min read

Poker ICM Explained – How to Make Better Decisions in MTTs?


Tournament poker differs from cash games in quite a few ways, but one thing really sets it apart from cash. In tournaments, one dollar chip is never worth $1!

As the tournament progresses, players accumulate more and more chips. At the end of the tournament, one player has all the chips in play but does not receive the entire prize pool.

For this reason, the ICM poker model was introduced to tackle this issue and help players better understand their equity.

Using the independent chip model (ICM), we can determine our equity in a tournament based on our chip stack, other chip stacks at the table, and the prize distribution.

In this guide to ICM poker, we will teach you what ICM is, how you can benefit from it in your games, its restrictions, and why it is such a critical concept for MTT players today.

Poker ICM Explained - How to Make Better Decisions in Late Stage MTTs?
ICM is a critical concept for tournament players

ICM in Poker Tournaments

You may wonder, why is ICM in poker only used for tournaments? The reason is that it's not needed in cash games at all.

In a cash game environment, other players' stacks and other factors don't matter. Your equity in a hand is exactly what it is, and every dollar you risk or win is worth exactly one dollar.

On the other hand, winning and losing chips in a tournament is different, as winning some portion of the chips in play will not give you that same portion of the prize pool.

For this reason, tournament players use ICM in poker calculations to determine their chip equity (cEV) and their monetary equity ($EV) by considering all the other factors we mentioned above.

Learning About cEV and $EV

We can think about equity in terms of cEV and $EV, which are two different things.

Let’s start with chip expected value (cEV), which represents our actual equity in a pot.

cEV is used to calculate the equity in a cash game hand, and it is exactly equal to the equity you calculate by counting your outs and determining the percentage of the time you will win a hand.

On the other hand, we have $EV, which is a concept invented for tournament poker. $EV is used to tell us how much chips we win in a hand will be worth in a particular tournament.

To calculate the exact $EV of any spot, we need to consider the prize pool distribution, the size of all the other stacks in play, etc.

Fortunately, we don’t need to pinpoint the exact $EV to make good tournament decisions, and useful ICM tools can solve these spots for us now.

Since ICM really only comes into play in the very late stages of the tournament, and usually only at the bubble or final table, we can use these tools to really help understand how cEV and $EV are different.

Once you learn about ICM in poker, you will realize just how big of an impact it has in big field MTTs and how it changes the ranges we should be playing in different situations.

Poker ICM Explained - How to Make Better Decisions in Late Stage MTTs?
ICM is even more relevant on final tables of big poker tournaments

How to Use ICM in Poker

We now know what poker ICM is and what it calculates, but how exactly is it useful for tournament players, and what will it tell us about our game?

The poker ICM tools we mentioned earlier are used to calculate the effects of ICM on various tournament spots.

For example, let's imagine we are sitting in the big blind holding AQ, and the small blind goes all in for 30bb. We have 28bb, and there are three other players in the tournament, all with fewer than 10bb.

In a usual tournament structure, calling off with AQ here would be ICM suicide, even if we know that our opponent is likely to steal, and we probably dominate his range with AQ.

In terms of cEV, calling here would almost certainly be correct against an aggressive player. However, the $EV of this situation is quite a bit different.

In fact, it is very common to see players use ICM and push around other big and medium stacks while there are short stacks in play, and that’s just how tournament poker works.

You could decide to make a stand and push back, but mathematically speaking, that would not be the best decision. After all, you are playing to win money, not feed your ego.

Poker ICM Explained - How to Make Better Decisions in Late Stage MTTs?
Simon Rønnow on the Final Table of the 2021 Pokercode Festival High Roller

Calculating ICM in Poker Tournaments

Doing ICM calculations on the spot in poker tournaments is usually very difficult because many factors are in play, and the numbers are far from round.

However, to show you how ICM is calculated in poker, we will use a very simple calculation in an SNG scenario.

Let us imagine we are playing in a $20 SNG with four players remaining. The prize distribution is fairly standard

  • 1st Place: $100
  • 2nd Place: $60
  • 3rc Place: $40

There is a total of $200 in play, and four players left. If each player had a stack of exactly 25% of the remaining chips, the value of that stack would be exactly $50, one-quarter of all the money in play.

However, let us imagine some wild scenarios here.

What if one player had 90% of all the chips in play while the remaining 10% was split up between the other players?

Well, the most that the player with a big chip stack can win is $100, and even that is not guaranteed. Two of the three remaining players will win 2nd and 3rd place money, so the three tiny stacks are still worth some money, approximately $35 each.

In a scenario like this, the massive 90% stack will be worth about $95, while the three mini stacks will be worth about $35 each, depending on the exact size of the stacks.

As crazy as that may sound, that is simply the nature of tournament poker, and you should be studying ICM poker spots if you want to be a successful MTT player.

Of course, such extreme scenarios don't come around often, but in many MTTs, one player accumulates half of the chips in play, with five or six remaining players.

ICM becomes critical in spots like that, and understanding its implications will help you get better results and make better decisions against all the stacks at the table.

Need another example? Read another ICM breakdown done by Fedor Holz himself!

Using ICM – Applying Pressure and Making Big Folds

There are two main ways that the poker ICM model will help you make better decisions. For one, it will allow you to fold certain hands even if cEV tells you that a call is profitable.

Secondly, ICM will help you be more aggressive and apply pressure on other players.

If other players are aware of the ICM implications, you can play wider against them in situations where short stacks are in play.

In fact, a big part of a tournament strategy should involve using ICM at the final tables to manipulate situations to your advantage.

Remember that neither you nor your opponents can ever win all the money in a poker tournament and that alone will help you make better decisions even without running the actual numbers.

How to Practice ICM Decisions

Making the correct ICM decisions comes down to understanding how chip stacks and prize pool distributions interact with each other.

There is only one efficient way to practice ICM, and that's by using one of the available tools dedicated to that.

The ICM software will tell you which decisions are mathematically correct based on chip stacks and prize distributions, and you should learn through trial and error.

If you are already a player who has played many poker tournaments, we recommend importing some of your hands into such a tool and seeing what the software tells you.

If you have not trained in ICM before, chances are you have been making some significant ICM mistakes over your career, which have cost you a lot of money over the long run.

Fortunately, you can now fix all that by learning to use ICM strategy and make better decisions deep into a poker tournament.

Poker ICM Explained - How to Make Better Decisions in Late Stage MTTs?
ICM gets more relevant the closer to the money you get in a tournament

The Biggest Drawback of ICM

Of all the things that ICM does take into account, one is completely left out, and that is the skill level of each player at the table.

The skill level is unquantifiable, and thus there is no way for the software to take it into account, but you should.

Depending on the relative difficulty of the field you are playing against, you should consider ICM implications more or less.

If playing against recreational players who tend to make many big mistakes, you should consider ICM even more and make even more conservative folds. These players will likely make mistakes later and give you spots with even better equity.

On the other hand, you may not always have the full luxury of listening to the ICM software against very competent players who will often put you to the test.

In such situations, you may sometimes be forced to make a stand. Otherwise, you will be bullied into the ground and never accumulate a workable chip stack.

That said, being honest about your and other players’ poker abilities will be critical if you want to deviate from optimal ICM decisions.

Poker ICM Summary

As a tournament poker player, understanding the implications of the independent chip model will be critical for any success in the modern game.

With so many amazing tournament players out there, ICM decisions are often the fine line that separates the best from the rest, and you want to be in that elite group that can make such decisions with confidence and ease.

If tournament poker is your game of choice, we highly recommend getting into the ICM streets and learning about this important mathematical model before you play for any significant stakes.

You should spend at least some time analyzing your hands from any deep run you make in an ICM tool and trying to do better the next time you run deep in your lower-stakes games.

Don't move up the stakes before you are fully confident of your ICM play, as spots may come up that will cost you a lot of money, and you won't know exactly how to deal with them unless you are fully aware of all the ICM implications.

Poker ICM Explained - How to Make Better Decisions in Late Stage MTTs?

Create A FREE Pokercode Account

If you have the feeling you need to sharpen up your game then Pokercode is a great place to start. Sign up for a free account and set your first steps towards becoming a better poker player.

By signing up for a free account you will benefit from:

  • Access to a list of curated study content, including one of Fedor’s study videos
  • Participate in our free public coaching
  • An inside look at how the Pokercode community studies

Sign up now and don’t miss out!

This will also give you a few days to see what the content is like here at pokercode, before deciding if you want to take the step into our paid offering.

Let us know what you think

More from Team Pokercode

Check out our other articles, interviews, and stories. You'll love it!

Explore all reads