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What Is ICM Poker and Why Does It Matter?

Dominic Field

May 10, 2023

Man neatly stacking casino chips

An understanding of ICM poker is crucial if you want to become a successful tournament player. If you’ve heard people discussing the Independent Chip Model, but aren’t really sure what it’s all about, this guide is for you!

What Is ICM in Poker?

Let’s start with the obvious question: what is this whole ICM poker thing? In short, the Independent Chip Model (ICM) is a formula that puts a real money price on a tournament chip stack.

We all know that tournament chips have no actual monetary value. They are simply used to determine who wins the event. But ICM allows you to calculate what you can expect to win in any given tournament situation. It factors in the number of players left and their stack sizes, as well as the prize pool and payout structure. 

As such, adopting ICM poker principles can lead to decisions that are better in the long run.

Why Does ICM Matter in Poker Tournaments?

If you’re playing a cash game, the value of each chip is constant. A $1 chip really did cost you $1 to purchase and will continue to be worth $1 for the duration of the session. But in poker tournaments, the value of chips in play fluctuates based on many different variables.

Think about the famous “chip and a chair” phrase. If you really are down to your last remaining tournament chip, losing it puts you out of the game. But if you’re sitting as chip leader, losing that same single chip is close to meaningless. 

Therefore, we can conclude that not all chips have the same value. Their individual worth changes as the tournament ebbs and flows.

ICM poker theory allows us to work out the equity of a chip stack at any given moment. This information can significantly impact how we act. Especially near the money bubble, or on a final table where the payouts might rise sharply.

ICM Poker Explained

ICM Poker ExplainedThe best way to get your head around the idea of ICM is to look at an example. Imagine a $50 Sit ‘n’ Go with ten players at the table; a total prize pool of $500. Let’s eliminate the rake just to make the mathematics a little easier. The winner will take home $250, with $150 and $100 going to second and third. 

Think about the very beginning of the tournament. All ten players have an identical stack size which is obviously worth $50, since that’s what they’ve paid to enter. If everyone has 1,000 chips, we can say that each chip is worth five cents. $50 divided by 1,000 gives a value of $0.05 per chip.

However, if just three players remain, we’ve made it to the money. The lowest payout is $100. So now, all three of those chip stacks have to be valued at least $100. Even if you only have one single chip in front of you, you’re guaranteed to collect a minimum of $100. So that’s what the chip is now worth to you.

It’s this constantly changing value that ICM poker theory attempts to address.

ICM Poker Example

Imagine the state of play looks like this:

  • Player A: 6,500

  • Player B: 3,000

  • Player C: 500

The big stack is dominating, possessing 65% of the chips in play. But that doesn’t mean these chips are worth 65% of the prize pool ($325) as the top prize is only $250. The best way to work out the true value of each chip is to use an ICM calculator such as ICMIZER.

Punching the numbers into ICMIZER yields the following results:

Current Stacks Payouts Expected Value
6500 $250 $213.14
3000 $150 $173.65
500 $100 $113.21

Note that the short stack is expected to win $113.21 in the long run, despite the perilous situation. While the chip leader is only $100 better off, despite crushing.

Chip EV and Dollar EV

You may see the terms cEV (Chip Expected Value) and $EV (Dollar Expected Value) used when discussing ICM poker theory. The former applies to cash games and would be used to calculate pot odds. If you’re thinking about whether you’re getting the right price to draw, you’re considering cEV.

However, $EV is what we’re talking about with the Independent Chip Model. The figures quoted in the above example are all $EV values. This concept only applies to poker tournaments.

Applying ICM Poker Theory

Okay, so now we understand ICM poker theory a little more, but when should we apply it? The most common scenario is when organising a deal at a final table. In the above example, if the three parties wanted to arrange a chop, the fairest split would be the exact values produced by ICMIZER.

ICM poker considerations don’t just come into play for deals, though. Imagine you’re on the money bubble and you’ve picked up pocket Queens in the big blind. Two slightly smaller stacks fold, before the heavy chip leader goes all in from the small blind. Now you’re in a tough spot. 

You can’t possibly fold pocket Queens, right? This guy is shoving with such a wide range. But if you call and lose, you’re out of the tournament with no payout. With more big blinds in your stack than two other players, it’s tempting to fold and try to ladder up. 

It’s not easy to figure out what to do. But with the help of an ICM poker calculator, you can fine-tune your exact calling range in this spot. They calculate the specific hands with which you can call and still make a profit.

ICM Calculators

Independent Chip Model calculations are pretty complex. So rather than trying to understand the detailed formula, you can simply use a free ICM poker calculator. All you need to enter are the prize payouts and the specific chip stack sizes.

ICMIZER is one of the more popular ICM calculators available online. This suite of tools offers several other features to help improve your game, such as SNG Coach and a hand replayer. But other ICM poker calculators can also be found, with several websites offering their own versions.

ICMIZER ICM Calculator

Basic ICM Poker Strategy Advice

ICM considerations determine how you should play in a poker tournament. Your strategy must vary according to your relative stack size.

  • Big Stacks: The value of every additional chip you acquire declines. So there comes a point when you can afford to take risks. It barely matters if you lose a pot when you have a huge stack, but the rewards are great. This gives you the freedom to bully players who are under greater ICM pressure by raising a wider range.

  • Average Stacks: Mid-sized chips stacks theoretically have the most to lose. They don’t have the excess chips to play with and one false move can put them among the short stacks. Or even worse, find themselves eliminated before the smaller stacks. ICM poker theory dictates a solid, ABC style when you’re in such a spot.

  • Small Stacks: If you’re playing a short stack, you have the least possible amount of ICM pressure. Since you have the lowest $EV, you have the least to lose. As such, ICM poker theory suggests you should loosen up and play more aggressively to try and rebuild your stack.

Limitations of ICM 

Like a lot of theoretical concepts in the world of poker, ICM is far from perfect. One of its key limitations is that there is no way to factor skill into the model. The calculations assume everyone at the table is of equal ability, which is clearly not going to be the case for the most part.

In order to combat that particular flaw, it’s better to avoid high-variance situations with the lower part of your range whenever you have a big edge. Simply play tighter than ICM poker calculators would suggest.

Another notable limitation of ICM poker theory is that it assumes the game is over after each hand. In reality, of course, the game will continue once your decision is made. As such, ICM should be treated as an estimation, rather than a strict guideline to follow at all costs.

ICM Poker: Conclusion

Understanding ICM poker theory is vital for any player hoping to achieve long-term success. It is particularly useful when arranging final table deals. But it has practical applications for all tournament players, especially when considering how to act when nearing the money bubble.

The calculations involved are complicated, but luckily, it’s not important to understand the mathematics behind the Independent Chip Model. Instead, you can use free ICM calculators like ICMIZER to study and improve your game.

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