Introduction: What is ICM?
ICM, or Independent Chip Model is a calculation in tournament poker that is used to determine the monetary value of your chip stack at any given point. Basically, it’s a mathematical formula that tells you how much your remaining chips in a tournament are worth. The math behind ICM can be scary to some people, but it really isn’t all that complicated. Besides, these days there are plenty of poker tools like ICMizer or Hold’em Resource Calculator that do all of the math for you anyway.
The number one thing you should understand about ICM in tournament poker is that the number of chips you have in a tournament is not directly correlated with their value.
In a cash game, 1 chip equals 1 dollar, but in a poker tournament the value of your chips depends on payout amounts, payout structure, as well as how big your stack is in correlation to the chip stacks of your opponents.
So, you may have a situation where a call will gain you chips (chipEV) long term, but actually lose you money ($EV). Basically, when ICM plays a major factor, the chips that you gain are less valuable than the chips that you lose. This is why ICM mistakes are often the most expensive mistakes in poker! When stakes are the highest at the final table of a tournament, these massive errors could cost you thousands of dollars. In the early stages of a tournament when ICM is less relevant the same mistake could only set you back a few dollars.
Why does ICM matter?
Having a firm grasp of ICM is what will either make or break you as a tournament poker player. These days you absolutely must have a fundamental understanding of ICM implications if you want to make money and climb up stakes, so let’s dive into why that is. Besides being the primary way to calculate fair payouts at a final table chop, ICM gives us a better understanding of the balance between risk and reward when it comes to making decisions in a poker tournament, especially when big pay jumps are on the line.
If you do not have at least a fundamental understanding of ICM you are almost certain to make massive errors in the later stages of tournament play and at the final table. The final table is where the money matters more than anything and the payouts are the largest, so an ICM mistake could cost you thousands of dollars with a single click! If you’re struggling to win in poker tournaments, you must commit at least 1-3 months just to studying ICM. This commitment alone will massively impact your tournament results, as long as you stay consistent.
Now, let’s dive into Bencb’s step by step guide for studying ICM in tournament poker.
How to Start Studying ICM in Poker:
So, where do we start to study such a complex topic?
Fortunately, Bencb has perfected the process of studying ICM from the ground up over more than a decade competing at the highest stakes in tournament poker. Here we’ll go step by step through the process of analyzing hands. You’ll learn what variables to input, how to actually learn from hand analysis and how to truly internalize and implement the things you’ve learned into your game.
Let’s dive into it!
1. Start Analyzing the Hands that you Play
First and foremost, you’re going to want to start analyzing the tournament poker hands that you’ve played in an ICM tool like ICMizer or Hold’em Resource Calculator. When it comes to ICM study there are two general rules or guidelines.
First, you must put in the majority of your time into analyzing hands. Experience over time will be the main factor as you improve – there is no substitute for repetition when it comes to ICM.
Secondly, you must commit to actually understanding what you’re looking at (we’ll dive into this more later). Quality over quantity has never been more relevant, and you’ll learn nothing if you simply look at the sims output and move on.
Give yourself time with each hand to really ask yourself questions and make sure that you understand and internalize what you are learning. We’ll go more in-depth on exactly what you should be looking for later on, but for now let’s get started with importing your first hand histories.
2. Import Your Hands into an ICM Tool
Ideally you should already have a database of hands saved in a program like Hold’em Manager 3, Hand2Note (use code raiseyouredge10 for 10% off) or PokerTracker 4, but if you’re starting from scratch just play a few tournaments and save some hands for review.
Try to save hands where you were genuinely curious of what to do in-game, especially in spots near the larger payout jumps and final table where the money was starting to really matter. Then after you’ve finished your session choose an ICM program and input your hands.
If you don’t want to pay for a program right now or just want to try it out, ICMizer will give you 1 free sim per day and Hold’em Resource Calculator offers a 2 week free trial to all new subscribers.
Just download one of these tools, import your hands or enter them manually (if you aren’t using a database like Pokertracker 4, Hand2Note or Hold’em Manager 3)
Now that you’re all set up, let’s dive into exactly how you should analyze a hand, from start to finish.
3. Adjust Your Opponent’s Range
Once you get your hand imported and you’ve run your first sim, the first thing you should do is take a look at what the default ICM ranges suggest that you do.
It’s important to remember that these ranges are based purely on GTO, and most players will not play anything close to these ranges in-game. However, it is still helpful to provide a baseline theoretical understanding of how a perfect player would play in both your and your opponent’s shoes.
Now it’s time to make some assumptions and adjust your opponent’s range based on how you think they will be playing a certain spot. This can be tricky, especially for less experienced poker players, but to start just try to give your opponent the benefit of the doubt and not over-adjust. A good indicator that your opponent may have a vastly different range than GTO is if they showed down a hand that is far outside of the default GTO range.
If you’ve played with this opponent previously you may have some reads on them as well. If they tend to play super tight in high pressure situations, make the range quite a bit tighter. If they seem spewy and crazy maybe keep their range fairly wide. There is no simple formula for this and it’s very situation dependent – as with a lot of ICM study it will take time to gain an intuition for adjusting your opponent’s range.
If you have no reads on your opponent or aren’t overly comfortable doing this yet, you can just stick to studying the default GTO ranges for now.
4. Look for Variations
Once the ranges are in order it’s time to look for takeaways and adjustments. To do this you’ll need to adjust the parameters of the sim and look for variations.
Play around with the stack sizes of yourself and your opponent and notice how the ranges change. How are you supposed to respond if your opponent has a much tighter range? What about if he’s a maniac and is shoving any two cards?
How should you play off of a 10bb stack size? What about 50bb? How do the ranges of your opponent adjust to these changes? You can also adjust the payout structure and amount of players left in the tournament.
How do things change when the payouts are more top heavy (higher % of the prizepool to first)? What would your ranges be like if you were in the early stages of the tournament and not even close to the money yet?
Try to put yourself into an inquisitive state of mind and experiment with different situations within the same hand that you started with. This will help you gain an understanding of the true impact ICM has on the way we should play tournament poker.
5. Quality Over Quantity
When analyzing hands in an ICM calculator you will see much faster results from analyzing one hand at a time.
If you are spending all your time constantly inputting entirely new stack sizes and payout structures you’ll waste way too much time that could have been spent diving a bit deeper on the hand you’ve already got in front of you.
Take up to an hour on each hand and change up one variable at a time to see the biggest ICM impacts there are. Go beyond just finding out if you were “right or wrong” and try to find note-worthly takeaways that you can apply to your next session.
6. Write Your Conclusions Down
This may be the single most important (and even mandatory) step to studying ICM or any aspect of poker. Having a diary or a place to write down what you learn in each study session is crucial to your success. It is scientifically proven that writing down what you learn boosts the learning process tremendously. Taking notes helps with your memory and recall beyond your study sessions and allows you to better internalize the takeaways you’ve learned.
Especially when it comes to such a complex topic as ICM, writing down general takeaways is extremely important since these are the big ideas that will have an impact on your game. If you find leaks in your game make notes of all of them and look over them consistently, especially before playing a big final table. Being aware of your strengths and weaknesses is a massive part of poker – you have to look for situations where you’re likely to have an advantage.
The end goal with studying ICM is to gain a feeling and intuition for it at the tables, and your memory will be greatly helped by keeping a diary of what you have learned.