What is ICM? - How Poker Pros Use it to Win Tournaments

What is poker ICM?
Written by Lars Kyhnau Hansen

If you have ever played poker tournaments, you have probably heard the term ICM. It stands for Independent Chip Model, but what is it actually?

And how should it influence our strategy, if we are a cash game player mixing in some tournaments on the weekend or getting a ticket for a freeroll?

ICM exist in tournaments that pay more than one place, because this means that even you win all the chips, you don't win all the money.

Using a traditional 9 man SnG (Sit and Go) as an example, these events typically pay 50% to the winner, 30% to the runner-up and 20% to the third place finisher.

So when the last hand is dealt, and the event is over, each chip is only worth half of what it was at the beginning.

This means that in poker tournaments losing chips is always more bad than winning chips is good, especially if you are playing for your entire stack or a significant amount of it.

And therefore as a general rule we want to be more risk averse in tournaments.

To some extent this is common sense. If we lose our last chip, then we are out. But as long as we have “a chip and a chair”, then there is still some hope for a comeback.

There is however also some math behind it, which I am going to dig a bit deeper into in the rest of this post.


ICM in the Early Phase of a Poker Tournament or Sit and Go


Still using the traditional 9 man SnG as an example, each player starts with 1500 chips, and if they are all equally good, then they each have an expected share of the prize pool of 11.1%.

This is the ICM value of their 1500 chips.

If 2 players go all in against each other, and one of them wins, then this player now has 3000 chips, and the remaining 7 players still have 1500 chips each. I am ignoring the blinds and antes to make the math simpler.

If we plug this into an ICM calculator, then we find that the player with 3000 chips now has an ICM value of 20.3%. So even though he doubled his stack, his ICM value only went up by 83%.

This means, that if for instance you find yourself in late position with a hand like AK, and some goofball decides to open jam from early position with his whole 75 BB stack, you should lean even more towards folding, than you would in a cash game.


ICM on the Bubble of a Poker Tournament or Sit and Go


As the number of remaining players is reduced, and the payout are closer, ICM becomes even more important.

Still using the 9 man SnG as an example, when it is down to 4 players, each have an ICM value of 25% of the prize pool assuming equal stacks.

If one player busts another in this situation, then his ICM value is now 38.3%, so it only increased 53%, even he doubled his stack.

Poker ICM Tournament

At this point the blinds and antes are typically a lot larger relative to the players stacks though, which does make the situation a bit better for the player doubling up.



But unless the blinds are really large, like they might be in a hyper turbo tournament, then you should be extremely conservative about risking all your chips in this situation.

This is something that Daniel Negreanu actually discusses in much greater detail by the way in his new poker training course.

You should be especially conservative about calling is what I mean though. If you are the one jamming (shoving), then there is always the chance that everyone else folds.

So even though it is somewhat counter intuitive, jamming is often less risky than calling.

This is also why, you see good players use smaller open sizes in tournaments, when stacks get short. If you still use the traditional 3BB, as you perhaps do in cash games, you simply lose too many chips, when someone jam on you, and you have to fold because of ICM considerations.

Since it's very bad to get called, unless you have a really good hand, you also want to consider, who the other players are.

Just like in cash games many fish don't like to fold, so jamming on them with a nice bluffing hand like A5 can be a bit suicidal.

If they call you with J8, because they think you are a bully, you are probably actually losing money when ICM is taken into account.


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SnG ICM sit and go icm
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Independent Chip Model With Uneven Stacks


So far I have assumed that everyone has equal stack sizes, but as a tournament progresses, that is almost never the case.

If we again use the 9 man SnG bubble as an example but assume that one player has 10% of the chips, and the other three each 30%, ICM become even more important.

The 3 large stacks now have 29.1% of the prize pool each in ICM value and the short stack has 12.7%.

Note that the short stack now has more ICM value than he had at the start, even though he has actually lost some of his chips. This is the value of simply outlasting 5 other players.

If two of the big stacks go all in against each other, one of them now has 60% of the chips, one player has 30%, and the short stack still has 10%.

The player with 60% of the chips now has an ICM value of 41.2%. So even though he doubled his stack, his ICM value only went up 42%.

sit and go poker ICM

The ICM value of the short stack however went up 96%, so he benefited more from the elimination than the large stack guy, who did the job and took all the risk.

This is kind of common sense, because the short stack now folded his way to the money, while the guy who had 3 times more chips but risked them and lost, is out of the tournament without cashing.

For this reason you need to be even more conservative about risking all your chips, when you are at the bubble or a significant pay jump and someone else has a much shorter stack than you.

In this kind of situation, which commonly occurs at the final table of a large poker tournament, there are plenty of spots where you should consider folding versus value bets by a big stack to make sure you can get to showdown without risking all your chips.

Or in some cases you might avoid playing marginal hands against the chip leader altogether, because its so easy for him to take advantage of the situation and push you around.

By the way, I have already written the "ultimate guide" to micro stakes poker tournament strategy covering every situation possible. You can find that right here.


Poker Independent Chip Model Hand Example - ICM Suicide


BU (Hero): 1,495 (50 bb)
SB: 3,115 (104 bb)
BB: 4,390 (146 bb)

Pre-Flop: (57) Hero is BTN with 9 Q♠
Hero raises to 90, SB calls 75, BB 3-bets to 360, BU (Hero) folds, SB calls 270

Flop: (822) T♠ 5 8♣ (2 players)
SB bets 30, BB raises to 660, SB calls 630

Turn: (2,142) 9♣ (2 players)
SB bets 30, BB raises to 3,366 (all-in), SB calls 2,061 (all-in)

River: (6,324) Q (2 players, 2 all-in)

Showdown:
BB shows K K♣ (a pair of Kings)

SB shows 7 9♠ (a pair of Nines)

BB wins 6,324


This hand is from a 6-handed $3.50 SnG I played recently on Pokerstars, and it illustrates the importance of simply preserving your stack for ICM purposes.

After just 17 hands 4 players had already busted, and even though I had not accumulated any chips, 35% of the prize pool was now mine. Only two places pay, so the loser of this hand failed to cash.

In a cash game this would also be a badly played hand especially preflop, but getting it in on the turn with a pair + draw would only be a marginally losing play long term.

In a tournament however it's ICM suicide, because his last 2061 chips was worth so much more than the chips he was trying to win!


ICM at the Final Table (Heads Up)


Ok so you played wisely and got lucky, and now it's down to you and another guy. Here ICM is very simple, because it simply does not exist.

To win the first place prize, you need to win all the chips, so each chip now has the same ICM value. Heads up poker is very different from ring games, but that is outside the topic of this post.

If you want to learn the strategy specifically suited for ring games (cash games), check out Modern Small Stakes.


Final Thoughts


One important limitation of ICM is that it does not take future playability into account. I already mentioned how you want to avoid big pots against the chip leader if you are a middling stack.

So it also stands to reason, that you also gain large advantages, if you build a big stack and become that “chip bully” who everybody loves to hate.

Some of the winners of the WSOP Main Event in recent years seem to have been using this as part of their overall strategy.

It's difficult to quantify, but there is something to be said for ignoring ICM a little bit in the early phase of a big tournament and adopting a “go big or go home” mentality.

However when you get near the bubble, or when you are at the final table, you absolutely must take ICM into account, if your goal is to win money in poker tournaments.

Lastly, if you want to know how to consistently make $1000 per month in low stakes poker games, make sure you grab a copy of my free poker cheat sheet.


Let me know how you use ICM in poker tournaments or SnGs in the comments below.

This article was written by blackrain79.com contributor Lars "fundiver199" Kyhnau Hansen. Lars is a part time online poker player from Denmark currently playing 10NL and 25NL. Lars excels at the math side of the game.

What Is poker ICM?

2 comments:

  1. Nice read, really helpful!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks TJ! Glad you enjoyed this article.

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