Poker Strategy: Busting Some Myths About the Independent Chip Model (ICM)


The pros: Dara O’Kearney and Lexy Gavin-Mather

Craig Tapscott: What most gamers get wrong about the Independent Chip Model (ICM)?

Dara O’Kearney: ICM it’s a concept that many gamers fundamentally misunderstand for many reasons; the biggest single mistake was ignoring it completely and playing too loosely. For most players, simply playing a little tighter in the latter stages of a tournament will likely improve their bottom line.

However, one area where the opposite problem is often seen is in the final tables. Playing a final table as if it were a cash game is a big mistake and playing as if it were a satellite is also a bad idea.

ICM the pressure is usually at its peak as the final table bubble approaches. A very common misconception people have is that salary jumps are a good measure of how high up they are ICM it is at any time. This is completely backwards.

As I explain below, on a final table ICM it’s greatest at the start (when the next pay jumps are the smallest) and actually decreases with each elimination (and as the size of the next pay jump increases). The biggest pay raise in any regular tournament is from second to first, yet this is the only point in the tournament where there isn’t ICM!

Another very common misconception is that short stacks are the most extreme ICM. This is true in the money bubble, but at a final table the short stack, along with the chip leader, is actually short of the minimum amount of ICM pressure.

Lexy Gavin Mather: The biggest myths about ICM are that preflop ranges are similar to the early and middle stages of the tournament and that you shouldn’t change them. This is quite false. Your fry (raise-first-in) ranges will narrow significantly if there are big ones ICM implications (particularly final tables).
When it comes to yours fry intervals, it is so important to have blockers. Medium pairs and low seed connectors have no stripping effect. Thus, you are not blocking your opponent’s reraise or all-in ranges.

The main goal of ICM is to increase your fold equity and put maximum pressure on your opponents. For example, let’s say we’re at a final table with 20 big blinds. There are six players left. Our fry goes from UTG extension they will be quite tight, about 16 percent of hands, and we will fold pairs 2-2 through 9-9.

I know that sounds crazy! (Shout out to Matt Affleck, fellow coach for getting the math on these fry range.) The hands we want to open are very blockers. All suited Aces (A-2 suited+) and many of our Aces suited combinations (A-5 suited+). Hands like KQ offsuit+ are good openings because they block most of our opponent’s continuous range. The fact that these hands don’t play well post-flop doesn’t really matter if it reduces the chances that our opponents will three-bet us preflop.

Another myth about ICM is that skill is a factor. This is not true. ICM assumes that every player has the same abilities.

What most players are wrong about ICM it’s that they limp ICM situations. In general, you should play a tighter range when on the bubble or at the final table. When you reissue, you should choose a larger size. Limping allows you to play a wider range, which is not optimal for ICM. Also, limping allows your opponents to see a lot of flops, but remember, ICM it’s all about creating fold equity. So, avoid limping in ICM situations.

Craig Tapscott: If you’re a short stack at the final table, how do you balance laddering for pay jumps and stacking chips to try and win the entire tournament?

Dara O’Kearney: Laddering is the term we use to refer to when one player essentially sits until another player busts to secure their next salary increase. It’s 100% correct to pass marginally lucrative points if two other players look set to go to war and there’s another pay raise. It’s also a mistake to go blind to a final table to try and make another pay raise.

I could write a whole book about it ICM errors (and indeed I did) but to really simplify my point check out the table below. Bubble Factor is a measure of how losing hurts more than winning feels good in MTTs. If you have a Bubble Factor of 2, it means that for every $2 of equity you risk winning only $1 of equity. I won’t go into the calculation now, but with a Bubble Factor of 2 you need 66% equity to justify risking your life in the tournament.

The bubble factor changes throughout a tournament for a medium stack, however, medium stacks are those with the highest bubble factor (ICM pressure). At the final table, for example, the chip leader has a lower bubble factor because no one can bust him, but the shorter stack also has a low bubble factor because he has less money to lose.

Bubble factors are not reciprocal. When a short stack plays against another short stack, or against a big stack, both players have a low bubble factor. When a short stack or comfortably covering chipleader plays against a mid-stack, they have a low bubble factor, but the mid-stack has a high bubble factor. The key as a short stack is to apply pressure to those mid stacks that you can damage the most and have the most to lose in a fight with you.

Lexy Gavin Mather: If you’re a short stack, it really depends on the other stacks at the table. If there are still other short stacks left in the field, then you can give up certain edges in the hopes that they bust. But if you’re one of the few short stacks left, then I wouldn’t tight up or try to make a run. I would look for a place to double up quickly so I can build a stack and be a contender to win the tournament.
Remember, there is fairness in folding. You make money by making money from your opponents eliminating each other, so it’s okay to stay tight and try to scale.

Now, I’m not saying never bluff or risk a final table bubble or pay skip, because you’re going to want to pile up chips. Eventually, if you go deep enough, you’ll find yourself in a situation where literally all salary jumps start to become significant. Here because ICM it becomes less significant at the final table as more players are eliminated.

For example, if you finished in the top three players and first place is $100,000, second place is $80,000, and third place is $60,000, the salary jumps are significant, but there are only three players left. So hovering over certain edges to scale wouldn’t be smart here. Play to win!

Craig Tapscott: Most people know that ICM does it matter in the tournament bubble, but does it matter in the early stages and after the bubble has burst?

Dara O’Kearney: Bubble Factor (see diagram) starts low (but contrary to what most people think it’s not 1.0 to begin with) then climbs steeply up the payout bubble to 1.6 before dropping considerably once players are in the money. Then it climbs steeply before the final table to 1.7 then drops again, not so abruptly, to heads-up play.

Heads-up Bubble Factor becomes 1, or ChipEV, because ICM no longer applies. These are the average Bubble Factors, they will be much higher or lower depending on your chip stack and the chip stack of the person you are playing against in any given hand.

Unsurprisingly, the average Bubble Factor is at the top of the bubble, which is where the name comes from. However, many are surprised at the final table. It is highest right before the final table and goes down with every payout. Many players assume it would be highest at the final table where the payouts are the biggest and increase with each subsequent elimination, but in reality the final two tables are where ICM it is heavier.

Why does Bubble Factor go down with every elimination at the final table? Because all of you have realized a lot of fairness. The next jump in $50 tournament winnings when you get to nine hands might be $1,000, then $2,000, then $3,200 which seems like a lot because the cash amounts mean something to you compared to your original buy-in. But by then your equity might be $10,000, so that’s not a lot relatively. Also, once the $2,000 pay jump was hit, $2,000 was made by everyone left in the tournament, there’s less than the prize pool still up for debate.

Lexy Gavin Mather: I would say you don’t need to worry ICM in the early and middle stages of a tournament. This is because you are still far from having to make decisions based on money jumps. ICM it exists at the beginning of the first hand of the tournament, but becomes more significant as the tournament progresses.

As you approach the latter stages of the tournament, money bubbles, final tables and big salary raises, you need to make some significant changes to some of your strategies. While it might be okay to raise a certain hand or call loose early in the tournament, it might not be okay to raise with the same hand or make the same call if you’re bubbled at a final table or have a big win jump.

I think a lot of players make the mistake of tensing up too soon and misinterpreting when they’re real ICM the implications begin. They make ICM they fold hours before the actual bubble starts, and either pop or go so short that they don’t make any money.

I wouldn’t worry ICM immediately after the bubble burst. Yes, there are payout jumps but they’re usually small (unless you’re playing a $100,000 high roller or something). There is so much volatility right after the money bubble bursts. Short stacks desperately try to double up, medium stacks try to punish bubble users, this is a good time to stack chips and not squeeze due to ICM. ♠

Dara O’Kearney is an Irish former international ultrarunner turned poker pro. While Dara has many more seconds on her resume than her, she actually has many more victories, as evidenced by her eight Triple Crowns at Dara is also a coach, staker, ShareMyPair ambassador and author of Endgame Poker Strategy: the ICM Book. He is co-host of the GPI extension award-winning Poker Podcast ‘The Chip Race.’ Dara became a Unibet Ambassador in March 2017 and a Cardschat Ambassador in August 2021. You can keep up to date with what he is up to at

Lexy Gavin-Mather is a professional poker player, coach and content creator. She splits her time between Las Vegas and Northern California and in recent years she has been among the top ranked women in poker. She is a coach for Jonathan Little’s and owns her training site Lexy’s hobbies include charity work, dancing and creating content for her YouTube channel (LexyGavinPoker). She visits for coaching. Follow her on Twitter and IG @lexygavinpoker.

*Some photos courtesy of WPT.

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