You’ve spent several hours (or possibly even days) playing in a tournament, and the finish line is finally within sight.
Just ten players left. One bust-out away from the final table. And you really, really don’t want to be that final table bubble boy walking away with 10th place money…
…but could this be a situation that calls for taking risks and ramping up the aggression?
In this article, I’ll break down how you should adjust your strategy when on the final table bubble based on your stack size, opponents and the tournament’s structure.
Let’s start by comparing final table bubbles to a topic you’re likely more familiar with: the money bubble.
Final Table Bubble vs Money Bubble
When you’re within a few spots of the money bubble in a large tournament, it will likely be quick to burst.
In a tournament like the Sunday Million, with 10,000 runners and 1,500 places paid, you could say that the bubble phase starts with 1,550 or even 1,600 players left. It takes surprisingly little time to get to the money, and once you’re down to around 1,520 players, it’s going to be pretty irresponsible to take big risks.
If you can make $300 by going to take a leak, it’s a bad idea to make moves in marginal spots. If you feel the urge to punish a big stack who is opening every pot, it’s probably best to ignore it.
This phase is also when you frequently hear one of my favorite lines in poker (that make no sense at all in this context):
“I had to do it. You have to always play for the win.”
Now, let’s really analyze that for a second. Imagine the following situation on the bubble:
$215 Sunday Million, Blinds 1,250/2,500 with a 300 Ante
Hero (BTN): 42,000 chips
HiJack: 500,000 chips
Hero is on the Button with:
folds to hj, HiJack raises to 5,000
This is clearly a profitable spot to 3-bet shove in terms of chips. The HiJack will be opening very wide and will often fold to our shove.
If the shove gets through, hero will add around 12,500 chips to his stack. Is that a nice addition? Sure.
What doesn’t make sense about the quote is the part about playing for the win. The average stack at the final table will be over 10 million chips.
Compared to that, adding 12,500 to our stack on the bubble is not particularly relevant…
…and if we get called, bust out and just miss out on the money, it’s a disaster scenario.
Let’s imagine a totally new scenario:
$215 Sunday Million, Blinds 250,000/500,000 with a 60,000 Ante
Hero (BB): 10,000,000 chips
BTN: 74,000,000 chips
Hero is in the BB with:
folds to btn, Button raises to 1M, sb folds, Hero shoves 10M, Button calls
Button holds with
Brutal. You just missed out on the biggest final table of your life.
But you know what? This is actually a great time to say:
“I had to do it. You have to always play for the win.”
There are a few reasons why an aggressive approach is generally the way to go on final table bubbles, but the main reason is this:
One of the best spots to win a lot of chips without showdown is the final table bubble. Here’s why:
- The chip leader is typically opening nearly every pot, allowing shorter stacks to re-steal against those opens.
- The short stacks are often scared of busting and trying to ladder up.
- The middle stacks have their hands tied as they’re supposed to wait for the short stacks to bust before taking risks.
People often play like they “should” with their stack size in big situations, so exploiting these tendencies won’t be difficult.
Interestingly, it’s always on the 5th level of the tournament when people try out their most imaginative lines. When the money really starts to matter, they “retreat into their shell” and play exactly as you’d expect.
3 More Reasons to Play Aggressively on Final Table Bubbles
In case you are still not convinced, here’s 3 more reasons why you should turn up the heat on final table bubbles:
1. You’re playing short-handed.
On money bubbles you’re typically playing 8- or 9-handed, but on the final table bubble you never have more than 5 players at your table. That means it’s time to play more hands!
2. Nobody wants to miss out on the final table.
This is especially true in live tournaments and big online events.
The longer it has taken for everyone to get to that point in the tournament and the more money there is on the line, the less they want to bust. That’s something to be exploited.
3. The ICM impact of busting actually isn’t that huge.
There are obvious exceptions where the difference between getting 10th and 9th is enormous(e.g. the WSOP Main Event, but in the vast majority of tournaments, it really doesn’t matter all that much whether you get 10th, 8th or 7th.
For example, here are the payouts of this week’s Sunday Warm-up, which is on the final table bubble as I’m writing this:
The difference between 10th and 9th place is just four and a half buy-ins, but the difference between 10th and 1st is almost 200 buy-ins. It’d be inexcusable to blind down and give up the chance of winning the tournament in order to make a $912 payjump.
Of course, we still have to be somewhat selective with our aggression. There is a fine line between spewing and playing good, aggressive poker, but to quote a very smart high stakes MTT beast:
“If you’re not regularly final table bubbling tournaments, you’re doing something wrong.”
When Tight is Right
The more you find yourself battling on final table bubbles, the more you’ll get used to picking your spots and finding ways to chip up. But no matter how experienced you are, it is still best to tighten up in some scenarios:
- Play tighter when your opponents are playing aggressively.
The final table bubble is still a delicate situation – one mistake and you’re out. If the other players at your table are maniacs and there are 3- and 4-bets flying into the pot every hand, it’s probably time to stay out of the way.
In a setting like this, you can sit back and wait for someone to spaz-out.
- Tighten up when making the final table really matters.
If you find yourself in fifth with ten left on the WSOP Main Event final table bubble, I don’t want to be blamed for your suicidal bluff.
In huge situations like these, making the final table carries extra value because of sponsorships, the once-in-a-lifetime experience, having every girl on Tinder swipe right on you, etc. You really don’t want to screw that up.
- Play tighter when the money really matters.
Let’s say that you’re a $5 average buy-in player who satellited into the aforementioned Sunday Warm-up. You find yourself in 7th place with 10 players remaining.
Laddering to 9th is only worth 4.5 Sunday Warm-up buy-ins, but it’s also worth 182 buy-ins for your everyday stakes.
If I found myself in that spot, I’d still try to play aggressively (I’d assume that my opponents would also have sharkscoped me and found out that I normally play $5 ABI, and would thus expect me to play tight), but if the money is huge for you, there’s definitely hidden value in laddering up.
Just make sure not to overdo it. You should still play to win. (Think of all the $5 buy-ins winning would net you.)
- Tighten up on unique final table bubbles.
If you’re on the final table bubble of a satellite that awards eight seats, you obviously need to play tight unless you’re very short. With the top eight spots all getting the same prize, chipping up loses all its value. Survival should be the only thing on your mind.
On the flip side, the final table bubble of an 18-man sit and go is completely irrelevant since you’re not even close to the money when the final table bubble bursts.
- In the spots ICM matters, play tighter.
ICM prevents players from being able to call shoves liberally, which puts the aggressor at a big advantage.
For example, let’s say that you’re on the final table bubble of a massive turbo (I used standard PokerStars payouts to calculate this) and everyone has exactly 10 big blinds.
The action folds around to you in the small blind. According to Nash, you can profitably shove 89.5% of hands (including hands as weak as T-3o and 7-4o). Even if the big blind knows that you’re shoving this wide, he can still only call with 21.9% of hands because of the ICM implications.
Even a hand like 4-4 is a fold – against a 89.5% shoving range! Yeah, ICM is a bitch.
Of course, most final table bubble situations aren’t push/fold scenarios anyway. But make sure you do your best to avoid plays that may be ICM disasters.
How to Play Final Table Bubbles with Each Stack Size
Let’s go back to that Sunday Warm-up final table bubble. These are the current chip distributions:
(Yeah, I know my table background theme is hideous. It’s Christmas Day as I’m writing this, so I thought I’d make my tables look festive.)
There are multiple well-known players left in the tournament, but we’ll ignore any potential skill edges for simplicity. Instead, let’s discuss what our approach should be as each of these players based on their stack size.
(Side Note: Everything below is assuming that everyone is playing somewhat optimally. Everything changes if your opponents are doing crazy stuff, but this article isn’t about exploitative play, it’s about basic strategy, from which you can then deviate when you encounter exploitable players.)
Short stacks (15BB or less) – NestaRasta, 1BigAceHole
These two players are by far the shortest at their tables.
Neither of them is going to benefit much from playing tight – they’re looking at a couple of pay jumps at best before blinding out.
Both players still have borderline re-steal stacks, but I’d be really careful with 3-bet shoving, especially in 1BigAceHole’s shoes. I’d expect 1_conor_b_1 to open a super-wide range on the button, but he also has so many chips that he can call 1BigAceHole’s 3-bet shove relatively wide.
When you only have a kamikaze stack, luck plays a large role. There isn’t all that much you can do if you go card dead for a while.
The things we can control, however, are picking good spots to shove with a wider-than-usual range. The best way to determine those spots is to figure out who would suffer the most from doubling us up.
For example, NetsaRasta can shove very wide blind versus blind because if TheKhopMan calls and loses, he’s going to be the shortest stack in the tournament, and thus he’ll be calling our shoves very tight.
In a nutshell, my strategy as either of these short stacks would be this:
- Avoid raise-folding unless my opponents are very bad.
I wouldn’t expect to be able to get away with a min-raise steal with under 15BB here almost ever. Thus, I’d typically just shove every hand I’d be playing.
- Keep a sharp eye out for re-steal spots (if I didn’t know my opponents to be good players).
In middle stacked EvidenceSK’s shoes, opening too wide on the button would be quite a big mistake because NestaRasta can 3-bet shove a TON of hands in the small blind.
Let’s say button is opening 50% of hands, but only calling our shove with strong hands (66+,ATs+,AJo+). Guess how many hands you could theoretically shove as the small blind with those assumptions with ICM in play? Every single one of them.
Now, I would never actually shove 100%, but if I truly thought EvidenceSK was opening 50% or more, I’d surely 3-bet shove hands as weak as Q-9s.
- Be careful not to 3-bet shove too wide against strong opponents.
If I thought my opponents were playing well, I’d be wary of 3-bet shoving too wide, especially against stacks that can afford to double us up.
For example, if EvidenceSK is only opening 17.9% of buttons (which sounds about right for his stack), 3-bet shoving hands as strong as 7-7 or A-9o is actually a losing play.
- Be mentally ready to be the next guy out.
If I can ladder up, great, I’ll take it, and I won’t be doing anything stupid. If I’m going to final table bubble the Sunday Warm-up, I want to be damn sure that I can live with my bustout hand.
But in two years time, will the 9th or 8th place money play any kind of role in my life? No. But I could do a lot of things with $43,216.
Middle stacks (16-28BB) – EvidenceSK, GraveDanger3, TheKhopMan, The Oss
These guys are all in a good spot to make the final table because there are two short stacks who will likely be all-in soon.
They have to be very careful calling shoves, as doubling anyone up would make them the short stack. This means they need to be opening really tight, because they can only raise-call with the strongest hands…
…which brings up one of the most common MTT mistakes; opening too much with a ~20BB stack.
If I’m bparis here, and I think that TheKhopMan is opening anything more than ~19% of hands even on the button, I’m going to be 3-betting him with my eyes closed in a lot of spots.
Any MTT player worth their salt will know how to exploit us if we open too wide with this stack size. So, my strategy as any of these players would be:
- Open few hands.
I’d be happy to fold the vast majority of my buttons, unless the players in the blinds were nits. I’d also just open-shove some hands with a 20BB stack to take away my opponents’ abilities to 3-bet shove.
If I’m EvidenceSK, rather than raise-calling, I’m just shoving hands like 7-7 or A-J on the button. I really, really don’t want to “have” to call a shove and commit ICM suicide in the process. Raise-calling 7-7 against even NestaRasta’s short stack would actually be a slightly losing play (if he’s shoving optimally).
It gets even worse against the big blind. Even if he’s 3-bet shoving pretty wide against us (18.2%, including hands like K-5s, J-9s and K-To), guess how much we can call? Just 88+, AQ+. ICM really is a bitch.
But this is exactly why we need to be opening so tight in the first place. If we open too many hands, we end up raise-folding the vast majority of our range, which allows our opponents to profitably shove a ton of hands against us.
- Not to go ballistic on the shorter stacks.
People often think of final table bubbles as a sort of schoolyard hierarchy: you only get to bully those shorter than you.
This isn’t true, because the shorter you are, the less you have to lose. It’s a good rule of thumb to target those who have the most to lose.
You really don’t want to be raise-folding a bunch into those 15BB stacks, because good players will notice and start 3-bet shoving light. Instead, if I sensed that another similar stack was opening too much, I’d be shoving on them.
If I was EvidenceSK, I’d still shove wide against the well-stacked Kerm.pro’s blind vs blind opens. His spot in the tournament is exceptionally good, being in third place, but if he doubles you up he’s almost at the bottom of the pile. Even if he figured you were 3-bet shoving light on him, he would need a very strong hand to be able to call.
Upper class citizens (30-39BB) – vladulaNko, Kerm.pro
These players are in third and fourth place, respectively. If the tournament ended right now, they’d be banking some serious money with their $16.5k at $22.2k scores.
They are also very likely to make a bunch of payjumps without doing much of anything at all. The downside of being in this situation is simple:
Solid stacks don’t have much to gain, but they have everything to lose, which allows the chipleaders to put insane pressure on them.
The upside is that when the table chipleader doesn’t open the pot, they get to steal a lot. If I were fortunate enough to find myself in the shoes of vladulaNko or Kerm.pro here, this would be my strategy:
- Remember the big picture at all times.
The big picture here is to make the final table, then make top 3. To be able to execute this plan, we must allow the chipleader(s) exploit us. The key here is to keep the pots small.
If I’m vladulaNko or Kerm.pro and the chipleader opens into my big blind, I would flat with a variety of hands. I need to ensure that the pots stay small, and unless I have a good hand, I need to fold when facing a lot of pressure.
Does this mean that I’ll get bluffed off my hand a couple of times? Yes.
Does that matter? Not really.
The only thing on my mind is ensuring that, unless something unfortunate happens, I’ll always make the top five.
- Loosen up when the biggest stack folds.
Whenever the pot is unopened and the biggest stack has folded, we can go to town on basically everyone.
We now have so many chips compared to most other players that it doesn’t really hurt us if we have to raise/fold a few times.
As always, it’s key to not overdo it. As we just learned, sharp opponents can profitably shove a lot of hands if we’re opening too often – but there are still spots where we can open as much as 50 percent of hands.
For example, if I’m Kerm.pro and bparis just folded, I’m going to open a lot. The next biggest stacks are the best ones to target, since their hands are the most tied.
- Pot control post-flop.
Pot control is important against not only the big stacks, but everyone else as well.
We have a nice advantage over most players at the table, but it would still be a major disaster to double up any of the players we cover (and a bigger disaster to bust).
The chipleaders (40+ BB) – 1_conor_b_1, bparis
With the final table looming, it’s obvious that we should be raising a large amount of hands from every position. Since it’s so hard for our opponents to play back at us, there will be many situations where we can profitably raise with any two cards.
When bparis raises to 86,350 (as he does in our screenshot), he’s risking that to win the 80,000 from the blinds and antes. As long as he gets folds more than 51.9% of the time, he’s making an immediate profit (not even accounting for all pots he’ll take down after the flop with a c-bet and so on).
He can, and he should keep making these opens over and over again. It’s going to be hard for any them to be particularly -EV, even if his opponents start playing back a bit more than usual.
Keep in mind, however, that having a huge chiplead doesn’t mean you should go completely berserk with aggression. It’s not easy for any of your opponents to wake up with a top 5% hand, but it’s not impossible.
No matter how big your chiplead is, you should always keep an eye on the big picture and fight to maintain your dominating position. Even if you think that your opponents are starting to play back at you, it’s alright to let them have a pot or two.
The luxury of having a big stack is that losing a couple of big blinds matters less to you than it does to any of your opponents. But losing your chiplead would be quite a disaster, in large part because of future opportunity cost.
When you have the chiplead on the final table bubble, and then later at the final table, you will have a large number of profitable opens, 3-bet spots and the like. But if you lose half your stack, it’ll be someone else who gets to take advantage of all those spots.
I rarely see chipleaders playing too tight on final table bubbles. The opposite is far more common, and I’ve seen countless regulars spew away massive chipleads trying to win every single pot.
Chiplead play is something that you learn through experience, trial and error (the writer of this article has wasted dozens of high-equity chiplead spots trying too hard to own everyone on final table bubbles, and still does it occasionally). But if I had to summarize effective chiplead play on final table bubbles in one sentence, I’d put it like this:
Play lots of small pots as the chip leader, but when you play a big pot, try to have the goods most of the time.
In 1_conor_b_1’s shoes, I would open almost every hand from every position. But when facing a 3-bet, I’d swallow my pride and let them have the pot so I could open 9-3s next hand.
As always, I’ll be happy to answer any questions about final table bubbles (or anything really) in the comments section below, or on twitter @chuckbasspoker.
Miikka Anttonen is poker professional from Finland with $2.4 million in career earnings and a world championship title under his belt. His autobiography is Once A Gambler. Find out more at https://www.onceagambler.com/