If you’ve been reading the poker tournament strategy articles here at Ignition, you know that the chips you play with in these events don’t have monetary value – you can’t just leave the tournament and take your remaining stack to the cashier’s window. You also know that the chips you gain are usually worth less to you than the chips you lose. But all those chips still have to be worth something. The more you have, the more likely you’ll win the tournament, or at least make a deep run. How do you figure out what those beautiful betting disks are worth, so you can make smarter decisions about the moves you make on the felt?

 

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Our top poker analysts have been working on this for years. They’ve come up with something called the Independent Chip Model, or ICM for short. There’s a lot of math behind it, but you don’t need to crunch any numbers yourself to use ICM to your advantage at the poker table. And while using ICM is considered more of a poker strategy for advanced players, anyone who wants to do better at tournaments can learn something from this simple guide. These might even be some of the most important poker tournament tips you’ll ever read.

 

The Value of a Poker Tournament Chip

Before we get into ICM, let’s take a closer look at why chip values fluctuate during a tournament. Imagine you’re playing an event with just three people – you and two opponents. The buy-in (no entry fee charged) is $100. The prize pool is $300; first place gets $200, second place gets $100, and third place gets zilch. Everyone starts with 1,000 chips, so there’s a total of 3,000 chips in play.

At this point, every chip on the table is worth the same amount. Assuming all three players are of equal skill, their expected return (also known as their equity) in this tournament is $100 each, so divide that by 1,000 chips, and you get 10 cents per chip. So far, so good.

Now imagine that Player 1 knocks out Player 3 on the first hand and takes all their chips. Player 1 has 2,000 chips, and Player 2 has the remaining 1,000. However, Player I didn’t double their tournament equity when they doubled their stack size. Some of that $100 in equity that Player 3 used to possess went instead to Player 2, who has just locked up at least second-place money without having to do anything. And that means the chips in play can no longer be worth 10 cents each. Player 1’s chips are worth less, and Player 2’s are worth more.

 

Poker ICM: How It Works

This is where the Independent Chip Model comes into play. In this example, Player 1 now has two-thirds of the chips available; they also took two-thirds of the $100 in equity that Player 3 had, leaving them with $166.67. Player 2 has the remaining $133.33. Now let’s divide those amounts by the number of chips everyone has:

  • Player 1: $166.67/2,000 chips = 8.33 cents per chip
  • Player 2: $133.33/1,000 chips = 13.33 cents per chip

This is why we keep saying the chips you gain in a tournament aren’t worth as much as the chips you lose. Of course, most tournament situations won’t be this simple to calculate. There will be multiple stack sizes in play once the action gets rolling and the chips are jumping from one player to another. There will also be more than three players to worry about. The math gets way too complicated to bother doing by hand – you’ll need an ICM calculator to figure it out. These are available on the internet, some for free, some not. Make sure you get yours from a reliable source if you to improve your tournament bankroll management.

 

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Using ICM for Better Tournament Results

And you definitely should, if you want to win more money. By using an ICM calculator away from the tables, in between tournament sessions, you can analyze a hand and determine what the “right” play would be from a mathematical perspective. For example, you might be in a situation where your choice is between going all-in or folding; the ICM calculator will tell you which move will give you more equity.

Let’s take a somewhat more complicated example to illustrate how this works. You’re at a six-player No-Limit Texas Hold’em Sit-and-Go, with 70% of the prize pool going to the winner and 30% to second place. Four players are left in the tournament; blinds are 100/200.

  • Player 1 (cut-off): 3,490 chips
  • Player 2 (button): 3,130 chips
  • Player 3 (small blind): 780 chips
  • Player 4 (big blind): 1,300 chips

You’re Player 4 in the big blind, and you’ve got Ace-Jack off-suit. Not bad, but Player 1 goes all-in and everyone else folds. Do you call here and risk your tournament life? Or do you fold, hoping for a better spot? Here’s what at least one ICM calculator says:

    • Push ICM%: 17.93
    • Fold ICM%: 15.99

    According to the calculator, you’re better off calling with Ace-Jack in this spot – as you may have instinctively guessed. You’ll gain more equity in the tournament that way instead of folding. There are other real-world considerations that the math doesn’t take into account, like the relative skill of the players, or how important the money is to you; maybe that 30% for second place is life-changing money, and you’re more inclined to play it safe rather than risk going for first. But using the ICM calculator and doing the analysis will help you understand what the optimal play is, making it more likely you’ll do the right thing when it’s your turn at the table.

     

    Pros and Cons of ICM

    Before trusting your entire bankroll to the ICM gods, you should know that this model is still a work in progress, and it’s only a model. In practice, ICM overestimates the chances of short stacks going on to win a tournament, and underestimates the larger stacks. If you’re at the final table of an online poker tournament and you want to make a deal, think about your stack size and whether you want to use ICM to help split the winnings, or a more simple “chip chop” that divides the money based purely on everyone’s stack size.

    You should also be aware that there are different flavors of ICM out there. The classic version is the Malmuth-Harville model, named after math/gambling wizards Mason Malmuth and David Harville. There’s also the newer Malmuth-Weitzman model (Mark Weitzman) and the Ben Roberts model, which try to smooth over some of the issues with the Malmuth-Harville way of calculating ICM. Knowing exactly how each of these models works isn’t necessary to play winning poker; advanced strategy enthusiasts will want to know the differences, though.

    If you happen to be one of those enthusiasts, make sure you don’t go too far down the rabbit hole with your ICM calculations. Trying to get all the math correct to several decimal points won’t help you become a better poker player – quite the opposite, in fact. It’s more important to understand the underlying concepts behind ICM, so you can make informed decisions about why you need to adjust your tournament strategy. This happens all the time with Game-Theory Optimal (GTO) play, too – aspiring wizards get in over their heads and end up making all sorts of mistakes while trying to implement complex strategies.

    Having said that, understanding ICM will indeed serve you well at the tournament tables, especially in those critical situations when you’re near the money bubble. How many times have you watched a poker tournament where a player makes a very tight fold, and the commentators don’t understand why? The “standard” play in some spots just doesn’t work in others. We have the math to prove it.

    Making the right ICM play is even more important when you’re concerned about poker bankroll management. When you’re trying to stretch your tournament dollar, you already have the incentive to make slightly “nitty” folds with your marginal hands. Once you get deeper into a tournament and ICM considerations come into play, you have even more incentive to gear down and let someone else take those risks. Remember Player 2 from our first example? They “laddered up” into the money and gained equity just by letting Player 3 go bust. Discretion is indeed the better part of valor.

    That’s our introduction to the Independent Chip Model. If you’ve made it this far, congratulations: You now know why chip values fluctuate during a tournament, how and when to calculate those values, and how to alter your strategy to best take advantage. The more you practice ICM, the better you’ll play, so hit the tournament tables at Ignition Poker and show the world what a little know-how can do for you.

     

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