AngusD switched from pro chess to poker two decades ago and has been professionally involved in the game on numerous levels since the very beginning of online poker, including playing as a poker ambassador both online and at major festivals around the globe. He has written much about the game over the years, and brings to YPD a wealth of experience in all aspects of the poker industry. Meanwhile, his many years on the pro chess circuit (he’s an International Master and prolific author) afford him an interesting perspective on the psychology of poker.

· Published 29.01.2021 · last updated 29.01.2021

As online poker players gain experience and try out this or that game or format, we eventually find ourselves doing quite well in a tournament to the point at which we’re on the verge of getting into the prizes. The nerves might have been jangling for a while as we’ve managed to bob and weave to survive this far, but the tension tends to come to a crescendo when the so-called Bubble phase arrives…

This is the stage of a poker tournament when the number of remaining players exceeds the number of prizes by just one. For example, should a tournament pay out 50 prizes and there are 51 players still battling it out, they are said to be ‘on the bubble’, and whoever is unlucky enough to be eliminated next, in 51st place, sees their hard work go unrewarded, while everyone else is in the money.

Being knocked out in these circumstances can be (hopefully only momentarily) a frustrating experience, and there is a tendency – even as the bubble approaches – for players near the bottom of the placings to effectively shut up shop and not get involved, in the hope of avoiding being the bubble.

The threat is stronger than its execution

The above is a chess term that is also applicable to poker (and, indeed, to life in general!). The concept revolves around how the fear of something bad happening can so easily lead us act in a way that worsens our situation when carrying on as normal would have been a better option. The fear of a potentially negative outcome or event can be debilitating and damage our ability to function properly or to think rationally. It’s not infeasible for the worry levels to rise so high that we take unwise, unnecessary preventative measures that leave us worse off than had we simply kept our nerve.

Don’t be phased

When the bubble stage begins, it’s imperative that we don’t allow ourselves to be afraid of the worst case scenario. This potential ‘disaster’ is, at the end of the day, merely being eliminated from a poker tournament! Of course, it’s nice to get into the money, but even the best players on the planet get knocked out of tournaments – and regularly, too. That’s the beauty of online poker – we can find tournaments 24/7, every day of the year.

With this in mind, rather than freezing and going into our shell, or flailing out in panic with irrational, risky plays, we should be looking to exploit the fact that so many of our opponents are prone to doing exactly these things. This is a fantastic situation because we’re essentially being presented with a golden opportunity –  for only a limited period – to use our wits and hoover up bucketloads of ‘abandoned’ chips that will be left in the middle because other players are too afraid to get involved.

While our fellow players are desperate to protect their stacks, we should be on the lookout to add to ours! 

Be a Bubble Bully

The bubble period, then, is our special Happy Hour; it’s the proverbial goose that lays the golden egg, the gift that keeps on giving. In fact, assuming we make the most of it, we want it to keep going as long as possible. It’s during the bubble phase that players noticeably change their style of play depending on how many chips they have.

Most of the short stacks tend to retreat into their proverbial shells, refusing to come out again until they’ve made the prizes, folding hand after hand and hoping they have enough chips to outlast even shorter stacks. Some also slow down dramatically but are waiting for a strong hand to shove with, while others (a minority) throw caution to the wind, go all-in with anything and hope for the best. If we are unfortunate enough to also be struggling, then the best policy is to waste not a single chip, and find a spot to be proactive and shove while we have fold equity. The aim is to give ourselves a working stack we can weaponise rather than allow ourselves to get so short that we can no longer get involved on our own terms. Remember that being short-stacked in this bubble situation doesn’t mean we can’t exploit other short stacks, and nor does it prevent us from putting pressure on those with middling stacks who simply want to keep their powder dry. Yes – you read that correctly: instead of allowing ourselves to be bullied by players with more chips we should be turning the tables and bullying them. This is because those players who are essentially ‘safe’ can be just as shackled by fear as the short stacks. The logic here is that Player A, with a decent stack of 20,000 isn’t going to risk losing a coin-toss (even when a favourite) against Player B who is short-stacked with 10,000 in case they lose and the roles are reversed, with Player A suddenly in the danger zone.

Our task is to identify in what direction, and to what extent, our opponents have adjusted their styles and habits to cope with the bubble, and take advantage of them as much as possible. The more chips we have the better but, as we have seen, it’s by no means out of the question to be able to do this even with a short stack, and not only against others short on chips, but also those players who feel safe and want to stay that way.

The important message to keep reminding ourselves is that scraping into the money to win barely more than our buy-in back is a faulty plan, and that when the bubble approaches we should be rubbing our hands together at the prospect of so many players leaving themselves susceptible to exploitation. Be a bubble bully…

Have fun!

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