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Bubble Play Strategy

Texas Holdem Bubble Play
We all know this moment in a poker tournament. It’s the moment that our palms start sweating, every player’s heart rates increase, the old men start wandering around looking for short stacks, and the good players turn up the heat. We’re talking about the bubble of a Texas hold’em poker tournament. The next few people that bust out will get zero dollars, and then everyone remaining in the tournament will be guaranteed to make their money back, plus a little bit of profit. It can be one of the most rewarding times of the tournament or one of the most disheartening, depending on how you decide to play it.

In this guide, we want to do our best to ensure that the bubble is a profitable and happy time for you. We don’t want you to be the guy or gal that has to make the depressing walk back to your car or hotel room with no money in your pocket. While we can never guarantee that you won’t bubble a tournament in the future, we can guarantee that our tips and strategies are going to help you play more optimally next time around. This is going to better your chances of making the money, as well as increase your chances of winning the whole tournament.

How Important Is Making the Money?

We’re not going to sit here and preach to you that making the money is not that important. That would be silly. Of course, it is important that you make some money rather than making no money. What we are going to preach to you, though, is that if you’re overvaluing the min-cash (just making the money), then you may be doing yourself and your financial bottom line a disservice.

Here’s why: if you’re worrying too much about just making the money, you’re going to be playing sub-optimally in the bigger picture. When you are too concerned about not bubbling, you make decisions that might better your chances of squeaking into the money, but lower your chances of winning the tournament. Too many players adopt the mentality that they are going to tighten down and make improper decisions until they get into the money, and then they’re going to “turn it on” and start playing properly.

The problem is this: while you’re sitting there tightened down and making decisions aimed at making the money instead of winning the tournament, the good and great players are making decisions to try to win the tournament. They know that the min cashes are not going to help their bottom line much, but the times they win the tournament or finish at the final table will have a profound effect. They would much rather give up a few min cashes to give themselves a few better shots at winning the entire tournament.

The takeaway here is that you need to be focused at all times on winning the tournament. You need to be making the decisions that will give you the best chance to accumulate chips and win the tournament. That being said, there’s no reason to go crazy on the bubble and punt your tournament life just because you think it’s strategically correct.

For example, here’s a hand we’ve seen play out in other forms many times on the bubble. This hand specifically comes from a $1k buy-in WSOP event. The tournament was a few players from the money, and the player in the cut-off opens with a 28 bb stack to 2.5bb with QQ. The player on the button, who is an aggressive and good player, 3-bets the pot to 7bb. The action folds back to the player in the cut-off, who is left with a decision.

The player knows that the aggressive player is most likely just picking on them because it’s the bubble. They know that their pocket queens should be way out in front of this players range. They know that the optimal play is to shove their hand all in, but they decide incorrectly to just call. They do this because they are scared of bubbling. They figure they can slow things down and control the hand a bit more if they just take a flop. They know this is strategically incorrect, but they think it is necessary because they are on the bubble.

The flop comes out A-9-4. The cut-off player with the queens checks, and the player on the button fires out for about half pot. The cut-off player sighs and folds their pocket queens face up. The aggressive player on the button scrapes the pot and does not show. We’re lucky, though, because the aggressive player on the button is the writer of this guide. They had KJ suited and took the pot down with king high.

The player in the cut-off allowed the bubble to affect how they were playing their cards. If it were another time in the tournament, that player would have most likely stuffed their queens all-in pre-flop, and we would have had to fold our KJ on the button. Instead, we were able to exploit the player’s timid and fearful decisions, all because of the bubble of the tournament.

Had the player played their hand properly, they would have accumulated 11 bbs (7 from the raise, 3 from the blinds, and 1 from the antes). This would have increased their stack by almost 40%! Instead, they decreased their stack by 7bbs, which is 25% of their stack. That’s a HUGE swing that will most certainly have an effect on their chances of winning the tournament. Instead of a 40% increase, they took a 25% loss.

We’re going to talk about how things change strategically on the bubble and the adjustments that you’re going to want to make so you can avoid situations like this. The important thing to realize is that making the money is important, but if the money is so important to you that you’re going to have to play sub-optimally, then you shouldn’t be playing in that tournament.

The Leveling Wars

This is the cleverest title we could come up with for this section, and it certainly is the most accurate. In the older days of poker, the bubble was easy to exploit. Players would all tighten down way too much, and you could just ramp up your aggression and steal pots left and right. In today’s game, though, people have started learning to adapt to the bubble a bit better, which creates some interesting situations.

The bubble used to look like this: the weaker players immediately started folding every hand and would not call with anything but the nuts. In fact, there were even times that we’d see players fold the nuts because they were worried they would get sucked out on. We are not kidding or exaggerating. This meant that the good players could start raising every hand and take full advantage of this weak play. By the time the bubble ended, the good players had a ton more chips, and the weaker players were all short or significantly shorter-stacked.

In today’s game, you still do have a lot of players who are tightening up insanely tight. Where things get interesting is when you have a lot more good players who are trying to exploit these weaker players. In the old days, it wasn’t ever an issue, because there would only be one or two players trying to run over things on the bubble. In today’s game, though, you’ll sometimes have upwards of four or five players trying to run things over.

What does this mean? This is a recipe for a little bit of mayhem. It’s not uncommon in today’s game to see two big stacks go to battle and bust with marginal hands or complete bluffs on the bubble. As you might imagine, this is going to have large implications for the proper bubble strategy.

How to Adapt

In the old days, the bubble strategy was simple: turn on the aggression and worry about where to cash your checks or put your piles of chips. In today’s game, though, you need to be a bit more strategic. Well before the bubble, you need to be analyzing the different players at the table and trying to gauge how you think they’re most likely going to play the bubble. If they’re a strong and aggressive player, you can probably safely assume they might be a force to deal with on the bubble. If they’re weak and passive, they might be someone you can take advantage of.

Remember, these are going to be assumptions that you can adjust when the bubble play starts. Sometimes good players are in bad financial positions and will not play how you think they are going to. Sometimes they will play just as timidly as the weaker players. Your assumptions will not be perfect, but you need to be ready to adapt and change them as you see how people are actually playing.

If the table is full of weaker players, go with the old plan. Turn on the aggression and start opening a lot more hands than you normally would be. If it folds to you in late position, you should be opening an extremely wide range, as long as no one is playing back at you. If you have some tougher players behind you that are playing back at you, you may want to tone down your aggression on the bubble. If you’re a sicko, you can play back at them and go to war, but that is high variance and completely up to you.

We would also advise against these weaker players to continuation bet at a much higher frequency, because they are going to be much more prone to fold marginal hands. They have a tendency to like to see flops still, but then run for the hills if they don’t smash the board.

One thing you also need to be aware of against these weaker players is that they have a tendency to underplay their hands drastically. We’ve seen people just calling down bets with sets, flushes, and straights, only because they don’t have the stone-cold nuts. This is great for you if you have the second-best hand, as they will miss out on a ton of value. But you need to be aware of this if you’re looking to try to barrel someone off of a hand.

In other situations, you might think that them just calling is weak. If they’re a player who normally raises their big hands and plays them quickly, you might be tempted to take their calling as a green light to barrel off. While this may be true, you need to be a bit more on guard. They may be playing a monster hand extremely timidly, not with the intention of trapping, but just because they are that scared of bubbling the tournament. We’ve seen this A LOT, and have definitely value-bet ourselves to death in some situations.

These tips and strategies on how to adapt to the bubble may seem all over the place; that’s on purpose. The linking theory and thought here is that you are going to have to adapt to each bubble situation individually. You’re going to have to assess each player and each hand separately and decide the best strategy to take. With practice and these strategy options in mind, it will start to come naturally to you. You will make some mistakes during the learning process, but no pain, no gain.

If you’re not sure or not comfortable with a lot of this, that’s okay. Here’s what you can do: keep playing your A-game and don’t worry about ramping up the aggression. You will want to be aware that other players are probably going to be opening up their ranges and will be playing more aggressively. This means that you may be forced to call a bit more lightly in some situations. The biggest thing is to make sure that you don’t play timidly just because it’s the bubble.

The Wrap-up

Overall, the bubble should be an exciting time if you’re a Texas hold’em tournament player. As you get better at the game and gain more confidence, the bubble will become a time that you can really set yourself up to make a run at winning the tournament. You’ll find that there are a lot of easy chips out there waiting for someone to scoop them up. Remember, though, other players might be looking for those chips too, so tread lightly and be prepared for battle.

There is no law anywhere that says you have to go crazy on the bubble and try to steal every pot. While this should be common knowledge, a lot of players have not gotten the memo. The one thing that you must never do on the bubble is play timidly. Don’t let the fear of bubbling cause you to make mistakes that are going to cost you your chances of winning the tournament.