Interview: Dara O'Kearney on ICM and the biggest leaks you don't know about

Jon Pill
Posted on: March 27, 2022 14:07 PDT

Dara O'Kearney is familiar to most members of the poker community. He is one of Unibet's sponsored pros; as a live tournament player, he has around $1 million in cashes; and as an online player he has several million more.

He writes a blog of his own, a column for VegasSlotsOnline, and pens expert advice for CardsChat. Then there is the The Chip Race podcast which he does with David Lappin and the podcast's spin-off The Lock-In on Youtube.

He has also co-written three books on tournament strategy with Barry Carter: Satellite Poker Strategy, PKO Poker Strategy, and Endgame Poker Strategy: The ICM Book.

The most recent of the three books serves as part three in what Carter and O'Kearney see as a trilogy. O'Kearney explained this when I sat down to chat with him over Zoom about his writing, the value of knowing your ICM, and what he sees as the future of live poker.

Endgame Poker Strategy: The ICM Book

“It’s our third book," O'Kearney says. "And we do kind of think of these as a trilogy. Years ago, Barry wrote an article on poker books that hadn’t been written but he thought should be. One of those was a book on satellites. He thought maybe he should be a bit more proactive and try to get someone to write that book.

"So he came to me because I had a reputation for being a very good satellite player online and he asked me if I was interested in writing that book and I was. At the time I thought that was the only book I’d ever write.”

However, the reaction to that first book was good and the sales justified a second outing for the pair. This time around they took on another specialist form that was getting its turn in the limelight.

“At the time I was doing a lot of study on PKO tournaments," O'Kearney continues. "Because I was transitioning to those. So I suggested that topic to Barry and he said it was a good idea. The whole point about satellites is that they are the most extreme ICM tournaments that are out there. That really warps the strategy. But PKOs are the opposite. Because of the bounty element which compensates for the ICM.

“So once we’d written those two books, we thought we’d done PKO and we’d done satellites, so what about doing a general ICM book to put it all together.”

The ready market

Endgame Poker Strategy is an excellent introduction to the situations and key ways in which ICM considerations change strategy.

For a largely recreational player like me, who hasn't looked at ICM theory since giving it a glance about it on TwoPlusTwo in the mid-noughties, almost every page seemed to clarify a misunderstood concept or present some counter-intuitive solution to one of tournament poker's many problems.

I am, it seems, not alone in not having gived the concept enough attention. Which was one of the reasons, Carter and O'Kearney, saw this as a good topic to cover.

"There was another impetus," O'Kearney explains. "Which was that when I started out, the usual route for an MTT player was to spend a year or two specializing in SNGs. Because STTs are higher on the ICM dial, players like us who came through that training ground tended to be very good at ICM.

"In more recent years, I realized there are a lot of top-class tournament players who don’t really understand ICM because they play tournaments with two thousand runners with very little ICM until you get near the bubble and the second to last table. So they don’t get a lot of practice in those spots.”

The scale of the problem

What is striking is just how big a difference individual ICM spots can make to one’s win rate.

“You can be the best cash game player in the world carving out an extra two big blinds per hundred hands in the early stages of the tournament," O'Kearney says. "But in ICM terms that’s worth 2% of a buy-in.

"A minor ICM mistake near the end of a tournament, where say Ace-Jack is the worst hand you should be calling with and you call off with Ace-Ten, that could potentially cost you ten or twenty buy-ins and have a massive negative impact on your win rate.

“There’s a real need for this. There’s not much material out there. Solvers have only recently become ICM aware, so we wanted to be the first to study this.”

The focus of Endgame Poker Strategy is largely on pre-flop action. The exception to this is the final chapter in which O'Kearney and Carter take the reader into the world of post-flop ICM. It is a big topic, worthy of its own book and that is just what O'Kearney and Carter promise the reader will be their next project.

However, Dara explains that the post-flop ICM book has been put on hold for the moment

“We’ve actually side swerved on [the post-flop ICM idea]," he says. "I tend to be guided by Barry, whose role in all this is as the recreational player.

"As a result of this book, Barry got involved in the world of solvers and got very into the concept of GTO. The idea for the next book is to try to explain the idea of GTO to the recreational player. Our book is going to take game theory concepts, explain them and then show how they apply to poker, and from that how to apply the theory in a specific spot.”

Writing with Barry

Although O'Kearney is a confident and talented writer in his own right, his books have all been written with Barry Carter (who also worked with Jared Tendler on the Mental Game of Poker books).

O'Kearney talked a bit about how their dynamic works.

“The process has changed down the years. With the first book, I thought this was just going to be a brain dump — I’d tell Barry everything, he’d write it up.

"It actually turned out to be more iterative than I expected. I’d explain something to Barry, he’d write it up, and I would go ‘That’s not right, Barry.’

"Then he’d go through it again until it made sense to him. He’s the placeholder for the audience so I have to find ways to explain it to Barry in a way he can understand. As we’ve gone on, Barry’s gotten better at poker and learned to run sims and stuff. Now Barry will go off and run some sims himself and I got through them and say if they’re right or wrong and how he should interpret the data.”

An improving book

For Endgame the pair ran thousands of sims, boiling their finding down to the clearest patterns and presenting good clean examples to help guide the reader understand the broader concepts they were explaining. In the process of doing all this research I asked if O'Kearney find his own game improves as he writes.

“Not so much on the first book,” he says. “That was an area where I felt, rightly or wrongly, that I was among the best in the world but with the second book, on PKOs, it was different. It was something I was learning from scratch as we wrote.”

The third book was different again.

“Even though I know preflop ICM very well, I had certain theories on how post-flop ICM worked, but I couldn’t test those theories until the solvers became ICM aware. When they did become ICM-aware I found 95% of my theories were spot on, but there were other things I hadn’t even considered. That definitely helped my game.

“I found my ICM sharpened up over the course of the book and I definitely had an uptick online at that time which I put down to the fact that when I got deep into tournaments — last two tables let’s say — I just wasn’t making ICM mistakes.”

What's next?

I asked him — with his newly sharpened game and the tentative reopening of Europe — what his poker plans were for 2022.

“It’s an interesting time," he said. "In Europe, live poker is coming back now. It seems like every tournament that gets run in Ireland in the course of a normal year is taking place in the next couple of months. So, a lot more of my time is going to go to live poker.

He sounds excited, but not just about the prospect of getting back on the felt. He also sees a big shift in the poker landscape coming.

“I have a very strong feeling there will be a major realignment of player’s skill levels," he says. "There’s a lot of variance in how players have used the last two years.

"I know a lot of students who have put a lot of work in over lockdown. On the other hand, I have some friends who play primarily live poker and have kind of taken the last two years off. I don’t think they realize how fast the game changes. I think we’ll see some new big names created, and some pros will kind of fall off the radar.”

For him, the ever-changing nature of the game is part of the appeal.

“I love poker so much," O'Kearney says. "I just want to keep playing and studying. The main attraction for me is the whole puzzle aspect.

"I know I won’t solve poker in my lifetime, that’s for sure. So it will always be this intellectual challenge for my whole life.”

Endgame Poker Strategy: The ICM Book by Barry Carter and Dara O'Kearney is available in stores and online.

Featured image source: Unibet used under CC License .