Heads-up poker expert “Jungleman” Dan Cates explains the critical importance of ICM when short-handed in a poker tournament. Paul Phua puts his video interview into context
One of the most common mistakes made by less experienced players in poker tournaments is to play too tight, for too long. You will often see a player who waits patiently for premium hands, doubles up perhaps with pocket Aces, but then in the later stages finds that he has only a small stack compared with the other players. He has failed to adjust to the rising blind levels, and to the fact that as other players bust, their chips are dispersed among the surviving players.
Most tournaments start to pay out when only about 15% of the field is left. By this stage, the average stack will be eight times the starting stack! So the player who has merely doubled up is a long way behind. For advice on adjusting to the blind levels, see Sam Trickett’s poker tournament tips.
“Jungleman” Dan Cates explains the importance of ICM
The problem becomes even more acute if you reach the final table, and end up short-handed. The standard advice for short-handed poker is to play a far wider range of starting hands. King-high, for instance, becomes a strong starting hand against just two other players, when neither is likely to have an Ace.
But is that really the only consideration? How should you play when short-handed in a poker tournament? Jungleman (Dan Cates) is one of the best heads-up poker players in the world. In this exclusive video interview for the Paul Phua Poker School, he explains the critical importance of ICM in determining whether to play tight or aggressively.
How ICM affects short-handed poker
ICM is short for “Independent Chip Model”, and it’s a mathematical formula for working out how much your tournament chips are really worth. This is a key concept in tournament poker which does not apply in cash games.
As Jungleman (Dan Cates) explains, “In a cash game if you have $10,000 on the table you have $10,000, but in a tournament that’s not true. In a tournament, if you’re pretty short your chips are actually worth more that what they are, if you figured it out compared to the buy-in at the tournament, because you can still cash for higher than last place, so existing in the tournament matters quite a bit, and that’s why play changes more and more when you’re short-handed.”
In most tournaments, the longer you survive, the greater your payout is. So if you are short-stacked it can often make sense not to risk your chips, but to wait for other players to bust out, causing you to jump automatically up the pay ladder.
“As an extreme example,” explains Jungleman, “if there are 26 players left and 25 players cash for $100,000, you really don’t want to be the one that busts.”
“Jungleman” Dan Cates on why ICM leads to polarised playing styles
The result is, says Jungleman (Dan Cates), that playing styles become polarised in the late stages of a poker tournament final table. Shorter stacks should play extra-tight if there are other stacks that are similarly short. Dominating stacks, on the other hand, should be throwing their weight around to capitalise on the fact that the others will be playing tight.
“A large stack is quite an advantage,” says Jungleman, “particularly if there are one or two short stacks in short-handed, because the medium stacks would really not like to bust if one player is very, very likely to bust. So a large stack can play very loosely and very aggressively against these players that have little choice but to wait until someone who has one big blind is about to bust.”
Conversely, Jungleman says, “If you’re the medium stack in those situations you really just want to play very, very tight and wait for, like, a guy who just really has very little chance of moving up to bust, because if you bust yourself, it’s quite a mistake because of how the pay jumps work.”
A guide to ICM in tournament poker
- ICM is short for “Independent Chip Model”.
- It is a mathematical formula for assigning a cash value to your tournament chips.
- This cash value will vary based on your stack size, the remaining players’ stack sizes, and the prize pool distribution.
- ICM is very complicated to work out, but a number of ICM calculators are available online.
- ICM is often used when the final players in a poker tournament do a deal to split the prize pool, in order to work out what share each should get.
- ICM can also be used to inform decisions as to what hand range you should be playing with different stack sizes.