The Poker Bubble

Even if you’re a tournament natural, getting through to the prize stage can be harder than you think. In this section, we’re going to help make sure you don’t go home empty-handed, with handy topics including:

The bubble explained

Every tournament has a bubble – the spot just before the prizes come in. If the top 10 players win prizes and you finish 11th, you’re the bubble, making you the highest-finishing player who ends up with nothing. Clearly this is not what you want, but the bubble can be tricky and you’ll need to use your head if you’re going to beat it.

Basic bubble strategy

Most bubble strategy is common sense: hold on and wait for other players to go bust before you. How long you can keep this up, and how much fun you can have while doing it, depends on how stacked you are (compared to other players – and the size of the blinds, which are going up all the time).

If your stack is 10 big blinds or less, you’re in ‘all-in-or-fold’ territory. In other words, if the hand or position’s right, commit and make the most of it – or fold and stay out of trouble. Your aim is to pick up blinds and snaffle chips when you can, without getting into risky confrontations.

Top, middle or bottom?

In the bubble, it’s more important than ever to see how your stack size compares to everyone else’s round the table, and adapt your play to match.

If you’re at the bottom…

As a short stack , you’ve only got a certain number of hands left before the blinds take you out. So if you’re in a good position, or have reasonable cards, you need to go ahead and grab the opportunity. Try to target the next shortest player if you can. They won't want to take you on and risk ending up in the bubble themselves, which gives you the upper hand.

If you’re in the middle…

Here you need to mix it up between picking off shorter-stacked players and avoiding the largest stack, who’ll be trying to do the same to you.

If you have the biggest stack…

Big stack is where you can have some fun. If you have a lot more chips than the other players – and their stacks are less than 10 big blinds – you can start moving in with all kinds of hands, as they’re not going to want to call you.

And if you’re really far ahead…

You can more or less start moving all-in whenever players fold to you. Even if you lose, you’ll still be the chip leader (which means people will be waiting for one of the short stacks to crumble rather than take you on). Then you just need to keep building until the bubble bursts, at which point you’re in a great position to go on and win.

How chip values change

An interesting fact that’s relevant to the bubble is that all chip values are not the same. In fact, their value can go back and forth as the game goes on.

Let’s say 10 players enter a $10 buy-in tournament where the winner gets 50% of the prize pool. If you win, you’ll have gathered all the chips (worth $100 at the start of the game), but you’ll go home with $50. Third place might get $20, even though he or she only has half the chips they started with (not bad).

Think about it. If each chip is worth less the more you have, it isn't a disaster if you lose a chunk for the chance to knock someone out.

What would you do?

Now you know a bit about the bubble, let’s test your knowledge with a few basic scenarios.

Q. You're down to just four players on the bubble and everyone has more or less the same amount of chips (about five times the big blind). The action is folded to you with 2-7 offsuit on the small blind. The big blind, as far as you can tell, is a pretty solid player. Do you fold or go all-in?

A. All-in, of course. This is a bit of a trick question, as the hand doesn’t matter. The main point is that big blind is someone who understands bubble play. When the blinds are this high and the chances of being called so low, you need to go for it. Especially as the resulting chip lead would put you in prime position for more wins.

Q. Another game, another four players on the bubble. You’re on the button with chips worth 10 times the big blind. Two opponents in the blinds have half that. The chip leader under the gun has three times your stack. He’s been moving all-in a lot and does it again. You have A-K. Do you fold or call?

A. Fold. In fact, in this situation, you should fold everything except A-A, K-K or Q-Q. Statistically, A-K has only a 30-40% chance of coming good, which might be fine in other situations, but when one of the short stacks is about to go to the wall any minute, that’s a silly gamble to take. Lots of players make this kind of mistake. Remember, in the bubble, different rules apply.

Q. You’re on the button against three other players, with a short stack (about four times the big blind) and a hand of Q-6 suited. The chip leader (with over twice as many chips as you) folds, leaving you up against the small and big blinds, who are ahead of you, but not by much. Do you fold or go all-in?

A. All-in. Q-6 suited might not be the best hand, but it's above average, so you’ve got to take it. If you fold, you’ll probably be up against the top stack next time (you really don’t want to do that). And you can’t afford to go through the blinds again. Here, your rivals aren’t going to call unless they’ve got something spectacular. Time to cross your fingers and hope you come out on top.