Bubble Strategy for Poker Tournaments

(This article is a follow up to "Middle Stages Tournament Strategy")

Tournament BubbleTo many tournament players, the bubble is a special time because it means all that hard work has almost paid off and it’s now time to get paid. After hours of grinding away and making difficult decisions, that initial investment is about to pay off. Great tournament players see the bubble a little differently. They simply see the bubble as one more opportunity on the way to taking first place and making the real money.

The “Increase Your Aggression” Strategy

90% of all tournament strategy on the internet tells you to amp up the aggression during the bubble in any MTT. The purpose is for you to increase your chip stack by stealing from all the players who have tightening up in the hopes of making it to the money-paying places.

The goal is to put yourself in a better position to win the tournament or at least make it to the final table. Barely making it through the bubble is not a winning strategy. For you to be a winning tournament player, you need to play for the win. The occasional big score is where all your tournament profits come from in the long run. The payouts are so skewed towards the final table that there’s really no point in playing to make it past the bubble.

By the time the bubble comes around, the blinds are so big that stealing them becomes the best way to build your chip stack. The blinds aren’t going to stop going up, either, so you need to use this opportunity to steal from all the players who have tightened up. That way, you’ll have a larger chip stack when the bubble breaks and have a better chance to place well in the tournament.

That’s All Correct, But…

Most tournament players are aware of the strategy we just discussed. You can safely bet that the majority of your opponents have typed in some form of the term “poker strategy” into Google at some point in the recent past. The strategy of stealing on the bubble isn’t exactly secret knowledge.

What Does This Mean For You?

It means that your opponents are aware of this strategy and are likely to adjust to it. Some of your more skilled opponents will know that when you come alive during the bubble, it’s because you have read the same strategy as they. Some of these opponents will then re-adjust their strategy to suit yours – namely they’ll attempt to steal your steals by putting in big re-raises.

The best way for you to continue to be productive during the bubble is to pay close attention to each of your opponents. You can tell which opponents know how to play the bubble and which ones don’t. You can then tailor your strategy to each specific opponent.

For example, you can tighten up against the aggressive players who try to steal your re-steals. That way you’ll have a nasty surprise for them the next time they try to steal one of your preflop raises. You can also watch how they react to re-steals. Some of these players will give up every time you 3-bet them before the flop.

4-Bet bluffing aggressive players is usually out of the question because the blinds are so large in comparison to the average stack size. Even a small 3-bet raise is usually enough to become pot-committed. In cash games, I would suggest the rare 4-bet bluff but in tournaments, it’s just not feasible.

Once you have the smart, aggressive players identified, you can then single out the weak, tight players. Against those players, you can use the same old strategy of stealing their blinds every chance you get.

Taken separately, these two approaches to dealing with different types of opponents are pretty simple. The difficulty is in using both approaches at the same table and not getting them all mixed up. Playing two different styles at the same table requires a great deal of effort and concentration. The good news is that if you’re willing to work hard, you will make a lot of money in MTTs.

Now that you know how to play the bubble, learn how to play the late stages.

More General Poker Tournament Strategy: