So you’ve won a satellite into the Sunday Million, made it through the early and middle stages, navigated the bubbles like an expert, and now find yourself at the final table. Congratulations! What now?
Obviously, the intricacies of final table play can’t be covered completely in a single article, but let’s cover some of the essential basics here. Firstly, it’s important to understand ICM at least on a basic level. If you are already a student of ICM then you can skip this next bit… but for those who aren’t sure or this is new, let’s summarize with a very basic and contrived example to illustrate what ICM is all about.
Let’s say you’re at the final table, 9 handed. You have a 75bb stack and are in the big blind position. The chip leader is on your right with 125bb’s, and the other 7 players all have exactly 1 big blind after posting their antes (I said it was contrived, to illustrate the concept clearly). Action folds around to the big stack in the SB, and they announce all in. Perhaps for the sake of the example let’s say this is a live event and you are 100% certain the small blind player has not looked at their hand. You laugh and then look down at QQ. What’s the correct play?
Obviously, QQ is a significant favorite over a random hand. About 80% to be exact. But this is a clear ICM fold. The difference between the 9th place payout and the 2nd place payout is astronomical, and if you fold every hand to the chip leader, you are essentially assured of getting heads up and locking up 2nd place money. If you call, 80% of the time you’ll double through and be a solid chip leader. But 20% of the time you’ll lose and bust out in 9th place, which is a disaster of nuclear proportions when the other 7 players have literally no stack and simply folding guarantees you at least 2nd place money (once heads up you may still win, a single double through then would give you a 3-1 chip lead). This is the crux of what ICM is all about. Because of the pay jumps and chip distributions, ICM dictates it’s correct to make some folds that on the surface are counter-intuitive and in a cash game setting would be laughably bad.
Now that you have an idea of what ICM means, let’s look at how to approach the final table based on your stack size relative to the other FT players:
As one of the big stacks, you can pick on the medium stacks pretty comfortably. Get a feel for how the FT is playing. If the players seem to be a bit tight, desperate to not make a mistake, take that as a license to execute a lot of small steals, picking up small pot after small pot. The medium stacks make the best targets for this because, tactically speaking, they are in poor ICM spots not wanting to bust prior to the short stacks. Obviously, with good hands, you can try to take short stacks out. Confrontations with other big stacks should be handled with care, as you don’t want to end up with the “QQ story” from the contrived example above and 9th place money.
As a medium stack, you are perhaps the most handcuffed. We know we can’t simply wait for premium hands and expect to win the tournament, but it’s hard to find good steal spots as well. Short stacks are looking for a chance to double up and if they take that chance against you, they get the bonus of not only doubling up but also creating a new short stack should they succeed. The big stacks know you don’t want to carelessly risk busting before the shorties, and thus they can deliver a lot of ICM pressure on you that you simply won’t be able to reasonably stand without a very strong holding. The best targets for your steal-opens will actually be the other medium stacks, as they are subject to the same ICM pressure your medium stack is. Keep in mind, the aggressor is the one putting the ICM pressure on the potential caller. If you have 15bb’s and your opponent also has 15bb as the medium stacks, and there are a couple of really short stacks at the table if you are going to open into this opponent be the one moving all in. The ICM pressure on them to fold all but the biggest of hands is enormous. If you min-raise and they shove over the top, now that pressure is on you.
Try to get a feel for how the table is playing. If the medium and big stacks are playing recklessly, it’s okay to be a bit more patient in your hand selection and maybe wait a few of them out. I’ve been at a final table before where I came in 9/9 with about 10 big blinds, and we were 5 handed the first time I put my chips in. The other players were reckless, to my pay jump benefit. If they seem to know what they’re doing, then people are not going to just punt randomly. And you are not likely to have enough ammo to wait for confrontations between 2 big hands. So you’ll have to pick your spots and be prepared to take your chances. The sooner you can find a spot, the better. If you make your move with 7bb, you may have some fold equity (and taking the blinds and antes without a fight, even if only a small % of the time, is huge), and when you double you’ll have about 16bb when the smoke clears, leaving you in a position to fight. If you wait until you have less than 3bb, well then you have no fold equity as the big blind player at the very least will be priced in to call with any 2 cards, and if you survive the all in hand you’re right back to where you started from at 7bb and need to do it all over again! Ironically the best targets to shove lighter on are again, the medium stacks (notice a trend here?). Those stack sizes that, should they call you and lose, would be short… they have the most pressure on them and thus you’ll realize the highest fold equity against them.
No matter what happens, it’s an amazing feat to make the final table of the Sunday Million. Now that you’re here, take a few deep breaths, try to stay as relaxed as possible, and focus intently on how your opponents are playing. What are they showing down when hands are seen, how did they play them, and keep constant attention to the stack sizes and changing stack dynamics so you are on top of who has the most ICM pressure on them and who is in a position to exert that pressure. Stay patient and observant, and take the spots when you see them, and maybe we’ll see you crowned Sunday Million Champion.