Beating the bubble

Sit-and-gos are a great way to build a bankroll, but bad bubble play is a major leak for many players

Sit-and-gos have become a major part of the poker landscape. You’ll find them at every online or bricksand- mortar poker room. In which case, it’s quite incredible how little many players know about how to play around the all-important money spots. So read on and equip yourself with the know-how to make the bubble pay every time.

Sit-and-gos are an ideal starting point for beginners. They give a taste of all aspects of poker from deep-stack ring play during the first couple of levels to short-handed and heads-up play in the later stages. They can offer an excellent return on investment as there tends to be plenty of chancers trying their luck, and reduced variance as your chances of cashing are fairly good: in a typical nine- or 10-seat online game first place gets 50 percent of the prize pool, while second and third places get 30 percent and 20 percent respectively.

But as you can see from these payouts, the potential gains and losses at certain points are drastically warped, even compared to conventional multi-table tournaments. The first six or seven players get nothing, but then there’s a sudden leap to 20 percent for third (at which point 60 percent of the prize pool has been allocated). The second place finisher takes an additional 10 percent of the prize pool and the first scoops a whopping 30 percent on top of that!

Clearly then, the way you play in sitand- gos is going to be radically different from cash games, where your chips have a fixed monetary value. Here, the value of your stack is not fixed and floats around depending not only on how much you win or lose, but what point in the tournament you are at, how many other players remain, and what their stack sizes are.

Gotta play percentages

In a 10-player $100 event each player’s stack clearly has a shared $100 value as there is $1,000 in the pot. However, at the end the winning player will have all the chips but will only get to walk away with 50 percent of the $1,000 prize pool, meaning the value of his huge stack of chips has decreased by half (although you’d still be happy making five times your initial stake). Similarly, a player who manages to sneak into the money gets at least $200, even though he might only have a fraction of his starting chips!

What this illustrates is a fundamental concept in tournament poker and sit-andgos in particular: chips change value over the course of an event. If you don’t adjust your game accordingly you will miss out on cash finishes. Whereas the payout scale rises smoothly in tournaments through the top 10 percent of the field, the small number of players in sit-and-gos means the bubble alters the value of your stack far quicker. With fewer players, and just a few prizes, it’s much easier to grasp how this should shift your game plan, which has led to an outbreak of online sit-and-go programs to do the hard work for you (see Tools of the Trade, right).

The main thing you must pay attention to as the bubble approaches is the EV (expected value) of your pushes and folds, in terms of the payout structure (i.e. whether a certain play increases or decreases your equity in the event). As suggested, the payout structure can warp these decisions drastically to the point where you would fold a very big hand like A-K or push all-in with 2-3 offsuit! Most of these decisions are common sense so always pay attention to how your chip stack compares to your opponents’ and the escalating blinds.

For instance, if you’re nursing a short stack on the bubble you should try and hold on for the money if there’s a stack that’s going to be committed on its next big blind and therefore likely to bust before you. On the other hand, when you’ve got a big stack you’re in a position to bully the remaining players mercilessly. If they choose to play a hand with you they risk elimination on the bubble and get nothing for their troubles. Because each individual chip is worth less the more that you have, it isn’t a disaster in EV terms if you lose a chunk for the chance to knock someone out.

Watch some big games online and you’ll see winning players tend to loosen with a big stack and tighten with a small stack on the bubble. This is mainly because over the last few years, ‘turbo’ sit-and-gos have become the most popular format, where the blinds go up extremely quickly.

By the time the bubble is reached the average stack is usually just 10 big blinds or less, which is classic all-in-or-fold territory. At this point you have to push with any hand that you choose to play to show other players that you are committed to the hand or get rid of it. There’s no limping. This way you give yourself the best chance of picking up the valuable blinds with minimal risk of confrontation. You don’t want to get into the poker equivalent of chicken… and lose.

Top, middle or bottom?

Of course, the main determinant of correct bubble play is your stack size relative to your opponents. As a short stack you need to assess your chances of making the money by looking at how long you can survive before you become so hopelessly short that you’ll be called by the big blind with anything.

Enter a ‘nothing to lose’ mode before you hit that low point by making strategic pushes with less-thanpremium hands. Target the next shortest player. They won’t want to double you up, as it will almost certainly leapfrog you over them sucking them towards the bubble spot. In a multi-table tournament it’s easy to put a short-stack benchmark at 10 big blinds, but in STTs the same rule doesn’t necessarily apply. If the blinds are large compared to the average chip stack, which they often are, you can often drop to five big blinds and still maintain a stack that will batter opponents if they call you.

If you’re one of two or three short/ medium stacks you need to vary your play between attacking those weaker than you and protecting your chips in the hopes of coasting into the money. And make sure you avoid the largest stack, who will be able to knock you out in one fell swoop. If you have the biggest stack however, all the rules go out the window and you can have a fun and highly profitable time pushing around the shorter stacks.

Depending on how much variance you can stand, any time you have a significant block of chips more than the players you are attacking and their stacks are less than 10 big blinds you can start moving in with a wide variety of hands in the knowledge that they will be unable to call you without very strong holdings. The most likely scenario here is that you will gradually gain a stronger and stronger hold over the bubble, but even if you’re called you can still get lucky. Even if you’re called and lose you simply have to go back to being one of the short- or mid-sized stacks.

Ideally though, if you get away with stealing the blinds a few times you can gradually build towards the dream bubble position where you have an overwhelming chip lead against three short-stacks who are essentially hanging on for second. At this stage you can more or less start moving all-in every hand when players fold to you. Even if you lose an all-in you’ll still be a significant chip leader, and as the second biggest stack will be waiting for one of the short stacks to get knocked out you can resume your tactics and keep building until the bubble bursts, at which point you will have given yourself a fantastic opportunity to go on and win!

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