Using ICM as the Big Stack on the Bubble

The ICM pressure on the bubble is huge. Whereas ICM applies from the very beginning of a tournament up until heads-up, its influence is the largest on the bubble.

This is because the potential shifts in tournament equity at this point are enormous. When one player busts, the others automatically get into the money, even when they have a very small stack.

This means that the big stack has a big advantage on the bubble. He can effectively use the small stack as leverage to put ICM pressure on the middle stack. The following hand is a nice example of that.

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Hand Example

$7 6-max turbo

Button: Player 1 (1,415 chips)
Small Blind: Villain (2,769 chips)
Big Blind: Hero (4,816 chips)

All players post ante [15]
Villain posts small blind [60]
Hero posts big blind [120]

** Dealing down cards ** Dealt to Hero [ 7♠ J♣ ] Player 1 folds Villain raises [210] Hero raises [480] Villain folds Hero wins 585 from main pot

On the bubble of this 6-max Sit 'n Go I have a commanding chip lead. The small stack on the button has 12 Big Blinds left. The middle stack has 23 Big Blinds, almost twice as much as the small stack.

Once the small stack folds and the middle stack raises me, I can put tremendous ICM pressure on my opponent. Villain should not want to get into a big pot with me unless he has a huge hand like AA or KK. The last thing he wants is to risk his tournament life when there's a small stack on the table who already folded and only has 12 Big Blinds left.

J7o is a pretty weak hand, but it doesn't really matter what I have here. Even if I had a hand like 23o, I would still raise my opponent in this spot because he should fold almost his entire range.

Using ICM in the Right Situations

If you are the big stack on the bubble, you can put tremendous ICM pressure on the middle stack, using the small stack as leverage.

This doesn't mean, however, that you should always attack the middle stack with weak hands. If you're contemplating putting ICM pressure on your opponent, ask yourself these two questions:

  • What's your opponent's hand range and playing style?
  • Does your opponent understand ICM?

What's Your Opponent's Hand Range and Playing Style?

In this game, Villain was playing quite aggressively. He had raised my Big Blind a couple of times before, so I knew his hand range for raising me here was probably pretty wide. Knowing that my opponent is raising with a lot of weak hands, I can re-raise him here with my entire range, as I know he has to fold most of the time.

Now, if my opponent had been playing really tight, it would be a different story. In that case, he is raising with a stronger hand range and I should proceed with more caution. Against a tight opponent, a better option would be to just call here and try to take the pot away from him post-flop on favorable boards.

Does Your Opponent Understand ICM?

It's important to keep in mind that you can only use ICM against opponents who understand it. You will find a lot of players on the low stakes who are unaware of ICM and don't understand that the big stack can bully the middle stack here. They will happily play a big pot with you in this spot even though the small stack has already folded.

Don't use ICM against opponents who don't understand it. Against these types of opponents it would be a mistake to re-raise with weak hands here. Trying to put ICM pressure on opponents who don't understand the concept can be very costly.

Owning the Bubble as the Big Stack

If you are the big stack, you can make a lot of chips by "owning the bubble". An especially effective strategy is to keep putting pressure on the middle stack, using the short stack as leverage.

However, keep in mind that you can't do this in every spot. Before you decide to apply ICM pressure on the middle stack, as yourself these two questions:

  • What's your opponent's hand range and playing style?
  • Does your opponent understand ICM?
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