An Introduction to The Independent Chip Model (ICM) for SNGs

ICM IS Easy To Understand – Yet Easily Misunderstood.
The Indepenent Chip Model For Sit N Go Tournaments - The Basics, Math and Practical Tips for Using ICM in SNG Tournaments

In its simplest form the Independent Chip Model (ICM) in Poker is a way of representing your current equity in a tournament prize pool based on the stack sizes of the remaining players and the payout structure. That is to say, given your chip stack and the payouts - then running the tournament 100's of times (so that chance factors even out), how much would you win on average?

Once you know how much equity you have in a SNG prize pool you can compare the amount risked by making a play to the potential gain. This gives a whole new perspective on your decisions - and invariably makes them more profitable in the SNG bubble situation. Even if you choose not to use this model yourself it is important that you understand it, since you will then know what is driving the decisions of many of your opponents at the bubble, and can adjust accordingly.

Mark's Note: I'll talk about ICM Calculators a lot during this article. These are tools which calculate the value (in dollars) of push, call and folds in end-game situations. To say this information is 'gold' would be an understatement. You'll be able to make better decisions than your opponents over and over again... which is exactly the way good poker players make money. I recommend the #1 ICM calculator - ICMIZER - check out the latest version, ICMIZER 2 - you can try it for 3 calculations / day for free. See now for the details!

ICM For SNG Tournaments - A Key Fact About Prize Pool Equity

Before we get to the math of how prize pool equity is calculated, an overview of the single biggest 'revelation' new players experience when discovering Poker ICM for the first time. At the bubble your gain in equity is usually far lower than the equity you risk in an all-in situation...

Lets create a hypothetical situation where there is a $100 prize pool, 1000 chips to start and we now have 4 players at the bubble with 2500 chips each and the standard 50% for 1st, 30% for 2nd 20% for 3rd payout structure - we will ignore blinds for now to keep the numbers simple.

Prize pool equity is easy to work out here, each player is the same with a $25 stake. Now we see 2 players go all-in and player 1 bust out. Player 2 now has 5000 chips, with 3 and 4 unchanged on 2500 chips.

Our question is, how does the prize pool equity look now?

After all - 1st prize is $50, but with 3 players still in the game it is not realistic to assume player 2 will always take 1st place here! Using a basic ICM calculator we can find out exactly what the equity is for each of the 3 players.

Player 2: 5000 Chips - $38.33c Equity

Player 3: 2500 Chips - $30.83c Equity

Player 4: 2500 Chips - $30.83c Equity

Note that player 2's equity increased from $25 to $38.33c here - an increase of $13.33. However, in order to gain this extra equity this player had to risk the $25 stake he already had, a risk of $25 to gain $13.33. In simple terms this player was laying equity odds of 2-to-1 against himself at the bubble of a SNG tournament. We should also note that the players who were not in the hand have each gained a significant $5.83c in equity!

Here is the key to understanding and using ICM to shape your SNG Bubble Strategy - since your risk will always be bigger than your gain you need to have a huge edge against an opponent to 'correctly' get involved in a big pot. We discuss how to apply ICM logic to your decision making below.

Mark's Rec: If you have not yet got my course 'Planet Mark's SNG Blueprint' I recommend you grab a copy! This is free to readers, and explains not only ICM / Prize pool equity, but details of how this affects your strategy from the very first hand that you play. You can find a preview + more details of the 4 parts over at this page: Planet Mark's SNG Blueprint - check it out now!

Poker ICM - Using SNG ICM To Make Profitable Bubble Decisions.

Continuing the above example, let us look at a situation where it makes mathematical sense to fold the 'best hand' at the bubble.

You have Ace-Ten, and based on an assessment of the entire range of hands your opponent may have pushed all-in with you assess yourself as 60% favorite against their range. With equal stacks as above you are risking $25 to win $13.33 - is 60% favorite enough here??

Again we can calculate the average win / loss using an ICM Calculator - we recommend SNG WIZ for all of these calculations.

So after 100 hands....

  • 60 Times you win and have $36 equity 60*36 = $2160
  • 40 Times you lose and have $0 equity.40*0 = $0

So at the end of 100 tries you have $2160/100 or $21.6 in equity - the play costs you $2.40c each time you make it when compared to folding!!! Let me ask a question - is your ROI above 24%??

This shapes bubble strategy significantly, since it will be very unlikely that an opponent has a hand good enough to risk their equity you will see many 'any-2 card' pushes followed by the blinds folding. Aggressive players are pushing based on the fact that their opponents can not 'mathematically' call. We recommend that you ensure you are the one pushing all-in at the bubble where possible - and not the player who is calling.

Poker ICM - Understanding That We Are Talking About Real Money, Not Hypothetical Equity

If you have understood the logic of using the Independent Chip Model so far then you are already on the road to significantly increasing your SNG profits. However, there is one point that many people who understand ICM miss - we are talking about real money!!

In our 60% example we calculated an average loss of $2.40c - this is a real $2.40c and a real 24% of a buy-in mistake. Of course, opponents could make worse mistakes and you could find many positive expectation spots to balance this... but the point still holds, if you make mistakes this big in SNG tournaments it will be far more difficult to make a profit over the long term than if you do not.

This is where software and analysis of your game when not at the table comes into its own. Running your hand histories through SNG Wiz will highlight any and all 'bad plays' at the bubble based on sometimes complex dynamics between hands, ranges, blinds and chip stacks at the bubble. This even includes opportunities to go all-in with a positive expectation that you might have missed!

ICM Intro Article

Poker ICM - Decisions Can Be Complex Especially With Novice Opponents

While against players who also understand ICM the decision making process can be relatively straight forward, if you are playing against opponents who have not come across this model you will start to see 'horror calls' at the bubble. You need to understand that adjusting to bad opponents in bubble situations is up to you, it is futile to berate someone for a 'mathematically bad call' which decimates your chips - you need to plan and adjust for this in advance.

You can do this by working on how to determine the calling ranges of various opponents, as well as assessing the influence of stack sizes (for example a mini-stack at the bubble will significantly tighten up the ranges of most thinking opponents with a medium-sized stack). If you get it wrong and are called 'light' then it can pay to look back through the hand history of that tournament to see if there were any clues you missed - remember, you only control your own actions and need to determine where and when to adjust.

Seeking Out Bad Opponents: Many players stick to their favorite site without even considering how the opponents there compare to those elsewhere. When you think about it, bad opponents can make a huge difference to your profits! Check out my detailed guide to the Best Site For SNGs for a site-by-site rundown!

Poker ICM - What Other Information is Needed in order to use ICM at the bubble?

The first thing to mention is that some information is missing here - you can not base decisions on $ equity calculations without having an understanding of relative strength of hands against ranges of hands that your opponents might push with.

For example, you have pocket 10's and face an all in from the big stack at the bubble, based on $ equity you need 65% against his range of hands and estimate that range as any pair, any ace, K7 suited + or any 2 cards 10 or above... you need to know whether you have the required edge in advance. We Suggest ‘Pokerstove’ as a good starting point if you have not learned these.

Secondly you need to estimate that range of hands which your opponents will push all in with or call your all in bets with. Without this your $ equity knowledge is useless. For example if player A will call with 65% of hands you can not profitably push into him to steal blinds with as wide a range as someone who is only calling with top 10%. Accurately estimating bubble push and call ranges is a key component of profitable SNG play – see the other SNG Planet Articles on this topic.

Once you can estimate ranges the next step is to get an ICM calculator such as ICMIZER 2. You input the stack sizes, blind sizes and your estimates of pushing / calling ranges and these tools tell you whether your push or call has a positive or negative expectation. This tools is worth the (monthly) price tag many times over. For more information see

Poker ICM - What ICM Can Not Do

Important - ICM is no magic bullet, it helps you make good bubble decisions based on prize pool equity decisions that will give you an edge long term - but that is all!

ICM does not account for Blinds properly, for example the short stack is next in the BB and is all-in, you are fairly sure of 20% equity if he busts... ignore the range ICM tells you to call the big stack with, tighten up further!

ICM does not take skill differences between the players. If you are outclassed at a table you may have a better chance of winning by taking a gamble early, conversely if you outmatch your opposition it may pay to decline a small +$ev move early to wait for a better spot later.

Understanding ICM can not save you from hideous bubble calls. We have all seen them right, someone gambling with their 23% equity with J6 suited when the math would show clearly that they needed 70% against their opponents range.

It is up to you to spot these players and adjust accordingly - nothing is going to stop some people from spewing both their equity and yours to the players not in the hand!! Be particularly aware of your own image at the table, pushing all in 2 or 3 times in a row and winning the blinds is great - be aware that the 3rd or 4th push might very well be called by a weak holding and make sure that your $equity edge justifies the risk against a much looser calling range.

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Poker ICM - Summary And Next Steps

If you take one thing from this section it should be that doubling your chip stack does not usually double your prize pool equity... I strongly suggest readers who are new to this change stack sizes in a calculator such as SNG Wiz and see what effect moving the chips around has on each players $ equity... this understanding is vital to the next step - using ICM tp profit from the tables!

Serious About Improving Your SNG Profits? Then Find Out For Yourself Just How Powerful The SNG Wiz Software Is By Taking The Free 30 Day Trial Now.

There are several software programs that will quickly improve your knowledge of ICM – and thus your SNG profits. I recommend ICMIZER 2 - which is more flexible than any other tool, working with many sites data and SNG variations. You can try it out for free for 3 calculations per day - and the effect on your bankroll will make any subscription pay for itself many times over. Check out for more. 

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