One of the most exciting periods of a poker tournament is when the prize money is about to be awarded, known as the money bubble, or more often referred to as simply the bubble. Finishing a handful of places outside of the money would mean you have bubbled the tournament, but purists will argue that only the last person not being paid did so.
The exact, or stone, bubble is the worst position to finish in a tournament. Some may argue that busting early trumps that, but if you bust early into an event you haven’t invested much time or effort, whereas being the unfortunate soul who finishes just outside of the money may have played for several hours online, or even two or three days in a major live event.
When a tournament approaches the bubble stage, it is a great time to assess your opponents, and use any knowledge about them to improve your own chip stack and increase your chances of not only reaching the money places, but to go deep where the big prizes are. Look at the majority of tournaments in the world and it is the top three payout places where the significant money is. You need chips if you want to put yourself in the frame for a big score.
Several years ago, when I first began playing poker tournaments online, I read an interview with a player called Ari Engel, who was known as “BodogAri” in the online poker world. Engel was ranked number one in the world for online tournaments, had won millions online, and now has more than $3.4 million in live tournament winnings.
”Try to bubble yourself because your opponents won’t let you
In this article, Engel was asked about his strategy for playing on the bubble in tournaments and his reply, cut down for the purpose of this article, was “try to bubble yourself because you will often find that your opponents will not let you.”
By this Engel means that you should up your aggression when the money bubble is approaching because a large percentage of players will be tightening up in an attempt to not bubble themselves. If an opponent, particularly one whose stack is on the shorter side, looks to have locked down and is playing very tight, attack them whenever you get the chance to do so by stealing their blinds, three-betting their raises, etc. However, should such an opponent play back at you with, say, a four-bet or an all-in bet, you are probably best ducking out of the way because they are more often than not going to be sat there with the goods, and it is better to conserve your chips so you can take advantage of other situations that may arise.
It should be obvious that the best stack to have on the bubble is one larger than your opponents, which is almost always the case at any stage of a tournament. Being the big stack allows you to bully your opponents and continue adding to your stack. Even if you are in a dominant position you should refrain from going overboard with your aggression because losing just one or two decent pots can put you right in the thick of it and allow you to be taken advantage of.
One of the biggest mistakes players make on the bubble is when they have a medium-sized stack and they start attacking the larger stacks for a myriad of reasons, usually that the bigger stack is inexperienced or has been overly aggressive. What they fail to realise is that, as a medium-sized stack, they have a lot of equity around the bubble and they are giving a large chunk of that equity up (essentially throwing money away) by getting involved in hands they have no need to play.
Once the Bubble Has Burst
You will often see a flurry of eliminations once the money bubble burst because the shorter stacks are happy they have some money to show for their efforts and are now throwing caution to the wind in an attempt to rebuild their stacks or go home trying. This is another time that you can pick up plenty of chips because you will find those shorter stacks pushing all-in with a wide range of hands preflop so you can call with hands that are likely dominating that range, don’t get too carried away though!