The Bubble: What is it and how do you survive it in poker tournaments?

the bubble in poker tournaments
Posted on: July 17, 2023 08:00 PDT

The bubble is one of the most fascinating dynamics in tournament poker. It creates a thrill and intensity that’s almost unrivalled in the game. No one wants to be the so-called ‘bubble boy’ or ‘bubble girl’.

In layman’s terms, the bubble is the moment in a poker tournament where one more player must be knocked out before all remaining entrants are in the money.

The potential of getting so close to cashing but falling at the final hurdle can cause players to act very differently on the bubble. Honing your bubble strategy is essential to give yourself the best chance of running deep in the most significant events with the biggest prizes.

Why do the dynamics of poker tournaments change as the bubble approaches?

For many poker players, just cashing in a multi-table tournament is seen as a success. Fewer poker players will genuinely play to win, at least in the first instance. This makes the bubble even more emotive, particularly if the tournament has been gruelling. The last thing you want is to invest a whole day (sometimes more) of your time only to miss out on a profit in a matter of minutes or seconds.

That’s why the bubble can create something of a mental barrier for poker players to overcome, especially inexperienced ones. Amateur poker players will typically overtighten as the bubble approaches. They’ll become the nittiest nit you’ve ever seen and decide only to play pocket aces and kings.

Although this might be a prudent approach for those with enough blinds to bide their time, it can be a form of poker suicide if your chip stack is well below the average and is fast dwindling away by antes and blinds.

Experienced poker players often relish the bubble. It’s an opportunity to raise nervous, nitty players and force them into making difficult decisions at a time when all they’re thinking about is making the money.

What happens after the bubble bursts?

You can almost guarantee a period of frenetic action once the bubble bursts in a major poker tournament. There will be several short-stacked players who clung on for the bubble to burst. Most of these will take a gung-ho approach after the bubble. For these players, they’ve nothing to lose. They’re too short-stacked to bide their time for the nuts, and most will be happy to have cashed at the very least.

Those with less than ten big blinds frequently look to double-up and go all in. Typically, players with at least 25 or more big blinds will feel in good shape to play their usual game. However, they will also have the capital to withstand a bad beat when taking calculated risks against aggressive short stacks.

Pointers to help improve your tournament play on the bubble

  • Don’t be afraid to play poker hands against players you perceive to be weak. If you’ve visibly seen opponents tighten up on the bubble, take advantage and push them to decisions in position.
  • Be prepared to lay down decent hands. Even if a hand may be in your range to shove over the top of a raiser in late position, it doesn’t make it an insta-call. The bubble is not the time to speculate to accumulate – unless you are one of the chip leaders and can absorb bad beats.
  • Speaking of big stack strategy, as one of the chip leaders at your table, loosen your hand range. Raise frequently to try and hoover up the antes and blinds, but call opponents’ bets rarely. Any opponent prepared to bet or raise on the bubble will likely have a strong hand.
  • Keep track of the tournament clock. You can assess when the antes and blinds go up, pick the right time to be aggressive, and avoid being blinded out on the bubble.

High-profile poker stories on the tournament bubble

Several dramatic stories are linked to the bubble in major poker tournaments, including the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event.

  • At the 2021 WSOP Main Event, the last player to get knocked out before the money received a £10,000 buy-in for the 2022 WSOP Main Event. This is known in the trade as ‘bubble protection’. Kevin Campbell was the unlucky player to burst the bubble after seeing his pocket aces cracked by Chris Alafogiannis’ A-9 suited. Alafogiannis spiked a fifth club on the river to land a winning flush and dump out New Jersey-based Campbell in 1,001st place.
  • In 2019, a cluster of cash-rich amateurs and poker pros entered the Triton Million – a charity poker tournament with a £1 million buy-in, with £50,000 of every buy-in donated to 15 charities. £2.7 million of the £54 million prize pool was consequently donated to charity. Igor Kurganov was involved in what was dubbed the ‘biggest poker bubble in history’.

    He moved all in with pocket tens, but Bill Perkins called with his better pocket jacks. A jack on the flop effectively ended Kurganov’s hopes. A spade on the turn gave him a chance of a runner-runner flush, but it wasn’t to be, and he missed out on a final table profit of at least £400,000.
  • Sometimes, just cashing in a major poker tournament means everything. That was the case at the 2019 PokerStars Players Championship, with many of the 1,039 entrants qualifying for free with their Platinum Passes. Consequently, the minimum cash of £19,470+ was a huge carrot for many.

    As play tightened around the bubble, the tournament had to be played hand-for-hand for two-and-a-half gruelling hours before an outright cooler for Northern Irishman Paul Leckey, whose kings were beaten by Tianle Wang’s aces to send the room wild with delight.