Long gone are the days where tournament poker was played by “feel” alone. The introduction of basic mathematical terms such as equity and the calculation of odds changed the game of poker forever some time ago. More recently, however, increasingly advanced concepts have been introduced. Among the more relevant are ICM poker: a mathematical model that uses stack sizes to determine how often a player will finish in each position.
What, Exactly, is the ICM?
ICM poker (Independent chip model) allows players to estimate the value of their stack at any given point in a tournament.
This is quite important as ICM can—especially in the late stages of the tournament—have a very significant impact on the decisions you make.
An easy call in the early stages of the tournament may turn into an easy fold on the final table, depending on the various ICM factors.
Why Does ICM Exist only in Tournaments?
The reason Independent Chip Model exists only in tournaments is quite simple.
In a cash game, $1.000 is worth exactly $1.000. If you have 50% equity or more when facing an all-in, it will be a profitable play to call off your chips no matter what.
In a tournament however, even if you win all the chips you will only win a percentage of the prize pool. Having 10% of all the chips in play doesn’t make your stack worth 10% of the prize pool.
How valuable your chips are at a given point will depend on:
- Percentage of the chips you have compared to total chips in play
- Prize pool distribution
- Distribution of chips in other players’ stacks.
Chips will also be worth more or less depending on how much of a chance you have of making money in a tournament.
cEV v $EV
cEV (chip expected value) is the standard EV you see in cash games. When you’re calculating your pot odds to see if you have the right price for your flush draw, you’re calculating cEV.
$EV is a concept which only exists in tournament poker. $EV (expected value in dollars) aims to quantify your play in real money dollars. $EV is is never equal to cEV.
It is extremely difficult to pinpoint the exact value of chips in a tournament at any point. However, exact numbers aren’t completely necessary.
With use of ICM tools and basic knowledge of ICM poker, you can get close and make much better decisions in the late stages of poker tournaments, which is when ICM really kicks in.
ICM Poker Calculation Example
Let us imagine a sit-and-go (SNG) tournament in a magical rakeless world where 10 players entered for $100 each for a total prize pool of $1.000.
With four players left in the tournament, the prize distribution is:
- $500 for the first place
- $300 for the second place
- $200 for the third
If every single player had the exact same stack with 25% of the chips, the calculation would be simple; Every stack would be worth $250.
However, what if one player had 70% of the chips while the others shared the rest? The largest stack is clearly not worth $700 as the most he can possibly win is $500 for finishing first. This is where the ICM poker model kicks in.
This player’s stack cannot be worth the full $500 either, as he will certainly not win the SNG every single time.
ICM calculations are quite complex and very few, if any, players can calculate exact figures on the spot.
With a stack distribution of 7.000 – 1.000 – 1.000 – 1.000, using an ICM calculator, the values of each stack would be:
While the shorter stacks hold only 10% of the chips each, those chips have a significantly higher value than just 10% of the prize pool.
The Value of Learning ICM
ICM is an especially valuable tool in bubble situations, such as this one, and situations on the final table where pay jumps are high, such as Sunday Million or Sunday Storm final tables.
ICM is the reason WSOP final tables always seem to play so tight. Well except for this hand, in which Joe Cheong and Jonathan Duhamel battle preflop with ICM considerations looming. (The video is in Spanish, but you’ll see the point.)
Some would consider Cheong’s play ICM poker brilliance, others ICM suicide. Either way, you know those massive pay jumps had to be on both players’ minds during this enormous pot.
How Does ICM Affect Decision Making?
Due to its complexity, there isn’t really a quick tip for calculating ICM in real time during a hand.
Simply understanding how ICM works will allow you to make important folds in the late stages (or on the bubble). It will also enable you to apply pressure on other players by shoving wider and forcing them to fold due to ICM poker considerations.
There is much more to be told about ICM and learning to apply it correctly does not come overnight, but mastering it is one of the key factors that separates good tournament players from the best.
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