How To Not Blow It On The Bubble
Congrats! You did it!
You’ve endured through days of that tournament, survived the land mines, circumnavigated all the bear traps, and scaled the chip counts.
Only 100 players remain and 99 walk away with some cash money! You call an open with 87 suited, flop a huge draw against the chip leader and all of the sudden… you’re out in 100th place.
Hours and hours of work and you walk away with the coveted title of bubble boy and zeros upon zeros of dollars to show for your efforts. Congrats?
If this is not the accolade and cash amount you’re looking for, stay tuned and get dialed in because we’re going to go through how to adjust to the changing nuances of the bubble of a poker tournament and how you can not only survive the bubble, but increase your chances of winning the tournament.
For amateur players, the bubble can be a terrifying time. If they don’t make the money, they walk away with nothing but sometimes even worse they have to tell their friends that don’t understand poker that they got zero and are a loser.
For pros, the bubble is typically the time they make some of their biggest strides to set themselves up to win the tournament. If you think a tournament is won at the final table, you are wrong. Sure you have to play well there and actually literally win the tournament but the framework to win often starts at the bubble.
As a side note, we’re going to be mainly addressing the first money bubble where players will either get zero dollars or the first level of cash prize. Keep in mind though there are several other “bubbles” that arise in tournaments where you can use some of these strategies to exploit weaker players.
Basically, anytime there is another level of accomplishment that people desire to achieve, where there might be fear of not achieving it, a bubble exists. Examples are making day 2, making the TV final table, or a huge jump in prize money. Everybody wants to achieve these things and the gains from moving up one spot are significant enough to alter the dynamics of play.
The Short Stack Needs a Life Preserver
The absolute worst sized stack to have on the bubble is the short stack. Granted, it’s the worst sized stack to have at anytime but it is especially annoying on the bubble.
You don’t have enough chips to take advantage and exploit anyone and the rest of the entire room is cheering for you to lose. It’s not an ideal spot, but one you will find yourself in a lot and probably the most important to play properly.
First rule, find the balance of patience and no fear. Easier said than done of course, but its the key to surviving and excelling through poker tournament bubbles. To understand this a little bit better, you need to understand and come to terms with the following: cashing should NEVER be your sole goal.
I am not saying that you should try not to cash, that would be insane. What I am saying is that the decisions you make on the bubble should be aimed at setting yourself up to win the tournament. If you just aim to cash in tournaments, you will find yourself min-cashing more frequently, which might feel nice, but will ultimately have a profoundly negative effect on your bottom line.
When the bubble bursts, you will have less chips, less of a stack to work with, and a bigger up-hill battle to actually run deep in the tournament. I would say that most people understand this concept. but here is the problem: Many people who claim to not fear the bubble still don’t play the bubble properly for fear of walking away with nothing.
This is clearly an emotional response to the game. You don’t want to feel like a loser. You don’t want to tell your friends you got nothing. It’s a reasonable and common reaction to the stress the bubble can cause.
But you need to dig deep and ask yourself if cashing more often is really worth giving up real equity.
So how do we adjust on the bubble as a short stack? Basically look at it this way. If you get an opportunity to double up that is a favorable spot, you need to take it.
There are two common ways players flush their equity down the drain on the bubble:
- Folding everything. Some players effectively click auto-fold on the bubble, mucking everything from Kings in early position to AK suited on the button. This is obviously a mistake, and folding big pairs on the bubble just to sneak in is insanity.
- Playing extremely passively can be an even BIGGER mistake. An extreme example would be a player limping a hand like pocket Kings on the bubble when they could just shove. They want to make sure an ace doesn’t flop and then get the money in. A lot of times, doing this allows the player to get bluffed off the hand on ace high flops or invite too much action from speculative hands. You need to play your big hands correctly and not try and take some super passive line that is aimed at just “trying to be safe.”
There are times where you could be pretending to be passive to induce action as a trap, but that’s a move for it’s own article.
The flip side of this is that you do need to be patient as well. Don’t force all ins just because you’re scared and want to double up. Don’t force things because you hear good players are supposed to be arbitrarily aggressive on the bubble.Doing so might make you look cooler to the other 8 or 9 people at your table but that doesn’t pay very well.
Medium Stacks Play Choose Your Own Adventure
Medium stacks are in an interesting spot on the bubble. There are two completely different courses of action you can take and both of them are correct at certain times.
The correct course of action is based on the other players at your table and how they are choosing to approach the bubble.
If your table is full of people that are terrified to bubble and/or big stacks that are looking to just coast into the money, it’s time to step on the aggression gas pedal.
These people are easy to spot. They will be snap folding most of their hands, constantly be looking at the clock and the player count, updating the table out loud of how many players are left or if there is an all in at another table. I would be opening up preflop with a very wide range of hands and really put pressure on the smaller and medium sized stacks. I typically will shy away from stealing from big stacks as they are going to be more likely to play back at you or even more likely to play with you but in some situations, they become the tightest players on the planet on the bubble.
On a side note, even if you struggle with being scared of the bubble, don’t act like one of the players we described up there. You are putting a target on your head to any good player that is paying attention. If I see you gazing romantically at the player count, I will raise your blind every time.
Keep in mind that if these tight players do open a hand, they most likely have a stronger holding than usual. You don’t want to go too crazy here and end up turning yourself into a short stack. Remember though, just because you started the bubble as a medium stack does not mean that you are entitled to cash. Same goes for big stacks. If you start to feel that way and start counting your money before you cash, you will not play correctly and will play to protect what you think is already rightfully yours.
Try to set yourself up for a deep run and don’t just play to squeak into the cash. I know a lot of this article just sounds like a theory pep-talk, but in reality that is what it takes on the bubble to succeed. A lot of the bubble is the same as any other different stage in poker meaning you approach it, assess it, and adjust accordingly. If you let fear, entitlement or ego cloud your judgment, you will make mistakes that affect your bottom line.
On the flip side, if your table is full of aggressive and crazy pros you might be wise to tighten down a little bit at least on your opening ranges as there will probably be more 3 bets pre-flop and a lot more aggression and tough spots to work through. If you do have a re-shove size stack, you can open up your range a bit here as most of the people opening the pot pre-flop will have lighter holdings. You can still be somewhat aggressive here but it’s going to be a bit more as a counter puncher as opposed to the instigator. If you like those crazy tough spots and leveling wars, by all means keep opening light.
The Big Stack King of the Castle
The big stacks are clearly in the most fun spot on the bubble of a tournament. Just like in satellite poker tournaments, the big stacks have all the tools, room to maneuver and ability to put pressure on everyone else at the table. This is your chance to leverage everyone else’s fear of busting the tournament on the bubble to gain more chips and increase your chances of bringing home the win.
As the big stack, you have everyone covered meaning that anyone who gets in a hand with you is at risk of busting the tournament. You have the ability to kill, they only have the ability to maim.
How do you take advantage of the bubble with a big stack? Begin the same way that the medium stack does and assess how everyone is playing.
Find the tight players and the short stacks trying to eek in and hammer on them. Open into their blinds relentlessly and with a very wide range of hands. There will be some situations where the players will be so tight that the cards you hold don’t even matter. You will know they are folding before you even raise.
There are a ton of situations where opening any two cards is the correct play. Typically this will be when you’re in the Cutoff or on the Button and all the remaining players are especially tight or short stacked.
If you feel weird raising with garbage in these spots, you can fake look at your cards. Act like you look at them and don’t actually see what they are. Make sure you take a peek at them if you get called and have to play a flop though.
IMPORTANT ASIDE TO THE LAST POINT – Yes, I am saying turn up the aggression. Yes, I am saying in some spots open any 2 cards. BUT!!! Don’t go so insane here that you end up spewing off a ton of chips. Remember you can’t bluff everyone every hand, even on the bubble.
People still get 2 cards and those 2 cards can be ones they won’t fold. Just keep this in mind so you don’t go complete looney tunes and end up bubbling because you couldn’t step off the gas a little when you needed to.
But don’t get snake bit either! I have seen a lot of players come out playing very strong on the bubble only to get discouraged when they lose run into their first big hand. The true champs take the jab back from their opponents on the bubble and keep coming forward when the danger has passed.
The Big Bubble Picture
The big picture is this. People are going to get scared on the bubble because they don’t understand that the main goal of a poker tournament isn’t the min cash but setting yourself up for the win even if that means min-cashing less. This fear is exploitable by an observant player and can help to propel that observant player’s stack into a position to have a much better shot at winning the tournament.
You need to be that observant player who is able to balance no-fear and patience, who is able to access how each player at the table is approaching the bubble, and then adjust accordingly. The bubble is not about choosing one speed and sticking to it. It’s about reassessing every hand and making the right adjustments.
If you struggle with the mental side of the bubble, I’d recommend looking through this article again and taking some of the more pep talk/high school football coach phrases that stuck out and resonated with you and writing them down somewhere on a piece of paper and keeping that with you when you play. Read them before you start the tournament and read them again when the bubble starts so they’re fresh in your mind. Then, send me a tweet and tell me you’re thinking about me so I feel special.
Jason is a former MTT grinder and current content creator who owns and operates the website Plug In Vegas