I was running a tournament once where a guy got dealt AA and trebled up. He proceeded to stuff tournament chips in his pockets and tried to leave for cash desk.
I explained to him that this was a tournament, and he had to stay until either he had no chips left, or nobody else had any chips left.
He wasn’t impressed, he didn’t understand how he could have won such a big hand and have nothing to show for it but a pile of plastic discs with £0 cash value.
Tournament poker is not the same as cash poker, we all say it all the time, but the fact that the chips have no fixed cash-value is a massively important distinction, and I can see many players at my level don’t understand why, so this strategy article is designed for beginner/intermediate players who don’t know what ICM means, and are making big calls, with medium holdings, late on in tournaments- this will help you.
So how much are my tournament chips worth? The old man’s logic that bangs about in cardrooms is that your tournament chips aren’t worth anything until you’re actually in the money, and while this makes sense, it’s a little bit basic.
Your tournament chips always have value, and this may be referred to as your current ‘tournament equity’. This value is not fixed, and it fluctuates as your stack size changes, and as runners are eliminated from the field.
Tournament equity is worked out using your current stack size, the prizepool distribution and the likelyhood of you winning one of those prizes from your current position. This is some pretty fancy maths, and frankly, I have not got the first clue how do to that maths.
ICM stands for Independant Chip Model, and that’s the name of the mathematical model that’s been developed to work out how much your current tournament chip stack is worth. It’s clever stuff, but like so much in poker mathematics, you don’t need to understand the whole theory, just what its principle means to you.
Okay… imagine this ridiculous situation (hypothesis is always a bit ridiculous, roll with it, it’s an example designed to help you understand a concept): There is a final table with 4 players and 3 prizes. All players currently have 10000 chips and there is £1000 to be won, paid as £500, £300, £200.
In this case, all players hold 25% equity of the total prize, or a cash value of £250.
ICM calculations do not account for a skill edge, or sick luck, so if all players have an exactly equal stack, the calulator will assume they will all go on to win the tournament the same amount of times. This does affect things slightly, but let’s get to grips with the basics before we start denigrating the details.
Now, as we know in tournaments, if someone goes all-in, I call them, and I beat them, they will be eliminated, and their chips will be mine; rack it up, bitches.
If that guy had the same number of chips as me, then I double my stack from 10k to 20k, which obviously means I double my tournament equity from £250 to £500, right?
In our hypothetical example, if I call a guy’s all in, and win, then I have doubled my chipstack, but with 3 players left, I will not have 50% tournament equity, just by virtue of having half the chips in play.
Why the hell not?
The most simple way of explaining it is that sometimes, I will spew off my chips, sometimes I’ll get bad-beated, and sometimes I’ll get outplayed. Just because I have half the chips in play right now, doesn’t mean I’ll win the tourney everytime, it doesn’t mean I’m guaranteed to take down the £500 first prize.
If I run the new numbers through the calculator, now 3 players, still £1000 to be won as £500, £300, £200 and now the stacks are 20k, 10k, 10k, my new tournament equity is £383.33 and the other two have £308.33 each. (This is not me working this out, play around with an ICM calc. It’s good, clean fun!)
WAIT A BLOODY MINUTE! I just made a £250 call, I stood to lose £250 of tournament equity, I made the call like a hero, I risked EVERYTHING and only won £383.33 of tournament equity back? What now?
That really doesn’t seem fair, and that’s cos it’s not.
Stop crying at the injustice, and let’s work out how this valuable information helps us.
In our final table, with 4 players, I have £250 of tournament equity. Then someone is all in and I have to decide whether to call. I look down and see pocket 77s. This guy is pretty loose-aggro, but not a maniac, he’s been opening pots quite regularly, but showing pairs and all the Aces, and I estimate that my 77s, would have about 50% pot equity against his total shoving range.
I have to call 10k to win 20k and I have 50% pot equity. Easy-peasy, I call the twat, right?
In a cash game, why not? Gamble, gamble, gamble. You double your money instantly if you win.
In a tournament, then it’s gonna be a ‘no’.
Remember, if you call and you win, you win £133.33 worth of tournament equity. If you call and you lose, you will lose £250, so you need to estimate that your current holding has much greater than 50% chance against the shover’s range, or you will be making a bad call (layman’s terms for -EV).
If this guy is a nut-case, and you know he’ll shove any unopened pot with any two, then you can consider you have a greater chunk of that pot-equity, and a call may become more reasonable. Understanding your opponent’s ranges is vital to making use of the ICM in late stage tournament decisions.
The key understanding here is that an action that is +EV in terms of winning tournament chips, may not be +EV in terms of winning cash, and this is really hard to wrap one’s head around, especially if you are principally a cash poker-player.
It is sometimes said that “a fold is always +EV in a tournament”; I think this is raw simplification, but the principle is sound. If you are eliminated from a tournament, you have 0% tournament equity, and that’s never good.
While you do not want to be blinded out, the ICM shows us that calling off your chips for a race, may actually be more -EV than folding in tournament play.
In late stage tourney play, I live by the mantra “call tight and push light”, and this is how you can grind your stack upwards. It can feel scary to 3bet shove with 8/9 suited, but you are now putting your opponents in a position where they need to decide whether AJ can really be said to hold 75% equity against your shoving range, as opposed to calling off with 77 because you “haven’t seen a hand in a while and it’s probably a race”.
I’ve attached a link to a ICM calculator that I use. I haven’t found one that works out equity for larger fields, which would be helpful as I play 3500+ runner tournaments. I’ve been applying the logic that I just scale up, but I’m not sure how sound that idea is, and if anyone has any further advice on that, I am all ears (and eyes, you can type it).
Understanding ICM is advanced strategy, and I don’t want to make beginner players sweat about yet another load of mathematical bullshit that makes poker boring; but sometimes a principle is important, and you only need the principle here.
Take this one thing from my basic Independent Chip Model Theory understanding-
In the late stages of a tournament, get your stack shoved in against habitual opening raisers with tighter continuation ranges, and DO NOT call off some guy’s all-in unless you think there is very high chance your hand has him totally steam-rolled. If you cannot apply this discipline, get back to the cash tables where every chip is exactly what it appears to be; tournament play requires a bit more imagination.