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Why busting early in the tournament is worse than you think


  1. You always risk more than you win in tournaments
  2. Rake is more costly when you bust early
  3. Final thoughts

There is an old school idea that mostly perpetuated in live poker that ‘it is better to bust out first hand than to bubble a poker tournament’. The notion is that playing for all that time to bust just before the money is brutal and that at least if you bust immediately you could free up your time to do something else. This idea makes some sense in the context of live poker when you also factor in the travel time involved that would make bubbling even more harsh, but it is in fact a terrible idea.

Bubbling is brutal but if it happens to you, it means you played well enough to put yourself in a position to play in a profitable spot. More importantly, busting first hand of a tournament is always a disaster strategically. If you think busting early in poker tournaments is a good thing, you are doing them wrong.

ICMIZER has a free ICM calculator on our website that can show you the equity of players in a tournament of up to 15 remaining players. What we mean by equity is it shows you the real money value of your stack at that stage of the tournament. It is a very useful tool for many things including final table deals, but it can also demonstrate why busting early is a bad thing.

Let’s assume we are in a 10-man SNG with a $10 buy-in and for this example we’ll assume no rake. The payouts are $50 to first, $30 to second and $20 to third. Each player starts with 1,000 chips. If you plug this into the free calculator it will show you each player’s equity at the start of the tournament. It will look like this:


It should not surprise you that at the start of a $10 SNG, each player’s equity is $10. That is the amount they bought in for and no action has taken place.

Now let’s assume that the action is folded around to the Small Blind who manages to get all their chips in the middle with Ace King against the Big Blind who has Pocket Twos, and for simplicity we will assume there are no antes yet. One player wins and the other player is eliminated. This is what the new equities look like:


As you can see we have one less player at the table and one player who now has 2,000 chips, everyone else still has their 1,000 chip starting stack. What else do you see?

The chip leader risked $10 in equity but they did not win $10 in equity back, they have in fact won an additional $8.44 in equity. Where has the remaining $1.56 in equity gone? It has been redistributed to the other players, who have each seen their equity increase by $0.19.

This is ICM in a nutshell. If this were a winner-take-all game then the chip leader would have $20 in equity right now, much like a cash game. However, he cannot win $100 if he wins this SNG, his potential winnings are capped at $50 because of the payout structure. As a result whenever he risks money, there is never a 1:1 ratio of what he is risking to what he can potentially win. Therefore your ranges will always be tighter in tournaments than cash games, because you always need a stronger range than ChipEV to justify risking chips.

This also shows why risking your chips early in tournaments is a disaster, because you do not get a good return on the equity you risk compared to a cash game. The players not involved in the hand reap the rewards of you taking an early risk. You need a very strong hand to justify going broke early in a tournament.

Most players recognise this instinctively when they are at a final table where the payouts are bigger with each elimination. Here you can literally win more money simply by folding, which is known as ‘laddering’. Most players do not realise that this happens every time a player is eliminated, even at the start of the tournament. Whenever a player busts out and you are not involved in the hand, your equity increases. This proves that ICM has influence even at the start of a tournament, not just near the bubble like most amateurs assume.

Let’s fast forward to the bubble of this same SNG. We will assume we have one chip leader with 4,000 chips, 2nd in chips has 3,000, third place has 2,000 and you are the short stack with 1,000 – your starting stack. Remember that old school maxim of it’s better to bust out early than on the bubble? How much do you think your stack is worth now? These are the new equities:


The chip leader has $33.60 in equity, 2nd in chips has $29.48 and third place has $23.59 in equity. Your starting stack is now worth $13.32. You have the same stack as when you bought in, but it has increased by 33% just by virtue of your survival to the bubble.

Lots of players would say that bubbling now is no different to busting first hand, you still end the tournament with $0 equity. Others might say it is worse because you have lost $13.32 in equity instead of $10. It might seem hard to comprehend, but in poker it is better to think in terms of equity rather than just money, and if you can continually get yourself in spots where 1,000 chips are worth 33% more than they were when you started, long term you will make money.

If you persist with this notion that it’s better to bust early than to bubble, it will leak into your play and you will make reckless moves at the table. Clearly bubbling is better long term because it means you have got yourself into the high equity stages of the tournament. If you find yourself on the bubble often, you will make money at poker.

You always risk more than you win in tournaments

The big way in chip SNGs & MTTs differ from ChipEV formats like cash games and Spins is that there is never a 1:1 ratio between equity risked and equity won. If our previous example was a winner-takes-all tournament then each one of our 1,000 chips would be worth $0.01 at every stage of the game. However, in our last example from the bubble the chip leader has equity of $33.60 for 4,000 chips, making each chip worth $0.008, less than a cent in fact. The short stack on the bubble with the original 1,000 stack has equity of $13.32, making each chip for them worth $0.013.

The more chips you have in tournaments, the less each is worth. Whenever you risk your chips, the gains you make will be less than what you risk and the value of each chip in your stack will decrease. As a result you have to play tighter in tournaments, because you get less return on your investments than cash games.

You can simulate this in ICMIZER. Because it’s not very common for two players to get all-in on the first hand preflop in tournaments I have constructed a ‘toy game’ example that uses quite shallow stacks and the same payout structure as our previous example. With 1,000 chips the blinds are at 25/50 with no ante and it has folded around to the Small Blind who opens for 150, then the Big Blind shoves and we are looking at the 3-bet shove calling range for the Small Blind. We will compare the SNG payout structure we have looked at today with what it would be for ChipEV (Interestingly I went straight to the calling ranges because the reshove ranges were very similar, around 37% of hands, which is mostly due a function of position and why blind vs blind battles involve wide ranges).

This is the calling range if this were a ChipEV winner-takes-all game:


This is the calling range if it was the SNG with the 50/30/20 payout structure:


We have gone from calling 29% of hands to calling 19% of hands, which is dropping 10% of hands from the range, but is a relative percentage decrease of 34%. Remember that we used shallow stacks and wide ranges because it was blind vs blind battles, if this were a normal structured tournament the ranges would be much tighter.

In reality most people know that you really don’t want to be stacking off deep unless you have hands like QQ+ or AKs and even then you shouldn’t like it. AKs should not be a fist pump call all-in unless you can put your opponent on a very wide range. Some players look at a hand like Ace King and think getting into coinflips is good, but as we have seen if you know you are getting into a coinflip it is a minus EV proposition – remember we only gained $8.44 from our $10 in that first example we looked at.

Rake is more costly when you bust early

It’s not just equity you should consider when you bust early in MTTs, rake is also a factor. Our previous examples assumed no rake, but now let’s talk about it. If you are a losing player discussions of rake are moot because you are losing anyway, but winning players should care about rake because it cuts into their profits.

Let’s say you play 100 hands per hour online and our SNG game we have been discussing takes one hour to conclude. Let’s also assume a $1 rake on our $10 buy-in, so we bought in for $11 total.

If we win the tournament not only do we win $50 in real money, we have played 100 hands, meaning that each hand averaged out to $0.01 in rake paid. If we bust out first hand then we have paid rake at a rate of $1 per hand, which sounds terrible in the context of a $11 SNG. You would never pay 10% rake for one hand in a cash game, so don’t do it for tournaments.

If you follow the maxim that busting early is good, that means you are overpaying on your rake compared to the other regulars. Practically speaking it means you will pay more rake in a session, because you register for more tournaments because you bust more tournaments.

This is something that should impact the ranges you play, but most players do not realise it because in tournaments each pot is not raked like it is in a cash game. In a cash game the rake being taken out of the pot tightens your ranges slightly because it means there is less money in the pot to win. This doesn’t happen in tournaments because the chips are not raked, the entry fee is, but the impact should be the same. If you bust first hand of our example tournament that is like a 10% rake on one hand. If you were raked 10% per hand in a cash game you would have to play incredibly tight and the same principle holds true in MTTs, you just cannot see it so clearly. Not only do you gain less equity than you risk when you go all-in early, you also essentially pay more rake in the hand – both factors should tighten your ranges.

Rake is not something most poker players consider, in fact if they have a favourable rakeback deal they wrongly assume that busting early means more rakeback for them. That isn’t the case, no matter how good your rakeback deal unless it is 101% or higher, you will always be better off paying less rake where possible.

Final thoughts

When you risk elimination early in a poker tournament you risk more equity than you gain, you give equity away to the players not involved in the hand and you increase your rake per hand massively. It is never a good idea to take a big risk early in MTTs or SNGs and you need a very strong hand, or at least a very strong read, to consider it. Bubbling hurts, but finding yourself on the bubble early means you are doing something right in poker. Also if you enjoy the game, surely it is better to get a few hours of play in to sharpen your skills and let off some steam than to bust out right away and have to find something else to do?

Why busting early in the tournament is worse than you think
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