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OTB #003: 5 Key Lessons from 'The Final Table'

Updated: Feb 26

Today, I want to share 5 key lessons from my new book, 'The Final Table' so you can better understand how ICM and risk premium guide your strategies and also how you can set yourself up to improve your approach to final tables every single day.

Over the last 11 years as a poker player and coach I've had the chance to observe, first hand, just how many mistakes are made on final tables, both live and online, and by both amateurs and pros alike.

The final table is the real business end of the tournament and mistakes you make at this stage can cost you hundreds, thousands or even millions of dollars.

Let's dive in.

1. What is ICM?

Understanding the definition of ICM is important because it will help you to understand and calculate the real monetary value of your chips, which in turn will help you form a winning strategy at the table.

ICM stands for Independent Chip Model. It uses the payouts and the different stack sizes around the table to determine the probability of each player finishing in each of the remaining positions. So if there are 4 players left, how often does each player finish 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th based on their current stack size of each player?

Let's say you're playing in a 10-person SNG with a $1,000 buy-in and no rake that gives each player 1,000 chips at the start of the tournament.

The payouts are as follows:

1st: $5,000

2nd: $3,000

3rd: $2,000

Now let's say we fast forward to the bubble and miraculously you and the other three remaining players have exactly the same stack size of 2,500 chips. Each player's stack is worth $2,500.

Equities and stack sizes, 4 players left

It folds to the small blind (Player D) and they shove, and you (Player A) have a decision in the big blind. If you call and lose you will bust the tournament, losing $2,500 in equity. If you call and win you will increase your equity by $1,333.33.

Equities, stack sizes and differences, 3 players left

Notice that if you call and win how the other two players in the tournament have also increased their equity despite folding. They had no risk in this hand, but you took on all the risk to burst the bubble and eliminate Player D.

You would have lost $2,500 in equity if you'd lost and yet only gained $1,333.33 when you won. This means you needed more equity to call the all-in than you would have in a Chip EV scenario. This added risk can be calculated and it's what we'll discuss next.

2. What is risk premium?

Risk premium is the extra equity you need to call an all-in or to realise postflop. It's important because it affects your entire strategy on a final table from what to open and what to call to what to 3-bet and what to jam.

Let's start with a simple example.

You are dealt 66 UTG at the start of the final table and you have three bigger stacks in position on you.

As you can see from the table below, your risk premium (the percentage at the bottom of each cell) is higher against the bigger stacks than against the shorter stacks. The bigger stacks who cover you can bust you. The shorter stacks can't.

If you open too wide of a range in this spot, you will have to either:

a) fold a lot when one of the bigger stacks 3-bets or

b) play a hand out of position postflop against a player that covers you.

This forces you to tighten up your opening range in this situation. Notice how 66 is indifferent between raising to 2.1bb and just folding.

UTG's opening range

Your risk premium will always be the highest against the player with the most chips, i.e. the chip leader. This is true whether you're a big stack, a medium stack or a short stack. Take a quick look at everyone's risk premium against the chip leader - the column under BU 73.4.

Bubble factors & risk premiums

As the chip leader, once you know and understand that everyone has a huge risk premium against you, you can apply a lot of pressure, especially to the bigger stacks (UTG, HJ and CO) who don't want to bust before the shorter stacks (EP, MP1 and BB).

They need to be able to realise more equity in order to get involved in a pot with you.

They will also have to play more passively because any 3-bet would give you the opportunity to 4-bet or 4-bet jam and put their stack at risk. The number of hands that can comfortably 3-bet/call or 3-bet/get it in in the CO's shoes against the chip leader here is incredibly narrow.

Practical tip: practise estimating your risk premiums against different players in different final table situations, and what effect this will have on your strategy.

3. Big blind defence and equity realisation

Your strategy in the big blind facing an open depends a lot on your risk premium against the opener.

To compare the impact of risk premium, the easiest way is to show you the same big blind defence spot in cEV and $EV.

The button opens and you're in the big blind

The button opens ~38% of hands to 2bb off ~50bb, the small blind (~15bb) folds and you have a decision in the big blind (~30bb). It doesn't matter what your hand is because we're going to focus on our range.

You're getting 3.89:1, which means you need ~20.4% equity to call. Against a 38% opening range, every single hand has at least 20.4% equity.

Now I hope I don't need to tell you that you're not going to play any two cards in this spot, even in a Chip EV world.

So what's going on?

The important thing we haven't discussed yet is equity realisation.

Equity is how much of the pot you expect to win and is determined by your current chance of winning the hand. So if your equity was 58%, you'd expect to win the hand 58% of the time.

You'd also expect to win 58% of the pot.

Equity realisation, on the other hand, is how much of the pot you expect to win based on the raw equity that we just discussed coupled with the many postflop variables in play. It factors in how often you'll get to showdown, your position, the impact and effect of ICM, the skill level of your opponent and is the answer to: how often will you be able to realise your equity?

Some hands, like suited connectors and pocket pairs, do a better job at realising equity than hands like 62o or 83o.

Position also plays an important role - it's much easier to realise equity when you're in position and get to act last on each street.

In a Chip EV world, against a 38% opening range, your strategy in the big blind looks like this:

The big blind strategy facing a button open (Chip EV solution)

You'll want to fold ~21.5% of hands here, call 64.5%, 3-bet with 10.4% and jam with 3.6%.

If we switch to ICM instead, the button now gets to open wider (45.7% of hands) because the big blind's risk premium against them is 12.2%. Remember the big blind is in 2nd with 3 left facing an open from the chip leader. This forces the big blind to fold more because hands like K3o, 82s and 54o won't be able to realise enough equity, despite the button now opening a wider range.

The big blind strategy facing a button open (ICM solution)

In order for the big blind to continue, the hand they hold must be able to realise 20.4% raw equity. When you get to a final table, you need to factor in the risk premium as well. So suddenly you need to be able to realise 20.4% equity + 12.2% risk premium = 32.6% equity.

So ICM and the big blind's risk premium is having an effect on the button's opening range and the big blind's strategy facing that open. Hopefully you can now see how important it is to understand both risk premium and equity realisation.

Practical tip: If you face an open and a call and you are third to act in the big blind, then it's even harder to realise equity because you're out of position against not just one, but two players. If you're covered by both then your continuing range will shrink considerably.

4. Logical thought processes

Articulating your ideas and thought process will lead you to develop a much more solid understanding of final table strategy.

Your goal shouldn't be to play perfectly or exactly like the solver.

There are four main ideas or concepts I want you to think about when putting lots of chips in preflop as the aggressor on a final table. These ideas are transferable to other stages of the tournament as well, so you can be confident that you can use these ideas at any stage of the tournament.

When you jam, 3-bet jam, 4-bet jam or heck even 5-bet jam, you want to have these ideas at the forefront of your mind.

  1. If you’re jamming for value, will worse hands call?

  2. If you’re jamming as a ‘bluff’, will better hands fold?

  3. If you’re jamming as a ‘bluff’, do you block hands that will call?

  4. If you’re jamming as a ‘bluff’, do you unblock hands that will fold?

Now there will be situations where you should jam a hand that doesn’t satisfy any of the criteria above, but, on the whole, these questions will serve you well.

The button opens and you're in the big blind

The button minraises, the small blind folds and it's on you in the big blind with A2s and ~25bb. The button covers both you and the small blind.

What should you do?

Answer: You should jam!

Let's try to solve this problem logically.

The big blind strategy facing a button minraise (ICM solution)

If you’re jamming for value, will worse hands call?

The button is calling 66+, A9s+, ATo+, KQs so not many worse hands will call (only KQs), so this is probably not a value jam.

If you’re jamming as a ‘bluff’, will better hands fold?

You can definitely get better hands to fold like A3o-A9o and A3s-A8s.

The button's strategy facing a big blind 3-bet jam (ICM solution)

If you’re jamming as a ‘bluff’, do you block the hands that will call?

Yes, because the button should call 66+, A9s+, ATo+, KQs so the Ace blocks the Ax hands and AA.

If you’re jamming as a ‘bluff’, do you unblock the hands that will fold?

Yes, since the button only opens A2s, A2o, K2s and Q2s. If the button opened a lot of hands with a 2 in them then you might want to reconsider jamming A2s specifically.

In summary, you can jam A2s in this spot because you block the hands that will call and unblock the hands that will fold, while generating folds from better hands.

Solvers don't come with an explanation, so you have to use logic to better understand why it recommends one line over another.

Most poker problems can be solved with a logical thought process.

Practical tip: come up with your own logical questions to answer before your next decision.

5. Continuous improvement

If you're a serious student of the game, you should be looking for ways to make continuous improvement.

It's not enough to just read this newsletter issue and believe you can crush your next final table.

I believe you will have a better understanding of the key lessons from my book, but to really excel you need to establish a regular habit of off-table study.

Here are 8 ways you can improve your final table game:

  • Reviewing marked hands

  • Reviewing the whole final table to identify additional spots you have questions about, and this can include hands where you weren’t involved

  • The same as above, but with a study partner, coach or group who will be able to identify the spots you’re missing

  • Buying and reading my new book, 'The Final Table'

  • ICM apps like DTO preflop and postflop

  • Watching hole cards up replays on YouTube and running those spots

  • Setting up and running your own toy games

Practical tip: This week, start to work on at least one of these methods and watch your understanding of final table strategy improve.


The 5 key lessons from my new book:

1. ICM is a mathematical model that helps you calculate the real monetary value of your chips in a tournament, which can be used to form a winning strategy

2. Risk premium is the extra equity you need to make a profitable call or play in a tournament, and it affects your entire strategy on a final table.

3. Your strategy in the big blind is guided by your risk premium against the opener.

4. If you can explain your ideas and how you think about poker, you will become a better poker player.

5. Always look for ways to make progress every day.

Good luck in your study and on your next final table!


Whenever you're ready, here's how I can help you:

The Final Table: Play your best poker when the most is at stake. Detailed analysis of over 100 hand examples at different stages of play. Learn how to make great decisions every time and set yourself up for daily progress.

Poker On The Mind: Listen to my podcast with Dr Tricia Cardner as we discuss peak poker performance and tournament poker strategy.

Train & Play Like The Pros: Join the next cohort of my flagship program that will take you from amateur to training and playing like the pros in the next 8 weeks. There are only 12 spots for each cohort, and when they're gone, they're gone and I close enrolment until the next one.

Purposeful Practice for Poker: Gain a clear theoretical understanding of the science of purposeful practice and how you can apply it to your poker study & training. Includes specific exercises designed to create an infallible plan for poker improvement.


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