Bubble Play in Texas Holdem Tournaments
When listening to players talk before or after tournaments, I can always gain a bit of knowledge about a future opponent by hearing what they have to say about getting into the money. Next time you’re in a tournament and you hear people talking afterwards, listen for the easy signs of an amateur or weekend poker player. Comments such as “I’m not here to just place in the money. I’m here to win it all”. Or, “there’s 1st place and everyone else is tied for last”. That’s fine and dandy for the weekend warrior type player, but if you want to play in tournaments regularly, or want to become a professional poker player, you better learn how to play yourself past the bubble and place in the money in tournaments. Placing in the money should be your goal and finding a way not to be the “bubble boy”, or first position away from the money is the thing you have to master.
The major factor in how you play and whether you get into the money is going to be your chip count. To get into the money you have to be able to make very solid decisions and be able to change your approach very quickly when you start to get close to the bubble. Your chip count is going to determine if you can try and coast your way into the money or if you are going to have to try and steal some blinds or take a final stand. There are really only three categories you might fall into when approaching the bubble time of a tournament. You could be the chip leader or close to it. You could be around the middle of the pack. And finally, you could be short stacked. It’s even possible to go from one to the other within just a few minutes. So how do you deal with these different positions toward the end of a tournament?
If you are one of the chip leaders, your best bet is going to be to let other players take themselves out. You really don’t want to risk your chips unless you really have to or you have the guaranteed nuts. Being in this situation does not happen that often, so when it does, you MUST finish in the money. Play hands for cheap and get out of them if you don’t hit the flop strong. Also, stay away from trying to bust short stack without decent cards. Sometimes you will have to play a short stack with an inferior hand due to their chip size and pot odds, but otherwise, you need to stay away from trying to bust the short stacks with that 7-5 offsuit. You really should finish in the money at least 95% of the time when you are a chip leader with just a few spots to go to get to the money.
If you are in the middle of the pack, you’ve most likely been playing a good game throughout. Continue doing what you are doing. You can still afford to be choosy in which hands you get involved in. Short stacks are going to have to take some chances. Try and let them play themselves out of the tournament or get caught in a hand with a chip leader. Again, getting into the money is the key, even if you have to sneak your way in un-noticed by not playing a hand. You should be able to get in the money over 50% of the time when you are in the middle of the pack with just a few spots to go to get into the money. The times you don’t make it should be times when someone catches a lucky river card or you go heads up with a short stack that you think is trying to steal your blinds.
The short stack is obviously the toughest spot to be in. It’s going to take some really tough play and a little bit of luck to get you out of this situation. One thing you need to do is pick your spot and take a stand. A key to determining how quickly you need to take your stand are the blinds and antes. Determine how many orbits you can go without playing a hand before being blinded out. Don’t wait until you are getting blinded out and do not take your stand when a chip leader is on the big blind and you don’t enough chips to force him to fold.
You really have to pay attention to your position when you are the short stack. Try and go all-in with a pretty strong hand pre-flop when you have other short or close to short stacks behind you. Your best bet to get out of your position is going to be to steal a couple of blinds or double up off of another desperate short stacked player. If you can get out of this situation and into the money over 10% of the time, you are doing well.
The above are some general guidelines for bubble play. Each tournament will have its own unique players and there are times where you will have to deviate from the above guidelines in order to make the money. Naturally, people play tournament poker for the big payoff when they win an event. However, if you are a regular tournament player or poker pro, making the money will help to offset the cost of playing. Remember, tournament poker has a lot of variance and even the best players only make the big money in a relatively small percentage of tournaments they play. Increasing your odds of making the money in events will not only put more money in your pocket, but give you a better chance of winning more events.