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, but playing it like it is a satellite is also a bad idea.
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% correct to pass marginally profitable spots in chip terms 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 a currently am) but to really simplify my point check out the image below. This is a chart of the average ‘Bubble Factor’ in the Sunday Million from the iconic book Kill Everyone. 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% equity to justify risking your tournament life.
As you can see Bubble Factor starts low 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.
You are probably not surprised that average Bubble Factor is high on the bubble, that’s where the name comes from. Some of you may be 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 gets bigger with every subsequent bust out, but actually the final two tables is where ICM is heaviest.
Why does Bubble Factor go down at the final table? Because you have all realised 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 say the $2,000 pay jump, $2,000 has been realised by everyone left in the tournament, there is less of the prize pool still being contested.
This doesn’t mean you should start playing like a maniac at a final table because ICM still plays a significant factor, as it does at every stage other than heads-up. What it does highlight is that getting to the final table is the biggest ICM hurdle you face in the tournament.
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