TOURNAMENT THEORY: The Basics of ICM

More than 98% of high-stakes tournament professionals I’ve posed this question too have agreed that their chances of winning the tournament do not go to 20%. The few who have disagreed have such an edge on everyone they play against they’re probably correct in guessing their chances might be closer to 20%. However, for the vast majority of us humans, we agree our chances of winning the tournament don’t go up by 10%. The higher-end most professionals agree on is about 17%. You have a 7% greater chance of winning the tournament. However, if you lose? Well, for sure you have lost 10% of a chance to win the tournament.

This is a serious problem. In a cash game, you are playing for a cash currency. You can take that money out onto the streets and exchange it for goods and services. However, tournament chips do not have this utility. They only serve to give you a chance of winning a tournament, which can then be exchanged for cash prizes. Since the lion’s share of prize money is centralized in the top positions of a tournament your chances of finishing there are where your real money lies. If you squander these opportunities you are squandering real money. You are risking a 10% chance of accessing that bevy of cash at the top- end for an additional 7%. Since the amount of tournament chips you are risking is the same as what you are receiving we can deduce that their numerical value doesn’t necessarily reflect their worth. The chips you’re winning are worth much less than what you’re risking.

What I have just explained is the basics of ICM. I don’t claim to be an expert in the field, although I’ve spoken at length with many whiz kids on the subject. You do not need to be mathematically minded to grasp the functionality of ICM. Many of the people who talk about how much it matters never seem to make much money at poker. I doubt Phil Hellmuth has ever taken a class in ICM.

When you watch Hellmuth and Negreanu play, however, you can tell they’re well aware of their stack’s intended functionality. They believe they need a huge edge to risk all their chips, because the tournament chips they’ll receive aren’t worth what they risked to achieve them. The style of play they profess, “small ball,” in my mind has been relabeled as “stack retention.”

Of course, you cannot pass up on most +chip EV spots afforded to you in a tournament. You are participating in a business-growing competition. Your task is to last as long as possible and that requires equal attention be paid to survival and growth. The balancing act is vague. I truly believe no one has solved it. Many online players only focus on the second part of that formula: growth. If they have located a +chip EV spot located it must be taken.

Practically the entirety of the young poker world laughed when they saw Hellmuth repeatedly stress over close decisions from 14BB stacks. “You’re so short, you’re probably ahead, what’s the hold up?” they seemed to be asking. Hands they would have slammed their chips in with were borderline decisions for Hellmuth. When he folded hands like queens from below 20BB they hooted and hollered.

I don’t know if Hellmuth or Negreanu would express it in quite my terms, but I believe in those close decisions they’re considering their stack’s usefulness and potential for growth if they fold, versus what spot they’d be in if they called. Sometimes, when they have a read on a player that makes the guy practically a broken ATM spitting out money, even a substantial edge might not be worth risking all their chips. If they lose they’ll have punted all the future chips they were going to earn from their mark. While others might not see that money going into the pot when they call, they do.

And, to reiterate: the small ballers, Negreanu and Hellmuth, the guys who are focusing on stack retention and not nailing every dollar out there, have 19 Hold ‘Em titles. Three of them are main events. Hellmuth, the one everybody would consider the biggest fish in a high-stakes cash game, has a main event win decades ago, and a recent one in Europe; the heart of the new-school hyper- aggressive online MTTer movement. The men have repeatedly walked into the lion’s den and come out wearing new fur coats. Phil Ivey and Tom Dwan are still fishing for their first Hold ‘Em bracelet.

Name a practitioner of the online player “any equity, anywhere” tournament model who has achieved the tournament dominance of those gentlemen. Even newer players such as Jason Mercier and Philipp Gruissem seem to take a more measured approach.

If you’re playing a cash game, and with any of the methods we’ve discussed today you find you have a 1% edge: go for it. Make sure you have the bankroll to withstand the loss, lock, load, and fire.

If you’re playing a tournament you need to realize the name of the game is stable growth. You are given a finite number of hands to mine value from. If you put all your Monopoly money down on an early hand you will be given many fewer hands than your opponents.

I like to look for 5% or more edges. When I’m raising to pick up the blinds I like to see everybody is folding 5% more of the time than what my chip equity calculation requires. That gives me a nice cushion for error, and also adjusts for how the chips I’m risking are worth a little more than what I’m receiving. If it’s less than 5% you have to decide whether getting from your stack size now to another one will put you in a more maneuverable situation. Is your table breaking soon, or will you be able to use this advantageous position for a longer period of time? How much money do you think that will equate to?

Are your opponents better than you at poker? Then take any small edge you can find and make the pot large, so they can’t outplay you on later streets. Are you vastly superior to the players at your table? You might want to demand a larger than 5% edge if busting a player will break the table. You might want more than 5% if the chips you lose will put you at a stack where you can’t take advantage of several recreational players at your table.

This is where I think the art of tournament poker comes in. I could write 400 pages on it, and I’m not sure I’d do the give-and-take process justice. It is important you are conscientiously aware of what you’re trying to accomplish in a poker tournament. I think this section will get you on the right track, but you’ll have to solidify your thinking through your own beats.

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