Multi-Table Tournament (MTT) Bubble Play

Bubble play is one of the most crucial points of a multi-table tournament (MTT). The Tip Top Fox walks you through this tricky spot and into the money 

Following on from our articles on Early Stage MTT Strategy and Mid-Stage MTT Strategy, this article deals with the optimal strategies for playing in a poker tournament as you near the money spots – otherwise known as the ‘Bubble’.

Bubble play is one of the crucial points of an MTT. One misstep here can result in all your hard work amounting to nothing. Should you be unlucky enough to bust out you will be leaving empty-handed. 

Being the bubble boy is not the end of the world. Busting on or around the bubble usually means you are playing correctly by applying pressure at the right times in an attempt to accumulate chips. It’s more profitable to go for the win as opposed to squeaking into a min-cash.

If you are lucky enough to be sitting on a monster chip stack during the bubble, then you need to be constantly pressuring the table by raising, three-betting or even going all-in in the correct spots – especially when you are in a spot against another big stack. Normally it is in one of those spots that the guy who has more guts wins the gold. The adage ‘who dares, wins’ is particularly apt here.

Piling on the Pressure

Talking about pressure; Be aware of who is playing tighter (or not playing) before the bubble bursts and attack them non-stop. Online, the easiest way to find these weak-tight players is to enter your opponents’ names into an online tournament resource like Official Poker Rankings or SharkScope

This will tell you who’s playing higher stakes than usual. Their results should give you a rough indication of how they play. An opponent with lots of minimum cashes has a habit of tightening up near the bubble and attempting to squeak into the money spots. You should punish these players at every available opportunity and attempt to constantly steal their blinds. Just be aware that ICM (independent chip modeling) is usually in the short-stacks favour here.

While their calling all-in range pre-flop will tighten up considerably around the bubble, so will their shoving range. Players like this are likely to have a fairly decent hand when they do shove. You should be pushing a much wider range to gain the maximum fold equity from those short stacks; An over-shove against a 22BB (big blind) stack is fairly standard here. This is because a normal open will likely induce them to three-bet re-steal if they are capable of doing so. 

Things can actually get quite complicated if you are sitting with an average stack; You are often too deep to open shove and are risking a lot to win a little. To be more specific, in a typical online MTT with a standard structure, an average stack is considered to be around 25-35BBs. However, your target is still to accumulate as many chips as possible without taking too many big risks.

Position is Paramount

During MTT bubble play position becomes even more important

Position plays a huge role when it comes to MTT bubble play, not just relative to the button, but relative to your other opponents. If an aggressive big stack is sitting to your left you can’t do much except tighten up until the bubble bursts. You can’t stand a lot of pressure should they choose to exert it – which, if they are a good player, they will – while they can afford to risk chips in marginal situations.

Conversely, if you are fortunate to have an aggressive big stack sitting on your right raising every hand, three-bet them more frequently as their opening range is extremely wide. At this point in the tournament, three-bet sizing is critical. 

Hands with good equity against a typical calling range such as suited aces and Broadway hands like king-queen are great to three-bet shove with a 25BB stack here, even if it’s a big over-shove. Not only do these hands have good equity against an aggressive big stack’s calling range, but you also have blockers reducing the chances of them actually holding a premium hand. 

For example, say you have an ace in your hand. The chance of your opponent holding pocket aces reduces by 50% as the number of ace-ace combinations falls from six to three. Don’t try to play post-flop against an aggressive big stack. Even in position with a good hand, you are just burning chips because of the pressure you are likely to receive post-flop. What are you going to do with ace-king or ace-queen if your opponent donk leads or simply shoves the flop when you miss? Better to move all-in pre-flop and take the dead money. Either that or hope your opponent makes a mistake and calls with a dominated hand. 

Surfing the Short Stack

Lastly, with a short stack, your options are fairly limited. However, this actually makes it the easiest stack size to play effectively. You can play close to perfect poker with a 10-15BB stack. ICM plays a huge role here. You should be calling with a much tighter range than you normally would, while your shoving range should remain unchanged. If anything it can be even wider, since in your opponent’s eyes you are shoving tighter because of the threat of the approaching bubble.

A word of warning – do not try to re-steal against other short stacks without a premium hand. The caveat to this is if you have evidence they will raise-fold to a three-bet. That or you have previous history with them where you have shown down a monster.

Okay, so that’s pretty much it in a nutshell and there are no hard and fast rules. Bubble play can be quite complicated and these are only some general pointers. In reality, each situation can be so different and table dynamics will play a big role during the bubble. As you play more and more MTTs, your experience will start to come to the fore and you will have a better idea about what to do in various situations. Until the next time, good luck at the tables. 

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