Big money time

How to navigate a path from the bubble to the final table and close out a tournament

While reaching the final table is an achievement, trying to get there at the expense of giving yourself a shot at a top-money finish is a very big mistake

In this article I am going to look at one of the less discussed stages of a poker tournament. While correct endgame strategy presents us with a wealth of discussion, this is usually focused on one of two narrower areas – bubble play and final- table play. But this leaves out perhaps the most important stage: the period of play between the bubble bursting and the final table starting. Once the bubble passes, the tournament enters a crucial stage in which we need to position ourselves to take down the big money.

Much has been written about how play tends to tighten up around the money bubble of a tournament. This used to be one of the most profitable times for the more savvy players, who knew to adjust their game accordingly. These days, of course, so many people are playing ultra- aggressively on the bubble (especially online) that fewer dead chips are available. Even so, sound knowledge of bubble strategy is still an essential facet of any successful tournament strategy, especially in larger events where the number of satellite qualifiers is higher. But what about when the bubble bursts?

Post-bubble, the same people you were looking to pound on a few moments earlier will (mostly) still be in the game. How will their strategy change in the new phase of play, and how should your play adjust accordingly?


When the money bubble in any decent- sized tournament bursts, the tension that has built up while the tournament has been hand-for-hand is visibly lifted. The most extreme example of this is probably in the WSOP main event where 60-80 tables full of people begin cheering and applauding. It is these very players who lose focus after the money is reached and begin making bad decisions.

This release of emotion transfers through to the play of many people and it’s no secret that play loosens up significantly at this point. Since playing an opposing style to the current table norm is usually a profitable way to play, the money being reached should be your cue to tighten up and be much more selective about the hands you play and the opponents you play them against. Identify those players who have assumed a newfound sense of freedom and are ready to push their marginal holdings and risk busting out.

Make sure you only ‘gamble’ with these players when you have a genuine hand – don’t try to push them off a hand and don’t try to steal their blinds with particularly weak holdings. That’s something you should have been doing before the bubble burst.

Once in the money, it’s a good idea to set yourself a target stack for making the final table. How many chips will you need with nine or ten left to put you right in contention for victory? You are essentially looking for what you estimate will be an average final-table stack or better. This target will then stay at the forefront of your mind during the upcoming levels.

Remember, winning any full-field tournament is a gradual process. First you need to make the money, then you need to reach the final table and then get all the chips in play on that table. You can’t win the tournament with 50 players left, but ensuring that you remain in pole position as the final table gets closer will increase your chances and give you a significant edge.


Don’t relax your game when you reach the money. Your aim from this point on is to achieve and maintain what will be a likely average stack at the final table. Don’t do this by gambling with players who have loosened up after the bubble


There are two factors that come into play deep into most tournaments, and as you pass the money bubble and approach the final table both of them become increasingly apparent:


Most tournaments start ten-handed and for the most part tables will be balanced throughout the tournament to ensure play rarely drops below eight-handed. As we reach the business end of the tournament, however, short-handed play becomes much more prevalent. For example, at the stage where there are two tables remaining you may see two five- handed tables playing until one more player is eliminated and we reach the final table of nine.

Before that, tables of six and seven will not be uncommon and people who fail to adjust for this are showing a big leak. Some people may just have little experience of playing short-handed or may be so determined to get on to the final table that they are either failing to adjust or potentially playing tighter than they were throughout the rest of the tournament.

Hand values obviously go up and raising requirements go down as you move to short-handed play, and targeting those players who have not loosened up becomes key. Experiment to see what degree of increased aggression your table will accommodate and try to push the boundaries as much as possible.

I recently witnessed an extreme example of this at the 2008 Irish Open. When play got down to two tables of six, Neil Channing was going flat-out to win every chip on the table and his opponents seemed more intent on making the final table than showing him any resistance. He raised every single unopened pot, pretty much until the tables were combined, and came out the other side as a monster chip leader.


As we progress past the bubble and head towards the final table, the escalating blinds and antes become increasingly significant. You simply cannot survive by laying down moderate holdings and allowing the blinds gradually to grind you down in your search for a premium hand. Not only is it essential to increase the frequency with which you steal the blinds but you should also be looking to find some key spots in which to resteal.

Identify some suitable targets for a resteal (usually players with a very high raising frequency) and pull the trigger when the right situations arise. An obvious example would be coming over the top of one of their late-position raises. The risks associated with this move are more than justified when you are shooting for the top prizes and are looking to build your stack for an assault on the final table.


While the money bubble attracts the most attention, there are several other ‘mini bubbles’ that follow. In fact, every jump in the payouts is potentially going to affect how your opponents play and thus you should be aware of each one as it arrives. While I never recommend looking at the payout jumps at the final table, preferring to play to win and not even know how much money could be made by trying to outlast the next person, knowledge of the payouts before the final table can be important.

In a live tournament it’s important to have already identified those players who you think will be affected the most. It is very easy to see which of your opponents is likely to hang on for the next pay level, as not only will they be playing tight but often you’ll see them keep looking over at the tournament clock or even get up to look around at the stacks on the other tables.

In online play obviously the physical giveaways aren’t there, but look out for the people stalling for time when the money jump is approaching and be sure to pound on their blinds. Crucially, you should also look to identify other aggressive players doing the same thing – that is, targeting the players tightening up in the hope of moving up the payout ladder. These aggressive players will be raising into the tighter players with a wide range of hands and are thus good targets for a resteal.


Some players tighten up as each new jump in payouts approaches. Look to exploit this by raising the blinds of players looking to move up the money and re-raising those aggressive players adopting a similar strategy to you


The final-table bubble is second only to the money bubble in terms of the effect it will have on the way your opponents play. To make the final table is, in the eyes of many, a massive achievement. While I don’t disagree in principle, trying to get there at the expense of giving yourself a shot at a top-money finish is a very big mistake.

As with the mini-bubbles beforehand, you should put maximum pressure on those who are just trying to hang on as the final-table bubble approaches. Remember, play will be five or six- handed at this point and there really is nowhere to hide.

While an aggressive style at this stage will usually work best, it’s always worth remembering that poker is a situational game and not one where universal strategies can be applied. I’ve had some very contrasting experiences on the final-table bubble.

For example, in a recent big buy-in online tournament play was down to ten players and I had a small chip lead. The player second in chips was also on my table but was playing reasonably tight. There was one short-stack to my right and two medium stacks to my left. The final-table bubble lasted for about 20 minutes, with the short-stacks being doubled up on both tables.

The three stacks to my left were all playing very passively. In the rare instances that they did take a flop they would give up very easily and for the rest of the time they let me have their blinds uncontested. They only played back when they picked up a truly great hand.

In one interesting hand the action was folded to the short-stack in the small blind, who pushed all-in for around nine big blinds. I had A-K offsuit in the big blind and opted to fold. While I think most people would have called instantly and taken the chance to get to the final table, the current situation was proving so profitable that I was sure I could take an even bigger stack to the final table if I passed and continued pounding on the other players.

When the next player was finally eliminated I had an almost 2/1 chip lead over the second-placed player. The lesson there is don’t be afraid to prolong the pressure of the final-table bubble if you can use it to your benefit. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking there is much significance between finishing ninth or tenth – your aim should be to win.


The dynamics of the final-table bubble can lead to players tightening up considerably, so look to take advantage. Don’t be afraid of prolonging the bubble if you feel you are benefiting from it

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