Those who have played tournament poker likely know all about the dreaded bubble. That is the moment in Multi-Table Tournaments where the money is just around the corner, just a few eliminations away usually. Often times, play slows down greatly, as the short stacks try to creep into the money. Any experienced MTT player will tell you that mastering play on the bubble is a great way to increase your EV in the long run. Learn more about bubble play dynamics below.

As mentioned above, the bubble in poker is the moment when the field is just one or two eliminations from the money. In a bigger field where the top 100 players would be in the money, the bubble would occur at 101 players. At that time, play would enter hand-for-hand play, meaning that every table still remaining would play one hand until every table was finished. If there is not a bust out, the same process would occur, usually taking two minutes off the clock for each round of hands. This process continues until one or more players bust out, at which point, the remaining players would be in the money.

If multiple players bust out directly on the bubble, they will usually divide up whatever the min-cash would be. So let’s say two players bust in the same round of hand-for-hand play, and the min-cash is worth $3,000. Those two players would split the min-cash, taking home $1,500 each. If just one player busts, that player will walk home with $0.

The money bubble isn’t the only bubble situation that can pop up in MTT’s. Many players will argue that the final table bubble is equally as important, even more so when it comes to tournaments like the World Series of Poker Main Event and big WPT televised Main Events. This was even more prevalent in the years when play would pause for the November Nine at the WSOP. No one wanted to bust in 10th place in those years, as they were not only missing out on the massive payouts at the final table, but also months of potential endorsement deals from websites such as PokerStars, GGPoker, 888Poker, and many more.

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The bubble can drastically affect how certain players play their hands in the leadup to the money, and it can also allows seasoned professionals to up their aggression, putting real-life money pressure on their opponents, and allowing them to bulk up their chip counts in hopes of making the final table.

The WSOP Main Event bubble is always the most covered of the year

It is very important to pay attention to how players at your table are affected one way or the other by the bubble. If you see someone tightening up, you will want to raise lighter when they are in the blinds to try and earn some free chips. If you see a player that has ramped up their aggression to put pressure on the bubble, you may want to steer clear of them. Recognizing these player types in these crucial moments could make for huge improvements in your long term win rate. The money bubble often rules the pace of play at that time, whether its the biggest high rollers, or even freerolls on certain online sites, where some players are desperate to get even a small amount of money to get their bankrolls boosted.

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There is no universal strategy for how to play the bubble, as it depends on several factors:

  • Number of opponents at the table
  • The size of your stack and the stacks of your opponents
  • Playing style and image – both yours and other players at the table

General recommendations are as follows:

  • With a small stack – Your task is to get into the prizes. Therefore, it is better not to take dispersion actions. They will be made for you by other rivals.
  • With an average stack – It is better not to enter into confrontations with the chip leaders of the table, but you can put pressure on the "short guys".
  • With a big stack – You are the king of this table. You need to play aggressively, but in moderation, “vacuuming” chips from opponents who, due to the proximity of the prize zone, will not be able to resist your aggression

There have been a few epic bubble situations throughout the years at the WSOP. Just in 2021, the bubble boy, known as the player who busts directly on the bubble, took one of the worst beats in the entire event, getting all in with pocket aces against a big stack’s Ace-Nine. However, a nine came on the flop, and another spiked on the river, to burst the bubble in brutal fashion. In other years, as many as four players busted directly on the bubble, meaning they all split the first three payout spots. Some years, the WSOP Main Event bubble can drag for an hour. In other years, it can take just one hand. It’s always different.

Some websites like GGPoker have begun to offer “bubble protection” for players who enter the tournament before it begins. In this case, if you register early, and you bust out directly on the bubble, you will get your buy-in back so that you don’t lose any money. If the tournament has over 10,000 players, GGPoker will offer bubble protection to the final 10 players who bust out right before the money hits.

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It should also be noted that the bubble is only a factor in Multi-Table Tournaments, meaning it is not involved in cash games, both live or online. The bubble can also be applied in terms of a multi-table satellite, where 9 players get a seat, and 10th place gets nothing. Again, 10th place in this case would be the dreaded “bubble boy”

Some players fear the bubble, but those who have enjoyed huge success in poker know that this period of the tournament is often what separates the big winners from the big losers. So you must ask yourself, are you trying to min-cash when you play poker tournaments, or are you trying to play for the top prize, or at least the final table? Once you have that answer, you can adjust your play accordingly during the crucial time of the tournament.

Now that you are more familiar with the bubble and how it affects certain players, you can start working on your own game in that period. Just like many stages of the tournament, those that are fearless and more aggressive will often reap the benefits, especially when they know that many players are tightening up. Improve your game by pouncing on the bubble whenever you can.