July 29, 2023 Poker Strategy, Poker News Lars Liedtke

Independent Chip Model – What is ICM in poker and how to use it in tournaments?

In our latest poker strategy article poker coach and tournament crusher John “WhatA298” Bradley explains what the Independent Chip Model (ICM) is and how to benefit from it.

Independent Chip Model – What is ICM in poker and how to use it in tournaments1

In poker tournaments the chips you accumulate are not equivalent to a cash value. You only receive cash based on your finishing position in the tournament.

This means that, unlike in a cash game, each chip you win or lose is not of equal value, and this, in turn, leads to significant differences in the strategy you should adopt.

What is the Independent Chip Model (ICM) in poker?

The Independent Chip Model (ICM) is a mathematical model used in tournament poker to estimate the value of a player’s chips at any given moment.

The best way to understand the concept is through looking at an example.

Let us say, you buyin to a $1,000 tournament with 10 players, 3 positions paying, and starting stacks of 1,000 chips. Here are the payouts:

  • 1st: $5,000
  • 2nd: $3,000
  • 3rd: $2,000

If you win all the 10,000 chips in play, your stack will be worth $5,000, as this is the payout for winning the tournament.

Therefore, a chip which was worth $1 at the start of the tournament, is now worth 50c, and has halved in value.

This shows how, in tournaments, the goal is not simply to win as many chips as possible, as it is in a cash game.

In tournaments, survival, and protecting your current stack, is a very large part of the strategic decision.

In a tournament, every chip you win, is worth less than every chip you lose, and thus, you are incentivised not to take marginal spots, particularly when on a money bubble.

What is ICM Pressure?

In tournaments, as discussed above, you should always be a little more cautious than in a cash game.

How cautious you should be, changes throughout the course of the tournament however.

When there is no need for caution, as in a cash game, you can be said to be playing a ChipEV strategy.

As the need for caution increases, it can be said that the ICM pressure on you is increasing.

One of the times when your strategy should be closest to chipEV is, the early stage of a tournament, but it is worth noting that, even at that stage, you should still be playing slightly more conservative than chipEV.

The amount of ICM pressure on you increases throughout the tournament, until the bubble, where it spikes.

The pressure then drops, before rising again as you reach the final table bubble, where it spikes once more.

As the final table progresses, the ICM pressure decreases, until heads-up, when you can once again play a chipEV strategy.

ICM Poker Strategy Adjustments

ICM calculations are very complicated, and so it is very useful to use programs such as Holdem Resources Calculator or GTO Wizard, to help you get an idea of how much your strategy should shift in various scenarios.

It is useful to see the difference between a chipEV strategy and an ICM strategy, as is shown below.

First, let us look at a chipEV output for a scenario where HJ shoves around 12bb and you are in the CO:

Independent Chip Model – What is ICM in poker and how to use it in tournaments

You can see that you are supposed to call nearly 12% of hands.

Now let us look at the same situation, but now you are nearing the bubble as one of the shortest stacks:

Independent Chip Model – What is ICM in poker and how to use it in tournaments2

Your calling range is supposed to decrease by nearly 75%!

Hands which were a call at chipEV, such as 44, are now losing more than half the value of calling AA:

Independent Chip Model – What is ICM in poker and how to use it in tournaments3

This spot is fairly extreme, but it does show how important becoming aware of ICM is.

ICM in Satellites

In tournaments such as satellites, the ICM pressure is even higher. In a satellite tournament, it does not matter whether you finish with 1 million chips or 1 chip, the only thing that matters is surviving to the payouts.

In satellite tournaments, it can even be correct to fold AA preflop.<