If you play tournaments, you need to be aware of the concept of ICM (Independent Chip Model).
But there’s a lot of confusion and misinformation surrounding ICM, and how to correctly apply it.
This short article, based on advice from tournament crusher Nick Petrangelo, will help clear up that confusion.
Let’s get started!
Nick Petrangelo’s Crash Course on ICM
Put simply, ICM is a concept used in tournaments to determine the value of each chip in relation to the tournament prize pool.
In cash games, 10,000 in chips have a value of exactly $10,000. However, in tournaments, 10,000 chips are obviously not valued at a 1:1 ratio like that.
But we still need to know how to value our chip stacks in tournaments. This is where ICM comes in.
Nick explains that there are 3 major factors we use to make ICM calculations:
- Stack distribution
- Payout structures
- What percentage of the field cashes
Here’s an explanation from Nick, himself:
ICM basically means that you’re not playing a cash game and you’re not playing the beginning of a tournament.
At the later stages of a tournament, ICM represents a shift where the value of your stack is now being considered in terms of the prize pool. You’re not playing for chips, but real dollars.
The First ICM Mistake to Avoid
According to Nick, one of the biggest mistakes players make when they find out about ICM is that they try to treat it as an exact science.
While making perfect ICM calculations in-game isn’t necessary, understanding the general outline of ICM at every stage of the tournament is key to success.
When Do We Apply ICM?
ICM can play a major factor in our strategy adjustments, specifically at the later stages of the tournament. Nick uses the term “ICM pressure” to describe ICM’s level of importance at any given stage of the tournament.
Generally, peak ICM pressure is reached when on the bubble. Nick explains:
ICM pressure is extremely high when say there are 19 players left in the field and 18 cash… So when you get 19th you get zero, and if you finish 18th, you get some multiple of your buy-in back. All these factors are going to come together to dictate all of your strategy adjustments.
Towards the end of the tournament, we’re going to want to think about stuff like if “I’m a huge stack I probably don’t want to clash and play a huge pot with another huge stack when we have a lot of expected value (EV) already.”
Adjusting to What Percentage of the Field Cashes
The key to knowing how much to adjust for ICM in-game is to know what percentage of the field is left and what percentage of the field cash. The closer the percentage of the remaining field gets to cash, the more intense the ICM factors become.
ICM peaks in pressure when we get to the bubble.
Most Common ICM Adjustments
Now that we’ve got a sense of what ICM is, let’s learn how to use it to our advantage. Here are some majorly important adjustments we should be aware of when ICM becomes a factor.
Folds Become Plus EV
Poker is generally thought of as a game where money can only be earned through aggression. Folding is an action that can have 0EV at most
However, Nick explains that in ICM scenarios a huge part of our EV can come from folding:
Unlike in cash games where when you fold it’s worth zero dollars, when you fold in ICM scenarios, whether you’re on the bubble or there’s pay jumps, folds are always plus EV. This is because your stack has the potential to increase in value if somebody behind you busts
Try to Win More Pots Without Showdown
A strong ICM strategy is preflop-oriented. We don’t want to be playing postflop too much, and we should consciously try to win more pots without showdown. Says Nick:
We want to be playing a tight-aggressive strategy in ICM scenarios. We aren’t going to be defending our Big Blind wide because we don’t want to go postflop versus stacks that cover us… If we’re a middle stack we really want to stay away from the big stacks.
We’ll also want to increase our opening sizes in some cases to try to win more hands without going postflop. At 20 big blinds deep, for example, you might want to open to 2.5x when in a cash game you would only open to 2x.
Nick adds that we’ll also want to be more selective with our 3-betting selection. In general, our 3-bets should be heavily blocker oriented (i.e. high cards). We don’t want to 3-bet low cards that unblock our opponents’ continues (which are largely broadway combinations like KQ or QJ). Remember with all of these adjustments we’ll be adjusting in relation to shifts in ICM pressure.
Biggest ICM Mistakes
According to Nick, there are 2 major mistakes players most commonly make regarding ICM.
Don’t Treat ICM as a Binary Decision
Many players who are aware of ICM will take it to the extreme when they think they’re in ICM scenarios by either playing super tight when they’re short or super aggressive when they’re the big stack. Remember that ICM pressure is dynamic and constantly changing. There is no uniform ICM strategy. Every spot is unique.
Don’t Take the Model as an Exact Science
Nick explains that it’s important as you learn more about ICM you are also aware of the limitations of the model. The current ICM study tools available on the market aren’t able to calculate future game implications with any accuracy. For example, ICM tools will underweight the value of winning a big all-in pot that allows you to become chip leader and stream roll your shorter stacked opponents at the final table.
Therefore, the outputs from ICM solvers can oftentimes suggest playing way tighter in spots than you should be. Like with solvers in general, ICM calculators should be thought of as a guide rather than a script you precisely follow.
We hope this article has gone a long way in helping to demystify ICM.
Do you have any other tournament-specific concepts that you want us to cover?
Let us know in the comments.