Poker Tournaments – Definitive Guide (2023)

  • 43 mins read

This is a complete guide to things you must do to have a better chance of doing well in poker tournaments. We cover different tournament types, incentives due to stack size and phase of the tournament, ICM, and deal making.

  • Obviously, you can never guarantee a win. But, you may be able to increase your chances of doing well by thinking about:
    • pick advantageous poker tournaments
    • understand stack size incentives
    • what about volatility?
    • what is future skill edge?
    • using the independent chip model
    • what to do in the different tournament phases
    • how to make a good deal
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What poker tournaments can I play?

Consider which format of the game will give you the best chance of doing well in poker tournaments. Formats include freezeouts, rebuys, reentries, bounties, or satellites – to name just a few. Also, holdem is not the only game that you can enter as a tournament. Other variants such as pot limit omaha may be available also.

tournament types

You really need to think carefully about all the various tournament types available to you.

Which are best for you to maximise your ROI? Of course, you should also consider if you could get a better ROI from cash games instead.

What are the differences?


In a freezeout tournament each player can buy in to the tournament only once. If they lose their chips they cannot get back into the tournament. The most well known poker tournament, the WSOP main event, is a freezeout tournament.

Rebuy and Reentry

In a rebuy or reentry tournament, an eliminated player has the chance to buy back into the tournament. Rebuy and reentry poker tournaments are not equivalent tournament types. In a rebuy tournament you do not have to pay the tournament fee again. However, in a reentry tournament you do. Clearly, tournament organisers have an incentive to make poker tournaments reentry rather than rebuy. In any given tournament, you have the option of unlimited rebuys/reentries, just one, or some other specified number. There will be a specified time limit after which no further rebuys/reentries are possible. Then the tournament will effectively become a freezeout.

Important considerations
  • You need to understand that rebuys, and reentries affect your ROI (return on investment). Many players who play small stakes poker tournaments do not seem to understand this. They want to gamble it up, hoping to build a big stack. If not they think they can always rebuy / reenter. This is already poor strategy. Doubling your stack (in a non winner take all tournament) does not double your tournament equity.
  • Having said that, don’t go the other way either. Some players are reluctant to invest any more money into the tournament, after their first buy in. If the tournament is a profitable tournament for you to enter in the first place, it is OK to invest more money. The fact you have lost your original stake is irrelevant, as this has already gone. There is no difference between buying into this tournament again, or entering a similar tournament in the future. Of course, you need to be honest with yourself as to if you are on have any unresolved tilt after your bust-out. If you are still on tilt you should consider not reentering.
  • Your aim is to play the tournament correctly, understanding your incentives, and then if you need to rebuy or reenter you should do so. This is if you don’t have unresolved tilt issues.


In a bounty tournament, you have a chance to win a prize for finishing in the top N position. In addition you will win a bounty for every player you knock out. For example consider a $300+$300+$60 bounty tournament. Normally $300 from each player will go into the main prize pool. Plus, each player would have a $300 bounty on their head. The other $60 is the tournament fee.

  • You stand to make real money immediately, for every player you knock out. Thus when calculating your EV for any decision that could get you a bounty, you must take this into account. Of course you need to balance this with your tournament incentives.

Satellite / Super Satellite

What is a satellite or super satellite?

Satellites and super satellites are popular tournament types. Many players feel they have a chance of winning a massive prize, for a relatively small amount of money.

A satellite tournament is one which gives a certain number of players an entry into a bigger tournament.

For example an WSOP main event seat costs $10,000. However 20 players could play a satellite, paying $500 each (plus any tournament fee) – 1 would win the seat. Or, 100 players could play the same satellite, and 5 players would win a seat. Sometimes, there is a small amount of the prize pool remaining which isn’t enough for a seat. The player who finishes immediately outside the seats, usually get all of this. Imagine 22 players entered the $500 (plus tournament fee) satellite, for a $10,000 WSOP main event seat. The winner would get the seat, and the 2nd placed player would usually win $1,000 in cash.

Look out for satellite poker tournaments, which guarantee a certain number of seats. If not enough players enter, the tournament has an overlay. This is great news for the participants.

Super satellites are poker tournaments which give you a chance to win a seat into the satellite. Usually this is for a tiny fraction of the cost of the eventual seat. Note, you have to navigate three poker tournaments to cash in the final one.

Important considerations
  • Understand that when you play a satellite you are paying rake twice. For example, imagine you wish to play a $6000 + $600 tournament, and you enter a $600 + $60 satellite. If you win your seat you have effectively paid $660 in rake. If you enter a super satellite, the problem becomes even bigger.
  • In a satellite, your only consideration should be to get a seat. If it’s a winner takes all satellite, ICM considerations are not necessary. You should look to maximise your chip EV decisions. If there are multiple seats available, your only consideration is to finish in one of those places. It does not matter whether you finish 1st or Nth (where N is the number of seats available). It also does not matter if you win your seat with one big blind left or are the chip leader, you get exactly the same prize. This means if you have a high probability of getting your seat at any given point, you do not want to take on volatility. This could means folding AA even if your opponent accidentally exposes his hand as 32o.
  • If you know total number of chips in play (in a freezeout tournament, it will be the starting stack multiplied by the number of players), and the number of seats available, you can calculate the end average chip stack that will be held by the players who get a seat by dividing total chips by total players. You can also use this information to estimate the end level of the tournament.

Best poker tournaments

best tournaments

A player can increase their average return on investment (ROI), by hand picking profitable poker tournaments.

What should you look for?

Low rake

Most of the money paid by players to enter poker tournaments usually goes into the prize pool. However, some money goes to the cardroom. How much this is can vary. Sometimes the split is clearly laid out for you, e.g. a $600 + $60 tournament will usually mean each player pays $660 to enter the tournament. Of this $600 goes into the prize pool, and $60 goes to the cardroom as a fee for organising the tournament. Other times the direct split isn’t shown, only the total buy-in. It will be stated that a certain percentage will be deducted from buy-ins as a fee. Even when a split is laid out (e.g. $600 + $60), there may be small print stating an additional percentage will be deducted from the prize pool.

The rake is the first thing you should look at when trying to identify profitable poker tournaments. If the rake is too high it may be impossible for even the most skilled players to have a positive ROI for the tournament.

Live poker tournaments usually have a much higher rake than online tournaments. This is totally understandable due to the increased costs of putting on live poker tournaments. For example staff costs (dealers, floor, security), physical venue hire, marketing expenditure to attract players etc. If a live tournament with higher rake is still more profitable than an online tournament with lower rake, this will not be an issue.

Unwinable poker tournaments

The absolute smallest live poker tournaments are sometimes totally unwinnable (in the long run) due to the huge rake. Anything more than 15% rake in live tournaments is something you should be concerned about. Some of the smallest live tournaments can even have 40% rake deducted. This is not really the cardroom’s fault. They may even be making a loss even with a huge percentage rake. This is because of fixed costs that don’t change whether the buy-in is small or large.

Weak or soft opponents

  • Weaker fields (compared to your skill level) generally make for more profitable poker tournaments. Note, it does not necessarily follow that a tournament with a higher buy-in (entry fee) attracts stronger players than a tournament with a lower buy-in. Also, look out for relatively softer live tournaments than similar online tournaments. We have an article on the subject of why live cash games are more profitable than online cash games (in general). Many of these reasons apply to live poker tournaments. Also, if a lot of players have qualified through satellites to the main tournament, the field is likely to be weaker than a tournament where few or no players have qualified through satellites.
  • One of the softest poker tournaments you could play (relative to the buy-in) is the WSOP main event (which has a $10,000 buy-in). This is despite the fact many of the world’s best players will be playing.
    • Most poker players are aware of and that many dream of playing in one day.
      • Many players will have qualified through satellites (including super satellites) or promotions.
      • Many players will have saved up from other income (i.e. a non-poker bankroll) as it is an life experience they cherish.
      • Players who do not necessarily put in much time studying or playing poker (they may have a career and/or family they are focused on), may (if they have the money) look to play this one event hoping for fame (no other poker tournament is covered as much in the media, including non-poker media) or fortune (the first prize is currently $10 million dollars).

Opportunities to use your superior skills

The more skills you have compared to the field (on average), the more you want to look for ways to be able to use your skills. The more opportunities you have to use your superior skills, make for generally more profitable poker tournaments.

Tournament Structures

You should take a detailed look at the tournament structure. Deeper average stacks (compared to the blinds), longer time at each blind level, and smaller jumps in the levels of the blinds, are beneficial for the more skilled player in that particular tournament. You do need to keep in mind, that if the tournament structure is better it will take longer to play the tournament on average, and especially if you are playing live poker (where you can’t multi-table) you have to consider the opportunity costs of your time. However, on the subject of opportunity costs look out for tournaments that allow late registration. It is sometimes extremely profitable to late register for tournaments. Using your time to do something more profitable, than playing the early levels of certain poker tournaments.

Sometimes, less good is better

Sometimes a less good structure is actually better for you, as the tournament is over quicker on average, and you can put in more volume (in other poker tournaments, or cash games). The less good that a structure is, the more likely that weaker players make it further in the tournament. This is obviously to your advantage as a strong player. In addition, there is less to learn (as you don’t have to think about complex deep stacked situations). Some online players specialise in multi-tabling turbo or hyper-turbo tournaments, putting in a great deal of volume.

Depending on your skill levels, you may actually not want the tournament structure to be too good, otherwise you may find that if you get into the later levels (where the money is being paid out) you are mainly playing with players better than you!

Look out for this trick

If you do want to play a deep structure, do watch out for poker tournaments that try and trick you with fancy names such as the ‘super duper mega deep stacked tournament’. A high absolute amount of starting chips alone, or a deep first level (e.g. 500bb or 200bb in the first level) alone, does not mean you are necessarily playing a good tournament. What is important, is how deep the average stacks will be throughout the entirety of the tournament.

Tournament organisers often try and trick players less in the know with a big absolute number of starting chips, and/or a big number of blinds in the first couple of levels, only to rapidly decrease the average big blinds in play as the levels go on. They can do this by leaving out several key levels that would be standard in other poker tournaments. We recommend you find and familiarise yourself with a great tournament structure as a benchmark. Then, look out for how many of these levels are missing in any tournament you are considering playing.

What are your tournament stack size incentives?

winning poker tournaments stack size incentives

In a tournament, you need to balance accumulating chips with surviving in the tournament. At shorter stacks accumulation trumps survival, whilst the opposite is true at larger stacks. In between, you need to balance these two incentives carefully. The BB numbers below assume a tournament with standard antes, but the numbers are certainly not set in stone.

Accumulation incentivised: 0-20 BB

You are generally looking to accumulate chips

…and are happy to take on volatility, as you want to try and build a bigger stack to put yourself in a position to do well in the tournament. Future skill edge takes a back seat. You should not be trying to find perfect spots, or passing up reasonable spots in the hope of getting a better spot. Such a spot may not come, and you will be blinded down.

However, you must consider if you are at an ICM pressure point

Are there immediate big pay jumps (such as near the bubble where payouts jump from $0 to maybe double the tournament buy-in, or near or at the final table when there may be steep pay jumps)? Then, you need to consider if survival in the tournament at the moment is more important, than accumulating chips at the moment. Sometimes, you will have to allow yourself to get blinded down to secure a minimum cash.

At less than 12BB you should be looking for opportunities to pushing your entire stack in. Otherwise, you should be folding. Pushing your entire stack maximises your fold equity, which if uncontested increases your fold equity the next time you push. This is since you will have a bigger stack, although of course the more times you push in a short period the less fold equity you may have if your opponents think you must have weak hands. If called, pushing your entire stack in ensures you get to realise all your equity. Should you win you will often get back more than double your previous stack. Putting in some of your stack, and folding, is not advised as you lessen your fold equity the next time you push (as you will have a shorter stack).

When you have more than 12BB, you are freed from push-fold mode. Instead, you can open to a normal size (then 3-bet or fold), and you can re-shove.

Balance incentivised: 21BB – 1.5x tournament average chips

You want to balance accumulation with survival. Avoid falling back below 20BB, whilst simultaneously trying to build a stack around 1.5x tournament average chips. You have additional tools at this stack size – such as 3-bet shoving.

  • You will want to consider when to take on volatility, and when not to.
  • Consider Future skill edge. You may want to pass up certain opportunities.
  • As always, consider if you are at ICM pressure point. For example anytime a significant pay jump is looming. If so, consider who you can put ICM pressure on, and who can put ICM pressure on others.

Survival incentivised: More than 1.5x tournament average chips

You should have the chips to put tremendous pressure on your opponents in many situation. This is the main reason you took risks with your survival before to accumulate this big chips stack. Chips attract more chips – you have lots of tools to build an even bigger stack, without necessarily crashing out of the tournament.

Where ICM is important – at big pay jumps (especially the bubble), you may be able to accumulate lots of extra chips. Players you cover (which could be everyone at your table) can’t afford to get involved with you, when there are short stacks that might bust on the table.

You want to remain in this category, if possible. You will need to be taking appropriate risks to remain here. Every time the blind level increases your chip stack is effectively cut down. There is absolutely no need to take on unnecessarily volatility. Every extra chip you gain is worth less than any chip you already had. If you do fall back down into a previous category whilst taking appropriate risks, don’t fret. You know exactly what your tournament stack size incentives are to try and do to try and get back here again.



One of the keys to success in tournaments, is understanding volatility incentives. When do you have incentives to take on volatility, and when to shy away from volatility?

What is volatility?

The more inclined you are to take on big possible swings (by committing a big proportion of your chip stack, where the chance of winning is far from certain), the more your willingness to take on volatility.

The main benefit of playing bigger pots, is the chance to accumulate a bigger chip stack. The main drawback is that you could be out of the tournament, or find your chip stack crippled to a point where it will be difficult to recover.

The less inclined you are to take on big possible swings (by only playing small pots in relation to your chip stack, or only playing big pots when you are extremely likely to win), the less your willingness to take on volatility. The main advantage is that you survive in the tournament, allowing you to use any future skill edge you may have versus your opponents. The main drawback is that you may not be accumulating the chips you need to give yourself the best chance of winning or doing well in the tournament.

Volatility is not the same as variance

When you play Holdem, you will encounter variance. This is due to the game rules. Generally a good strategy does not involve trying to control variance directly. Instead, you should have the appropriate bankroll to keep your risk of ruin low.

Volatility is in your control – it is your decision whether to play big pots, or small pots. In a cash game that you have a proper bankroll for, you should always be looking to make the highest chip EV decision. This is regardless of the volatility. In a poker tournament, a good strategy will involve actively trying to control the volatility depending on certain factors.

Tournament phases when volatility incentives are NOT in your favour

  1. From the start of the tournament, to when you are far away from the bubble. This is as long as you do not have a short stack. This could be the pre-ante levels, or levels where re-entry is allowed, in certain tournaments. Doubling up does not double your equity in the tournament, but busting reduces your equity to zero.
  2. On the bubble. If you have a short stack on the bubble, your main incentive is to try and survive and make it into the money. This will be a massive pay jump from $0, to whatever the min-cash is. Thoughts of trying to build a big stack to win the tournament are not as important (which will be difficult if you are short stacked), as thoughts of surviving. Even if you don’t have a short stack, on the bubble you are not looking to take on volatility. For example a big stack should rarely be clashing with another big stack. But, of course big stacks should put pressure on medium and short stacks).
  3. Approaching the final table. Your main incentive is to make it to the final table. There you can win the biggest percentage of the prize pool.

Tournament phases when volatility incentives are in your favour

  • Between (1) and (2) above. Having a big stack when the bubble approaches, can help you accumulate lots of chips on the bubble. This is even more important when the bubble is likely to last for a long time. As soon as antes kick in, or the re-entry period is over, it is usually time to start increasing volatility to start accumulating chips.
  • Between (2) and (3) above. As soon as the bubble bursts, there will likely be lots of smaller stacks left who have been hanging on. Also, as the pay jumps will likely be flat for a long while, other players will be incentivised to try and double up here to try and build a big stack. You need to embrace volatility here, and try and build the biggest stack possible to try and win the tournament. If you get eliminated, it doesn’t matter as much as you would not have won much more for surviving a few extra positions. However, if you do get a bigger stack, you might be able to win the tournament.
  • On the final table. Your goal is to win the tournament.

Your stack size affects your volatility incentives

  • When you have 20BB or less, you are generally looking to take on more volatility as accumulating chips is more important than tournament survival. This is expect at ICM pressure points.
  • When you have more than 1.5x the tournament average chips, you aren’t looking to take on unnecessary volatility. You have the tools to win more chips without exposing yourself to unnecessary volatility.
  • In between, these stacks you have to pick your spots carefully. You want to try and move to more than 1.5x tournament average chips, whilst at the same time trying to avoid falling blow 20BB.

Other things to consider

  • Is ICM important? ICM when there are imminent big pay jumps (such as on the bubble, on the final table). When there are no imminent pay jumps such as from the start of the tournament to pre-bubble, or when pay jumps are relatively flat (usually after the bubble), you don’t need to be thinking about ICM.
  • What about your future skill edge? Is taking on more volatility in a spot a good idea, because your opponents are better than you, and building a bigger stack gives you more chance to do well versus them? Is taking on less volatility in a spot a good idea, because if you survive you can use your skill edge against your weaker opponents?

Future Skill Edge (FSE)

future skill edge

A player has a future skill edge (FSE), in a poker tournament, if on average he or she will be able to make better decisions than his opponents during the rest of the tournament.

The better you are at implementing a strategy superior to your opponents (on average), the more your future skill edge will be relative to your opponents. Of course it is possible, that in a given tournament it is your opponents (and not you) who have a future skill edge.

If you have a FSE in a tournament, sometimes you will NOT want to take the highest chip EV decision.

When future skill edge is most important

  • The beginning and the end of the tournament is when you should be most thinking about future skill edge.
    • We expect you are entering poker tournaments where you believe you have a skill edge over the average field. If not, why are you entering the tournament?
    • The bigger your edge over the field (i.e. the softer the tournament) the more you don’t want to get eliminated unnecessarily early on.
    • The closer you are to the end of the tournament, you can see exactly what you are up against. You can who is left (you may have some knowledge of some of the remaining players), what stacks sizes they have etc. As soon as the final table starts, you know the exact positions of each player (which will not change). On the final table, you should be able to have a great idea of whether you or your opponents have FSE. When there are two or three tables left, whilst there are more unknowns, you should still be able to make some FSE assumptions.
  • When you have a deep stack, and the blinds in the tournament are rising slowly (so your stack will remain deep), FSE is more important than if this wasn’t the case.

When future skill edge is least important

  • In the middle of the tournament, future skill edge is relatively less important (i.e. your focus should be on other incentives). This is true on the bubble, and during the fast eliminations after the bubble.
  • If you are relatively more skilled than your opponents, but currently possess a shallow stack, or the blinds in the tournament are rising fast such that stacks are getting shallower and shallower fast, FSE isn’t as important than if this wasn’t the case (or important at all).

Do not consider alone

When making a tournament decision where you are considering deviating from chipEV remember to consider ICM, volatility, and future skill edge incentives together. How important each of these incentives are will vary on your stack size, and the current phase of the tournament.

ICM (Independent Chip Model)

poker icm

In a cash game scenario, if you won all the chips at the table, you would have won all the money at the table. However, this is not the case in poker tournaments, hence the need for the independent chip model or ICM.

What is the independent chip model?

The Independent chip model (ICM) converts tournament chip stacks, to real money equities. It assigns a $ (or £, €, etc.) value to the current chips stacks.

For any given player, these real money equities are worked out by taking the probability of that player finishing in each of the paid spots in a tournament, and multiplying this probability by the prize allocated for that spot – these are then added together.

Why calculate ICM for tournament play?

When you are playing cash game poker, your chips are worth exactly their stated amount. Winning $500 of chips, is worth $500 to you. You could stop playing, and cash these chips out at any time. Winning $1,000 of chips is worth twice as much as winning $500 chips etc.

In a poker tournament (where the prize pool is split between multiple positions), chips are not worth a linear amount. This is clear as winning all the chips, does not get you the entire prize pool. You only win the 1st place prize, which could be a small percentage of the entire prize pool.

The chips you add to your stack, as not worth as much as the chips you already have. Doubling up in a tournament, does not double your equity in a tournament. Your last chip is the most valuable. Once you lose this you will be eliminated from the tournament.

The reason why doubling up in a tournament, does not double your equity, is that the equity gained by doubling up is spread (not necessarily evenly) amongst the remaining players.

When to use the independent chip model

Deal making

ICM is often used for tournament deal making. For example, where the remaining players left in a poker tournament might want to end the tournament immediately, but want to allocate the remaining prize pool fairly amongst themselves. It should be clear from the explanation below, why allocating the prize pool as a percentage of chips each player will not be fair.

All-in situations

ICM can be used when considering shoving, calling a shove (or re-shoving over an all-in). ICM does not need to be considered when you are far away from the money. When pay jumps are important, ICM should be considered in your decision making. For example, ICM is usually really important on the bubble, as the difference between bubbling (i.e. finishing just outside the money) and min-cashing, is usually huge in $ amounts (finishing just outside the money is worth $0, min-cashing can be worth double your buy-in in many poker tournaments). ICM is also important in final table situations, where there are massive pay jumps between different positions.

Imagine a situation where there are four players left in a tournament, with no antes. Three players get paid. Imagine one has a 1bb stack left but doesn’t face the blinds for two hands (so he could fold 2 hands without being eliminated). The other three players all have 20bb stacks. If one of the 20bb stacks went all-in, and got called by another 20bb stack – as long as the hand wasn’t a tie, one of the players would get eliminated and end up with nothing. The 1bb stack would be in the money, without having to do anything. Big stacks clashing, when there is a small stack at the table, often indicates an ICM mistake has been made.

On a table, imagine there are big stacks, medium stacks, and small stacks. The big stacks can put pressure on the medium stacks. The medium stacks cannot get involved light versus the big stacks, whilst the small stacks are still in the tournament.

Situations where ICM does not apply

Winner takes all

ICM does not apply in a winner takes all poker tournaments (i.e. first place gets all the prize pool). Here, equities are the same as cash games. If you get all the chips, you get all the money.


ICM no longer applies when you get heads-up in a tournament. This is because once you are heads-up, you are only playing for the difference between the 1st and 2nd prizes. So, there is effectively only one prize effectively in play.

If your opponents don’t understand ICM

If your opponents are not aware or don’t care about ICM, they can hurt your equity and their equity at the same time. The other players not involved will benefit. We recommend you think carefully about what you will do in such situations. You will likely come across these situations frequently in small/medium stakes live, or small stakes online poker tournaments.

For example, imagine three players remain in a tournament. One is a really short stack, but you and another player have bigger stacks. You have found a situation where you can shove a relatively weak hand first into the other bigger stacked opponent at the table. Knowing ICM means they can’t call you without an extremely strong hand, without damaging their own equity.

However, imagine you know from observation they will just consider chipEV, then you will need to shove less wide. The fact that these players are ignoring ICM, means they are likely weak players and you are in a good tournament overall, and even though you have to give up something by not shoving as wide there are plenty of other ways to punish them (or that you have already been able to punish them).

Limitations of the independent chip model

ICM looks at the current situation in the game only. It does not consider who will be in the blinds in the following hands, or future skill edges.

Also, as well as ICM incentives, you should also bear in mind volatility incentives.

Tournament phases

tournament phases

Tournament phases can affect your tournament incentives.

  • Unlike a cash game, you may be looking to control your volatility (and not necessarily take the highest chip EV decision) depending on what phase of the tournament you are in.
  • In some phases, your potential future skill edge will mean you prioritise survival in the tournament over chip accumulation.
  • Although ICM applies throughout any non-heads up tournament that is not winner takes all, there are certain phases where ICM pressure points are at their highest.

OUT of the money tournament phases

OUT1 (Deeper stacks)

Key factors
  • Average stacks sizes will resemble deep, or at least non-shallow, cash games.
  • Some (but not necessarily all) of these levels won’t have an ante, again akin to cash games.
  • Hopefully you are entering poker tournaments where you believe you have a skill edge over the field. As such you don’t want to be taking on any unnecessary volatility.
  • Doubling your stack won’t double your equity in the tournament.
Skip this phase?

If the tournament allows late registration, you need to consider whether you should skip this phase altogether, and start phase OUT2 with the tournament starting stack. This decision should be made by considering the opportunity costs of playing in this phase versus doing something else. For example, maybe there are cash games you could be playing instead, where you are profitable. Or maybe, if this tournament is likely to go on for several days. So, a little bit of rest will help lessen mental fatigue later on. You won’t miss much by sitting out this phase.

You may be wondering if you will miss out on easy money from the weakest players if you miss this phase (after all, won’t the weakest players be eliminated first?) – this is not necessarily the case. The weakest players may also register late (their reasons for doing so may not be the same as yours). Also, as stated before you won’t be looking to take on unnecessary volatility in this level, so you won’t necessarily be able to punish the weak as much as you would do in cash games.

Other considerations

Another thing to consider is if the tournament is a rebuy or reentry tournament, how this will affect play in this phase. Usually if the buy-in is on the lower end, and players can rebuy or reenter, you may see a lot of volatile play from many of your opponents. Whilst you are not looking on taking on any unnecessary volatility, it is still important to look for spots which are too good to pass up. This may be true even if iy means putting your tournament life in danger.

Your less knowledgeable opponents don’t understand that buying in multiple times in a tournament, has a massive impact on their ROI. This does not mean you should never renter or rebuy into a tournament. Infact, if the tournament was appropriate for you to enter in the first place, there is absolutely nothing wrong with reentering or rebuying (providing you are not on tilt, from busting out). However, you are not looking to gamble in this phase and then renter if it doesn’t work out. This is what several of your bad opponents may be doing, in a low buy-in reentry or rebuy tournament.


The exact transition between this phase and the next will vary from tournament to tournament. Look out for average stacks being reduced from deep or medium stacked cash game style stacks, to an average stack size more associated with poker tournaments. Often (but not always) the transition will be at the time that the late registration period is over.

OUT2 (Prepare for the bubble)

Your main goal in this phase is to chip up as much as possible, so that you can put ICM pressure on your opponents on the bubble. Future skill edge is important, however you will not be shying away from volatile spots that will give you a chance to chip up.


The transition between this phase and the next, is when players start playing as if they are on the bubble. This could be when hand for hand play begins.

OUT3 (Bubble)

You are about to experience a pay jump from $0 to double the buy-in (sometimes more than double, sometimes less). This is an infinite pay jump. Your main goal in this phase is avoid elimination. Also, look for opportunities to pick up easy chips from other players you can threaten with elimination (without fear of getting eliminated yourself).

What you do will depend on your relative chip stack compared to everyone else, and also those on your table. If you have a really short stack, thoughts of building a stack to win the tournament should be set completely aside. Your only goal is to survive the bubble. With a large stack, you should be putting massive pressure on shorter stacks. Not even the middle stacks can take you on, if you could eliminate them, whilst there are short stacks present. If you have a middling stack, whenever bigger stacks have already folded, you can put massive pressure on the remaining players.


The transition between this phase and the next is the bubble bursting. Everyone remaining in the tournament will get a payout.

IN the money tournament phases

ITM1 (Flat pay jumps)

After the bubble has burst, what will happen is that there will be several short stacks (who held on for dear life trying to survive the bubble) or shorter stacks. Although as we are in the money, there will be pay jumps from here on in, typically in this phase the pay jumps are extremely flat. This means the difference between immediate elimination, or several places higher, is not that much.

The short stacks will be looking to get it all-in asap, to try and get a workable stack. Other shorter stacks, will also be looking to get it all-in, to give them the best chance of taking a shot at winning the tournament. As such, even if you have a medium or bigger stack, you need to embrace any volatility. Thoughts about your future skill edge is not important here. Rather, your main aim is to try and get a stack to put pressure on others in the next phase.


The transition between this phase and the next is when the pace of the pay jumps increase. That is to say when hey are no longer as flat.

ITM2 (Bigger pay jumps)

Here pay jumps start to matter, as they are no longer flat. Some players are unduly concerned about making the next pay jump, and can be punished. Hopefully, you built up a bigger stack in phase ITM1, so you can put ICM pressure on others, and not have ICM pressure be put on you. You will be starting to get an idea of exactly who is left in the tournament. As such you will be able to start to define your future skill edge. You are not looking to take on unnecessary volatility in this phase.


The transition between this phase and the next is when we get to the final table in large field poker tournaments. Or, when we get to the final few players in smaller field tournaments.

ITM3 (Biggest prizes up for grabs)

The biggest pay jumps (and most of the tournament’s prize pool) are here. Do whatever it takes to win. Take on volatility (bearing in mind any future skill edge considerations, which you should be able to define perfectly with so few players left). Understand when you can put ICM pressure on your opponents, and when they can put ICM pressure on you. Consider, making or accepting an ICM based deal if your opponents are better than you.

Other inflection points

The above tournament phases will usually each consist of several levels. Some levels within a particular phase will play out differently to others.

Varying antes

Some tournaments have varying antes as a fraction of the big blind. Sometimes you may be paying a relatively big ante. Sometimes the ante may be relatively small. All other things being equal, you are looking to take on the most volatility in the higher ante levels, and the least in the lower ante levels.

Varying blind increases

The exact number of tournament chips a player holds is irrelevant. What is important is the number of big blinds they hold. Every time the blinds go up, chips stacks are effectively cut. Blinds do not necessarily go up consistently through the tournament. Sometimes chip stacks can be cut by 50%, 33%, 25%, 20% etc. Think about how this will impact you and your opponents (especially in a fast structure), especially when there are back to back big increases in a fast structure.

End of day

In a multi-day live tournament, even though the end of day does not matter, some players are unduly concerned with making it through to the following day. Think about how you can punish them (usually they will be playing extremely tight). If many players are doing this, there is effectively an imaginary bubble situation here. Alternatively some players, who have a shorter stack nearing the end of the day, will be taking on unnecessarily volatility. They don’t fancy coming back the following day, unless they have a decent stack. Again, take advantage.

Tournament deals

winning poker tournaments deals

Once there are a few remaining players in a tournament, you may be proposed a deal by your opponent(s). Or, you may wish to propose a deal yourself.

Tournament deals may involve ending the tournament immediately and splitting the prize pool in a certain way. Or, perhaps guaranteeing each remaining player a certain amount of the prize pool and playing for the rest.

A truly fair deal involves splitting the prize pool, according to the exact equities each player has in the tournament. The problem is working out the exact equity each player has in a tournament is difficult.

Chip chop tournament deals

How it works

  • This involves dividing up the remaining prize pool, according to the percentage of chips each player has.
  • Imagine there are three remaining players in a tournament. One holds 55% of the chips, another 35% of the chips, and the other 10% of the chips. The remaining three prizes are $5000 for 1st, $3000 for 2nd, and $2000 for 3rd. This means the prize pool remaining is $10,000. The prizes will be $5,500, $3,500, and $1,000.

The problem

  • You should already be able to see the massive problem with the chip chop model. In this example, the chip leader ends up getting more than the 1st prize (which is the maximum he can win if the game continues without a deal). The player with the lowest stack ends up getting less than the 3rd placed prize (which he is guaranteed if he doesn’t accept a deal).
  • We made up the numbers in the example above, to best make our point.
  • However, regardless of this a chip chop deal will usually favour big stacks over small stacks. It will allocate too much equity to the big stacks, and too little equity to the small stacks.
  • The reason for this, is that it does not take into account the diminishing marginal utility of chips in a tournament. Your last chip is the most valuable (as it keeps you in the tournament). Every chip you add on is less valuable than any chip you already have.

Heads up exception

A chip chop deal will be fair (assuming no skill edges) when 2 players remain in a tournament. Allocate each player the amount of the 2nd place prize, and divide up the remaining amount in the prize pool (which is the difference between 2nd and 1st place prize) according to the chip chop method. This is because there are no ICM structure, as you are only playing for one prize – the difference between first and second. A chip chop deal is also fair, if it’s a winner takes all tournament, as again there are no ICM concerns in this structure – as getting all the chips wins you all the prize pool (i.e. similar to a cash game).

Equal save tournament deals

An equal save involves locking up an equal share of the prize pool for the remaining players, and playing for the rest. The reason some players decide on this is that when the money gets significant to them, they would rather lock up a certain amount than endure the effects of variance. The problem with this is that the more any players have others out-chipped at the time of the equal save, the worse the deal it is for them.

Exact ICM chop

An exact ICM chop involves applying a mathematical model to decide on how to allocate the remaining prize pool. ICM considers the payout structure of the tournament, and the current stacks. ICM chops will usually produce fairer outcomes than the chip chop method. This is because it takes into account the diminishing marginal utility of chips in a tournament. An ICM chop is the most common method of deal making today. Many players know ICM chops are fairer than chip chops.

  • ICM chops, whilst fairer than chip chops, are not without their problems.
  • This is due to the fact ICM is a mathematical model. It takes many important things into account, but not necessarily everything.
  • One of the key things it does not take into account, is future skill edge. If you have more strategy knowledge than your opponents, and will be able to apply that knowledge, an ICM chop will underestimate your equity (and overestimate their equity).
  • Note, it’s not enough to have greater knowledge of strategy if you can’t take advantage of it.
    • For example, shallow stacks, fast blind increases, if the players on your left have bigger stacks than you and are loose aggressive, will make it difficult to use your superior knowledge of strategy.
    • On the other hand deep stacks, slow blind increases, players on your left with smaller stacks than you that are tight/passive, will mean you can use your superior strategy knowledge.
    • Also, if you are the chip leader (and have a good chance of maintaining this), you may have great ways to carry on building your stack that ICM will not take account of.

Modified ICM chop

If you truly have a future skill edge in the tournament, you can suggest a modified ICM chop, where you get more than the ICM numbers suggest. This will of course come at the expense of players with less future skill edge who will get less than the ICM numbers suggest.

Things to think about if offered a deal

  • If you are offered a deal in a tournament, or are considering proposing a deal, you need to first work out your share according to ICM. Free ICM calculators are available online. If you have a device that can access the internet that you carry with on the table, you should have one bookmarked ready to use.
  • Deals are usually only on the table if there are just a few players left. It takes less than a minute to type in the remaining chip stacks and payout structures into the calculator, to get the results.
  • If there is no skill differences between the remaining players, or if any skill difference is unlikely to have too much effect, then the ICM numbers are the fair way to proceed for everyone. This will be the case if the stacks are shallow, or the blinds are increasing fast.
  • Of course, if you can then get your less knowledgeable opponents to accept a deal that is better for you than them (such as a chip-chop deal when you are the big stack), from a purely monetary standpoint that is great for you, and bad for them.
  • However, you may have moral objections to offering a deal you know is not fair.
  • If there are skill differences between the players, and these skill differences can be used in the remaining tournament (e.g. stacks are still shallow, and blinds will not go up fast), then if you are the more skilled player you should not accept the ICM deal, unless it is modified to take account of your future skill edge.
  • If you are out-skilled, and your opponents will be able to use their better skills on you, you should bite their hand off if you are offered an ICM deal.

Any reason to not accept a fair deal?

A reason not to accept a fair deal, would be to get tournament experience. You will not always have the opportunity to play in the last few spots of a tournament. This could be a great learning experience.

Should you accept a slightly bad deal?

Opportunity costs
  • A reason to accept a slightly bad deal, is if there is opportunity costs with carrying on playing in the tournament. For example imagine you are playing a live tournament. Your opponents will only accept a deal that will cost you a certain amount of dollars in equity. However, this tournament might take a long time to finish.
    • However, there is a great live cash game you want to play that is currently running, and you have spotted some whales, so you want to join asap.
    • Alternatively, in a live tournament series, let us imagine it is late at night, and you have an important tournament the following day. It might be better to sacrifice a few dollars of equity, to be more refreshed for the following day.
Non-monetary prize
  • If there is a non-monetary prize, added to the prize pool, such as a seat to another tournament, and your opponent values the seat at the exact amount it costs, but you would rather have real money, a fair deal might be great for you if you can get him to take the seat and money as part of his payoff, whilst your payoff is all money. It might even behove you to take an ever so slightly unfair deal for you, to get all money without committing to playing another future tournament (or having to sell the seat, if you are unlikely to be able to sell it for its for value).
    • This works in reverse! You may be able to get a good deal, if one of the players values something non-monetary (e.g. the title from being the winner, or an actual trophy). They may offer you a better deal than ICM suggests in order to become the winner or get the trophy.