What You Need to Know

SNG ICM - What You Need to Know: ICM stands for Independent Chip Modeling. It's a way to express your tournament equity at a given point based on your stack size, the stack sizes of the other remaining players and the payout structure. To show how this differs from a cash game or a winner-take-all tournament, think about this. You're playing in a 9-player Sit-N-Go with the typical 50%/30%/20% payouts for the top three finishers. Five players remain and you have 70% of the chips in play.

What's your equity? In a winner-take-all tournament (such as a single table satellite), you're equity would be 70%, since you hold 70% of the chips in play. This means that if all remaining players are of equal skill, you would have a 70% chance of eventually winning all of the chips. If the player currently in last place had 8% of the chips in play, his equity would be 8%.

But in a Sit-N-Go, if you held 70% of the chips in play with five players left, it should be obvious that you do not have 70% equity, because even if you win first place, you'll only be awarded 50% of the prize pool. So your equity can never exceed 50%. You may have a 70% chance to win first place (or more if you have a skill edge on your opponents), but you certainly do not have 70% equity. You're equity is somewhere around 43%.

And what if you held 9% of the chips in a Sit-N-Go when four players remained, but there was another player that had a tiny stack of only 1%? Since 3rd place pays 20%, it should be easy to see that your equity is higher than the 9% of the total chips in play that you own. Since you're very likely to finish in 3rd place, you're equity in this case is about 22%.

So how should this affect your decisions? ICM influences proper SNG strategy in several ways. For one, it dictates that you should avoid confrontations early in the SNG unless you expect to have a pretty big edge. This is because, unlike in a cash game, each chip that you gain has less value than each chip that you lose. So just being ahead of your opponents range may not be a good enough reason to get all-in against him.

How big of an edge do you need to get all-in early in a Sit-N-Go? That can't be answered in one sentence or paragraph. This is where software programs such as SNG Wizard become so valuable.

Another way ICM influences proper Sit-N-Go strategy is on the bubble. When it's 4-handed in a SNG, ICM often dictates that players sometimes fold some very strong hands if someone else shoves all-in before them. It's not uncommon to be holding hands such as AQ or 99 (or even something stronger) and be forced to fold it preflop.

SNG ICM example #1: Four players remain in a SNG. You're the big blind and get dealt AK. You start the hand with a 12 BB stack. The player to your left is the shortest stack with only 1 BB. He is first to act preflop and folds. The next player (with 11BBs) also folds, and now the small blind with a 21 BB stack shoves all-in. You know that the small blind is a good player and he is definitely shoving any two cards in this spot, meaning he is pushing everything, even 32o and 72o, so you're AK is way way WAY ahead of his range. But still this is must-fold. Calling with AK here would be a huge error. Folding would leave you with about 29% tournament equity (on average), but calling would leave you with only about 25% tournament equity (on average). So if this was a $28+$2 Super Turbo SNG, making this call would be about a $10.08 mistake. If this was a $50+$5 regular 9-man SNG, calling would be an $18 mistake, and that's if the small blind is pushing 100% of his hands.

Many players would never ever fold AK preflop in a SNG under any circumstances. This means they also aren't folding hands like AQ, AJ, 99, 88 and etc as often as they need to. They might not be making a lot of $10 mistakes, but they are making a lot of $3 and $2 and $1 mistakes. That "mistake money" has to go somewhere. Where it goes is to the other remaining players in the Sit-N-Go (although it's not equally distributed). This is how good players gain their edge and are able to turn a profit despite the 7% - 10% rake taken by the poker sites in various SNGs.

Big stacked opponents have less to offer to you

ICM shows that you gain more from winning an all-in against an opponent that barely has you outchipped than you do when you double through a player with a huge stack (even though your new chip stack is the same in both cases). This is because when you double through a big stack, he remains as a player with a decent amount equity in the tournament, but winning an all-in against a shorter stacked player will leave him with little or no equity. This gives all the other players at the table more equity (including you).

Example: It's the 3rd hand of a Super Turbo SNG and everyone folds to you in the small blind. Q4 is a push if the big blind is calling 23% and has a stack equal to yours, but if he's calling that same 23% but has a stack twice as big, now you need Q6 to be able to shove profitably. Strange but true.

NOTE: This is not true when it's heads-up because ICM does not apply when only two players remain. ICM only applies when it's 3-handed or more.

Also note: In the Q4/Q6 example above I used 0.30 as the Edge% in SNG Wizard.

Limitations of ICM

Obviously ICM doesn't account for how long is left before the blinds increase. If you are short-stacked and are faced with a close decision, you should be a little more willing to get all-in if the blinds are soon to jump.

Another characteristic of ICM is that it tends to slightly:

1) overvalue shorter stacks, and
2) undervalue larger stacks

SNG ICM example #2:

You are dealt Q5 on the button and everyone before you folds. You have a pretty good idea which hands the two players in the blinds will call with if you shove. And based on that, if you have a 4 BB stack, ICM indicates you should push all-in with your Q5 (but barely - Q4 would be a fold).

Now change your stack size from 4 BBs to 12 BBs with everything else being the same. ICM still indicates that you should be shoving Q5 (but not Q4).

But in reality you should tighten up on your shoves with the 12 BB stack and actually loosen up on your shoves with the 4 BB stack. ICM (SNG Wizard) says Q5 is the minimum offsuit queen-high hand you should push in both cases, but with 4 BBs, you should probably be shoving down to Q2 and with the 12 BB stack you should probably require Q8 or Q9 (especially if you have a skill edge over your opponents).

One reason why larger stacks should be more patient is because they won't soon be forced into desperate situations where they might need to make a Negative EV Play.

Short stacks are often forced into making "negative EV" shoves just to maintain a stack large enough to have fold equity.

Another reason larger stacks should be more patient is because they have more time to benefit from other players knocking each other out. With a 12 BB, you might even make it to the final 3 without having to enter a single pot. The 4 BB stack might have almost no hope of folding his way into the money and might not find another good spot to get his money in. That's why he should probably shove Q2 even though it's slightly negative EV. Making this negative EV shove now hopefully allows him to avoid being forced into an even worse situation later.

What it takes to get really good
You need to strive to minimize you own costly mistakes. There are four main categories of push-fold mistakes.

1) pushing when you should fold
2) folding when you should push
3) calling an all-in when you should fold
4) folding when you should call an all-in

The best way to get good at making all the right moves is to study SNG ICM by frequently reviewing your hands. Try to notice if the majority of your mistakes fall into one the four categories above. For example, if most of your mistakes are "pushing when you should fold", you can try to adjust in the other direction when faced with a really close decisions in the future. Two weeks later you might notice you've overcompensated a little and are too often "folding when you should push". Now it's time to adjust again. Don't expect to be on target all of the time. Your play will always eventually drift away from perfection. Just make sure to catch the trend quickly and adjust.

And the way you accomplish that is through "deliberate practice".

Deliberate practice is the very core of what it takes to get really good at SNGs. Just playing a lot of SNGs isn't nearly good enough.

Here's an article on how to use deliberate practice to improve your Sit-N-Go abilities:

Deliberate Practice for Poker

end SNG ICM article.

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related article: When to Ignore ICM

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