A Detailed Guide on ICM Poker Strategy

Last updated on : 28 Jan, 2021

ICM Poker- The Only Guide for You

Have you participated in poker tournaments? While the potential of winning big money increases as you progress ahead in the tournament, you do not win all the money even if you happen to win all the chips – especially when multiple players share the prize pool. This is because the number of chips and their value are not directly correlated. So, what’s in ICM Poker? As a poker player, you need to know the worth of your chips (or chips stack) at any moment in a tournament. It gives you an idea about the prize money you can expect to win with those chips.

Just because you might have many chips at a specific stage of the game doesn’t mean that you are doing well. And similarly, if you are having very few chips at a particular stage, then, it won’t necessarily mean that you are not doing well. In either scenario, the value of chips would determine if you are doing well or not!

So, at any stage during the Poker tournament, you cannot measure your profitability in terms of the number of chips, and instead you should consider the monetary profitability of your decisions. For this purpose, you need to know the real value of the chips (stack of chips). This is where the ICM Poker concept comes into play by enabling you to assign monetary value to your chip stack.

What are the advantages of using this ICM Poker strategy and how does it work in tournaments? Let us deep dive into this concept.

ICM Poker – Getting introduced

ICM stands for Independent Chip Model (ICM) which is one of the most popular methods to ascertain the monetary value for chip stacks in a game of poker. How does ICM Poker do it? By converting the players stacks in chips (for Sit N Go as well as Multi-Table Tournament Poker) into their real money equity, in terms of percentage of the total / remaining prize pool. In other words, it helps to evaluate chip stacks through:

  • estimation of the probability of each player finishing at a specific place, and
  • calculation of their equity in the total / remaining prize pool

Thus, the ICM Poker strategy enables you to determine how much of the prize pool will you get if the tournament ended at that particular moment with a final table pay-out. In a way, the ICM poker strategy helps you to take better decisions with regards to your next move in that game.

ICM in Poker Tournaments

Difference between Tournament and Cash Games

When you play any cash games, the value corresponding to your chip remains constant. It means that a $10 chip will be worth $10. This makes life really easy for you as you are fully aware of the monetary value of your chips at any particular stage of the game. But, the same does not hold true in a tournament, where you do not know the value of the chips stack without making calculations. Hence, to be able to take better decisions to ensure you stand a chance to win, you need to make use of the ICM Poker strategy. So, whats in ICM Poker?

Consider the example of a tournament (for better understanding) – where the value of every chip varies as any player gets eliminated and as payouts rise. Here, it becomes difficult for you to guess the right value corresponding to the chips stack at different stages of the Poker tournament that you are in. Remember, a tournament takes a long time to complete. Be on top of your game to understand your own standing in comparison to other players, so that you know when you have to take it slow and when you can go aggressive.

In a cash game, when you double up, you automatically double your equity as well as stack and money. But, what happens when you double up in a tournament? Does your equity also double up? Not really. Let’s understand this in detail with a simple example.

Poker Tournament Example to Understand Correlation between Chips Stack and Equity for ICM

Consider a tournament (Sit N Go) where standard pay-outs are declared at the start – 65% to the winner (1st position), 25% to the second position player, and 10% to the third position player. Rest of the players at positions other than the top three won’t win anything. Each player is provided with 100 tournament chips against the $100 they paid, bringing a total of 1000 chips into play and a sum of $1000 to be paid out to the winners.

Before the commencement of the game, each of the ten players can be considered to have the same EV (Expected Value) of 10% since all of them begin with same number of chips. Imagine if the first player doubles up and the tenth player loses (goes bust). In such a scenario, the first player will now have a total of 200 chips, and the remaining eight players will have 100 chips each. Clearly, the first player holds 20% of the tournament chips that are in play, but has he managed to double his tournament equity from the initial 10%? The answer is ‘NO’. Why?

Please remember that the structure of the prize pool announced at the start was different, with different pay out for the winners (three places up for grabs in this example). So, doubling up the chips won’t exactly double up the EV (Estimated Value).

Instead if there would have been just one possible winner who gets the entire prize money, then, the first player would have a 20% shot at getting the entire 100% of the prize pool, thereby, taking his tournament equity to 20%. But, is that the case? No, because we have three winner positions, with different prize money (percentage) assigned to each. And the maximum any player can win is 65% of the total prize pool, equivalent to 65% of the equity.

For this example, if you use an effective ICM calculator, you will arrive at a tournament equity of 19% for the first player (who doubled up). Clearly, the equity doesn’t exactly double up even when the chips are doubled for the first player.

This example proves why ICM calculator is required to understand the exact equity for a player, in correspondence to the number of chips he has, at a particular moment in the tournament. You can play at Spartan Poker online and make use of ICM calculators to develop an understanding of how to guess the approximate equity for a player against the chips stack he possesses. You have to be wary of how many players are left in the game and about the overall prize pool that you are playing for.

Is this getting too complex for you? Well, ICM is more of a mathematical model, but, once you start learning to adopt the ICM poker strategy to play Poker using it, you would realise it is not so difficult. It is all about getting yourself acquainted to this method and the way it works.

Arriving at the Formula for ICM Calculator

Let us consider a simple example where in a SNG (Sit N Go) game, there are 3 players involved who pay $100 each to make the total prize pool worth $300. Each of them will get 100 chips in return, and the payout declaration is as under:

1st Position - $200

2nd Position - $100

3rd Position - $0

Before the play commences, every player has equal chance of claiming the 1st position or the 2nd position on the basis of the number of chips they possess (100 chips each). For the first hand, one of the players goes bust (folds in) and the other two players go all-in. So, now out of the two remaining players, one player has 200 chips and the other has 100 chips. What is the corresponding value for both these players? It is definitely not $200 and $100 respectively.

Using ICM calculation, you will arrive at a value of $166.7 for the player with 200 chips and a value of $133.3 for the player holding 100 chips. You must be wondering how did we arrive at such numbers? Let us find it out below:

When one of the players got eliminated, both the remaining players stood a chance of winning at least $100 (which is the 2nd position prize money). This guaranteed prize is considered in the calculation of the value for the chips held by these two players.

The formula suitable for calculation for the player holding 200 chips is as under:

Guaranteed prize + [(number of chips held)/ (total chips) * (Difference between 1st position and 2nd position winning prize)]

= 100 + [(200/300)*100]


Similarly, the calculation for the player holding 100 chips is as under:

100 + [(100/300)*100]

= 133.3

Isn’t this easy with ICM Poker Calculator? This Independent Chip Model concept shows that while a player bears the risk of losing out on the $100 he had (before commencing play), he can only win an additional $66.7 by doubling up in the first hand (as was the case with the player who ended up holding 200 chips).

This ICM Poker example demonstrates that the value of chips you hold (or can lose) is much bigger than the value of chips you win. And so, it is vital that you preserve your chips and avoid throwing them away by bluffing in certain hands. Remember, every chip saved is equivalent to a chip earned.

How does the ICM Poker Concept Work?

There are two main parameters that are considered by ICM Poker:

  • Chip Stacks of Players remaining in the tournament
  • Payout list / structure

The ICM algorithm works out a calculation on the basis of these two parameters for the EV (Expected Value) for every remaining player in the tournament.

So, how does this ICM algorithm work out? Let us find out some of the steps involved:

? Step 1: Calculating the Probability of claiming first position The chips stack sizes are utilized to determine the probability for each of the remaining players to get the first prize (or claim the first position). The ICM assumption in this case is that a player having X% of the chips wins the tournament in X% of all the cases.

? Step 2: Calculating the Probability of claiming the other positions (second, third, and so on) This calculation is done in a similar way as the above one, but this becomes slightly more complicated. This is because the probability of a player claiming second position is determined by considering all scenarios where the player does not win (claim the first place). This is followed by removal of the chips stack of the winner and the second place probability for the player is calculated by the proportion of chips he is holding to the remaining chips, along with addition of all the probabilities. This same process is used for calculating the probability for other positions (third, fourth, and so on).

? Step 3: Calculating the Expected Value (EV) Finally, the ICM algorithm multiplies the probabilities for every player’s finish distribution with the payouts, and the resulting values are added to give EV for every individual player remaining in the tournament.

ICM Limitations

While it is extremely useful to use ICM in Poker tournaments and is perhaps the best-known method currently, this model comes with certain limitations. This is because of the assumptions it makes while carrying out the calculations, in order to keep it simplified. Some of these ICM assumptions are as under:

? Table image of the players involved is not relevant.

? Blinds are not relevant.

? All players on the table possess equal skills.

? Current / existing position is not relevant.

You can say that ICM neglects these factors to ensure that its calculation process is made possible.

Tips to Play ICM Poker

While we have discussed the ICM Poker calculation process in detail, it is not possible for you to make such calculations while you are playing the game at the table. Instead, you will do well to play the game in such a manner that is deemed correct by the ICM concept. Related tips are discussed below:

  • You will have better chances in tournaments by calling tighter as compared to in cash games.
  • During the early stages, you can go easy, but the impact of ICM becomes more relevant towards the later stages as players start getting eliminated. The strongest impact of ICM is just prior to the bubble and around the time when money jumps / rises in the Poker tournament.
  • When there are players remaining with fewer chips, you need to avoid narrow All-ins to gain any kind of advantage.
  • The first chip you have is the most valuable and the initial chips you hold are highly valuable as compared to the chips you can win. So, play it accordingly.
  • If the other players on the table tend to play very tightly indicating that they have an understanding of ICM, then, you should play All-Ins frequently and threaten them.
  • In a scenario where you are just a narrow favorite to win the hand, you should stay away from All-Ins or coinflips with a medium sized stack, especially just before or at bubble. Here, you can opt to fold and wait for your next hand.
  • If you are holding large chip stacks, you can use All-ins to threaten other players around you that have medium stacks. The reason is simple – players with medium stacks cannot afford to call too frequently and will call only with few hands.
  • When you realize that many players on the table do not understand ICM or are not playing as per the same concept, you can be instinctive and not always go exactly as per ICM.
  • ICM is a purely mathematical model. When you are in a game, it is entirely up to you alone to determine and make appropriate adjustments to be in a winning position. You may sometimes have to deviate from the ICM Poker strategy in order to win or lose few chips.

The Verdict
ICM is a great method for players to understand their current tournament equity while playing Poker in tournaments (SNG or MTT). It enables you to make positive EV (Estimated Value) decisions and enhance your probability of winning. This Independent Chip Model helps you to assign value to your chip stacks and you can rely on this ICM Poker strategy to win cash during the final stages or bubble phase.

The ICM calculator follows a complex algorithm, but, you can simply follow the basic foundation rules to stay aligned to this model, while playing your favorite poker game. You need to have more exposure to game time using this ICM concept and you can try out a few games online at Spartan Poker by implementing the rules related to ICM Poker strategy while playing with real money. Download the iOS poker app and play the game!

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