Why the tournament is won at the 2nd to last table

Dara O Kearney
Dara O’Kearney

Earlier this year I wrote an article about a big misconception about laddering in tournaments where I presented the concept of Bubble Factor. In it I made the observation that the final table bubble has much more extreme ICM pressure than any spot at the final table itself.

This means that you have to play a lot tighter on final table bubbles than you would at the final table itself and often even the first money bubble. However, the 2nd to last table in a poker tournament is often where the game is won. Because everyone has to play tighter and because everyone really wants to get to the final table, this is a spot where you can pick up a lot of chips.

In fact, while it still holds true that you should tighten up in general, taking high variance lines near the start of your 2nd to last table can be a good strategy.

I know people think I am a big old nit who folds his way to final tables, then tries to ladder up from 9th place. Actually, I tend to play 2nd last tables aggressively because getting to the final table with a stack is huge. It’s massive in future equity terms. It’s the last spot I see as a golden opportunity to set myself up for a top three finish.

Future equity

Dara O Kearney
The final two tables is a golden opportunity

The ICM of the small ladder jumps between places 18-10 are nothing anyway. Plus if you are a good player you get the opportunity to play five and six handed on the way to the final table, which should give you an additional edge where you can exert massive ICM pressure.

If you play strictly by ICM you will end up folding a bit too much. There is an inflection point, the time comes where it is worth gambling for a big stack. One of my students chopped a SCOOP Main Event this year and at the 2nd last table he raise/called off KQ against a big stack. His rationale was he knew it wasn’t a great spot but if he won this spot, he would be the chip leader and he could hound the final table bubble, which he did and he was in an amazing spot.

The high variance line should still be a profitable one, we are not talking about punting off a stack calling all-in with 67s with 14 players left. It is also better to take the high variance line early at the start of the 2nd to last table so you can enjoy the chip lead for longer. Gambling when 11 players remain is a costly ICM punt because you are so close to the big payouts. But taking a high variance line with 18 players remaining is not that costly from an ICM perspective and puts you in a position to build a stack while most of the table will tighten up.

Future equity is a thing in tournaments as well as ICM. The start of the final two tables is a unique time where you have a chance to build a very big stack so you can cruise on the final table itself.

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