Exploiting the Money Bubble in Tournaments

In poker tournaments, the phase during the tournament just before players get into the money is called “the bubble” or the “money bubble”. It usually starts around twenty players away from getting you into the money. So let’s suppose the top 20 places get paid in a freeroll with 250 players. Once you are down to 40 players you will notice everyone is suddenly playing a lot tighter. If you’re playing a smaller field tournament, then it’s only a few players before the bubble bursts and the remaining players make it into the money.

During this phase of a tournament, many players will tighten up in order to sneak into the money, as they’ve been playing for a few hours at the very least, which provides a great opportunity for other players to build their stack without getting good cards. The theory is based on the fact that you should not be trying to sneak into the money, which only pays out a bit more than the tournament buy-in. You want to make the final table and give yourself every chance of winning the tournament, where the real money is to be made! Plus, you will also have bragging rights over your peers.

You can accomplish this by exploiting players remaining in the tournament who are playing too tight. It is going to be much easier stealing the blinds when players are tightening up too much and waiting around for other players to bust out. It’s usually pretty easy to figure out who the players are that are trying to sneak into the money, really the only time it’s not so easy to figure out is when you have been recently moved to a new table and know nothing about how the table is playing. They tend to be the ones who have a fairly small stack and are folding every hand. You might not even realize they’re at your table. They’re waiting for a big hand to shove all-in with.

Be observant though at the final table or when it’s closing in on the bubble, and don’t drop your guard. There is always the possibility that a short stacked player is getting increasingly frustrated and desperate to double up, and instead of waiting around for a good hand to move all-in with, then just become impatient, and shove with a garbage hand. I’ve seen this happen fairly often, but when you’re playing live, you can pick up this information. You don’t have this luxury playing online.

However, since your goal should be to go for the win, you want to start stealing their blinds because they’re literally giving them to you. Even if they happen to call your pre-flop raise, if they don’t catch a piece of the flop, they will let go of their hand, so a continuation bet on the flop will take it down a lot of the time.

The bigger the prize pool of the tournament, the tighter the players typically will get when approaching the bubble, as there is more money on the line and players are taking on more risk. Also, you don’t have to risk many chips to win these small pots that keep your chip stack very healthy. If the typical raise at your table is 3 big blinds, you will often succeed by betting only 2.5 big blinds! Once the blinds get really big, even a min raise will get the job done! Players are either going with their hand or they’re not, raising any more when the plan isn’t to commit your stack is just wasting chips when using this bigger sizing.

Although you can easily pick on the smaller stacks, generally you want to try and avoid big confrontations with the other large stacks unless they are also donating their chips by folding every hand, which is rarely the case, as they have chips to play with.

The major advantage of stealing blinds and being aggressive beyond accumulating chips is that you will eventually wake up with a big hand and because of your table image you will more then likely get paid off as players will be calling your raise/shove wider given your aggressive image.

All in all, the money “bubble” in poker tournaments, whether played online or in a brick-and-mortar casino is where the good players really shine and differentiate themselves from the competition. It’s such an important phase of the tournament where any mistakes you make can really cost you. As a result, it provides a great opportunity for aggressive players to build up their stack in order to make a run at the first place prize, which is always the ultimate goal when playing any poker tournament.

Also read this article about abusing the bubble of a SNG or MTT.