + 2,000 +1,600 +11,000) to my 11,000, or about 1.5 to 1 odds. But other hands, such as AK, AQ, AA, KK, and the one he actually held, QQ, would put me in bad shape. Against other possible holdings, such as AJ or AT, I’d be about a 3/2 underdog, almost exactly what the pot was offering.

The math here makes the decision borderline, but my mistake was greater than a borderline error once you add in the intangibles. If I pass the 5,000 re-raise, I still have enough left for about 7 orbits—still
a medium stack and not in any immediate danger. The other players were all playing very tight and,
had I passed, I’d still have plenty of opportunities to pick up chips. I was clearly the most aggressive player left and their fear of me worked in my favor. Given my table image, in order to take me on my TAG opponent had to have a big hand in this spot that was likely to have me crushed.

I couldn’t rely just on pot odds. Adding in the flat payout structure, which at the time I failed to consider, magnifies my error. Usually putting money factors aside and playing for first place is an asset, but in this case, it was a detriment. When there’s an all-in confrontation in such circumstances, the expected value of the players not involved in the hand dramatically increases. In retrospect, given all these factors, it was a clear pass.

This isn’t a mistake that I’m likely to make again. Honest reflection on plays such as this is likely to pay future dividends.

While you’re looking to build your stack aggressively you shouldn’t take stupid risks. Just making it into the money is much better than just missing the money.


  1. Be more aggressive on the “bubble” table when your goal is to finish as high as possible.
  2. Take into account how your opponent is playing. Can you control him?
  3. Observe how your table is playing. Are you in control of it?
  4. Analyze your mistakes and learn from them.
Next post STAGE 5 – IN THE MONEY

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