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When to Ignore ICM: A Winning Turbo Strategy That Is ‘Outside the Box’

Online SNG Pro Albatross77 Takes Us Through His Views
On Bubble Calling Ranges And ICM In This Excellent Article

I’ve played thousands of single table turbo SNGs on PokerStars and the following situation has occurred more times than I can count.  The action is five-handed and the blinds are 200-400 with antes of 25.  I’m in third place and in the big blind with about 1900 chips.  The first two players fold and the button immediately pushes all-in for 2300 chips.  He has both the blinds covered.  The small blind immediately folds.

Before I act, what should my calling range be?  I know you’re well-versed in Poker ICM and you understand that I need a much better hand to call with than to raise with, especially with my tournament life on the line.  You’re probably thinking “any pair eights or higher as well as ace ten or better.”  After all, I need to be confident that I’m far ahead of the initial raiser’s pushing range before I commit all my chips to the pot, right?  Wrong!  I notice my computer screen showing me 9-8 off-suit and after a moment’s deliberation I click the call button.

“What a donkey!” you’re thinking.  “You called off all your chips with nine high when you still had a large stack and were in the top three!”  It’s true, I made a shameful play.  No matter what my estimation of my opponent’s pushing range, I can promise you that 9-8 is not going to be ahead of his range.  But I’m not afraid of looking stupid at the poker table and you shouldn’t be either.

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My call flies in the face of Poker ICM theory and completely ignores Sklansky’s gap concept.  For a moment, forget everything you ever learned about how to play poker correctly, because I can promise you that Turbo SNGs are a completely different animal. 

Let us imagine for a minute you listen to an ICM expert and fold your 9-8.  Guess what?  Two hands later you’re down to 1250 chips and that same “expert” will be telling you to open the pot by pushing all-in from the button when you’re dealt 9-8!  Now does that make any sense?  With the blinds that high and your stack so low you don’t have any fold equity and you find yourself gambling with the exact same hand you just folded less than a minute ago to try to win a pot that’s practically half as big!

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Look, I don’t like gambling with nine high when I’ve worked hard to build a stack.  No one does.  But the truth is that the blinds and antes eat away at your stack so fast that you’re pushing with junk before you know it.  So if you’re going to push junk when you have no fold equity then you might as well call with junk while you still have a big stack.

So I call with the 9-8.  My opponent turns over a pair of sixes (which is well within his pushing range because he’s justified in pushing a wide variety of hands in that situation).  An eight spikes on the river and Voilà! I’m the chip-leader. 

As you know, it’s a tremendous advantage to have the chip-lead as the bubble approaches in a SNG, especially with very large blinds, so I bully the larger stacks at the table for the next few rounds and I’m able to convert my "donkey call" into a relatively easy SNG victory. If I had adhered to proper Poker ICM guidelines I undoubtedly would have been in a dogfight to finish third or fourth and would have been frustrated by yet another bubble result after playing “perfect poker.”

Remember, the next time you play a Turbo SNG Tournament, the biggest mistakes your opponents will make are their FOLDS near the bubble.  Don’t be afraid to gamble on a 40/60 with middle cards.  You’ll beat your opponent’s shove with a dry ace enough times to make that move profitable.  When the blinds are big, push liberally and CALL liberally.  So many players do the former, but not the latter.  You’re looking to play big pots, to defend your blinds, and to win that crucial showdown that’s going to give you the chip-lead on the all-important bubble.

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