Bubble Strategy: How to Prevent the Burst

3 years ago
How to Prevent the Burst
14 Jun

There is nothing worse than making good progress through the early and middle stages of a poker tournament, and carefully amassing a large stack with solid play and well-executed bluff, only to be eliminated just short of the money without even a small cash to show for all your hard work. The larger the tournament, the worse this feels but now you resolve to get better and commit to learning how to beat the bubble.

The bubble is defined by Pokerzone’s poker dictionary as follows:

The point in a tournament at which there are only slightly more players remaining than there are finishing positions that receive a prize.”

In practice this means that as the money approaches, there is a psychological shift in how poker players approach the game. They do not want to bust and leave with nothing so they play more conservatively and hope someone else busts.

There is no precise moment the bubble begins, so you need to observe the other players behavior and once players start to check the tournament board to see how many players are left, start talking about the bubble, and begin to play less hands, then you know the dynamic has changed and you are into the bubble phase of the tournament. Here are five tips that will help you prevent busting out of the tournament on the bubble.

Play The Stack

Playing the stack is as much about your stack as it is your opponents. You should always be aware of the size of your opponents stack in relation to your own, but on and around the bubble this is particularly important. If your opponent has a large stack, they may play back at you because they know the last thing you want is to finish outside of the money. If they have a short stack, you can bully them out of a hand because they are clinging on and the correct thing is to survive for as long as possible as opposed to gambling. If they play back at you, they either have the goods or they are very brave. Such is the nature of bubble play, they usually have a strong hand.

If your stack is short you need to cling on too, so playing with speculative hands or chasing draws is unwise. Let others players be brave and take silly risks. Min-cashing is never your goal at the beginning of a tournament, but can be +EV providing you do not aim to min-cash in every tournament and always play to win.

Pressure When in Position

After checking your opponents stack size as per our first tip, note that more players fold hands during the bubble, so take every advantage when acting first to raise the pot. Your show of strength forces opponents to make a decision as to whether their hand is strong enough to play against you. Many players only play premium hands at the bubble stage as they want the best chance to win a big pot but they do not want to take big risks.

Remember, the last thing anyone wants is to finish on the bubble so you can bully players a little more often. Observation is key. If you see a player tighten up and get nervous make a note of this and use it to your advantage.

Vary Your Play

Attacking players with a certain stack size and always raising when first into the pot to show how fearless you are is easily detected. Noting your new approach, players can play back at you knowing that as a good player you will know to take fewer risks at this stage of the tournament.

Do not give too much away by attacking the same player over and over. An 8x the big blind shove will still dwindle a stack or force you to fold non-premium hands. If you overdo it and frustrate an opponent, they can think they have no choice but to fight back. If you are re-raised and your play has not worked just fold and move on. There will be better spots to make money than to engage in handbags at dawn with a tenacious opponent.

Remember What Wilson Phillips Said - Hold on!

With the shortest of stacks, think of the popular Wilson Phillips song as you sit there trying to survive. At any other stage of the poker tournament you should not dwindle your stack to the point where even doubling up does not help you very much. At the bubble, however, it is a good idea to hold on for dear life and try to survive. A min-cash is better than nothing, and the damage was done earlier in the tournament when, for whatever reason, you were unable to build a large stack so you could have avoided your current predicament. If you get AA or KK (I will leave AK and QQ as your call!) you can go all-in. Otherwise a chip and a chair might be your ticket to winning a little money.

Don’t Play Too Conservatively

Poker is a game where two different situations call for contradictory strategies. Having a very small stack will happen, but you should do all you can to maintain your stack as the bubble approaches. Players can be resolute in avoiding busting around the bubble so there are often many rounds of play before the bubble bursts. Going through the blinds again and again can quickly deplete your stack. Look for spots to steal to ensure your stack does not dwindle. Whilst busting at the bubble stage is a bad thing, our major goal is to maintain a stack large enough to allow us to make a surge towards the final table.

At the WSOP Main Event, where the smallest cash is usually $14,000 - $18,000, some players fold AA rather than risk going bust. This is understandable if they won their seat in a satellite, for example, but as a general rule folding every hand around the bubble in every tournament you play will really harm your long-term results.

Once the bubble bursts you will see a flurry of play as the tiny stacks quickly bust out. They knew it was coming but they wanted to hold on for the small cash. Hopefully you have picked up some tips so you can maintain a good stack to allow you to successfully negotiate the bubble then make your move towards the final table and towards the big cash prizes you should always be aiming for.

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Malcolm comes from Consett in the North East of England and is an avid poker player and writer.Read more


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