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Bubble Poker Definition

Tournament Bubble

by Jesse Knight
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Poker Tournament Bubble
Bubble - Placement in a poker tournament just outside of the money.


Poker tournaments typically only pay about nine or ten percent of the field. The exact number of places paid is usually a function of the number of entrants, and is calculated by the tournament director, or another member of the tournament staff, while the event is in progress. These calculations take place after registration has closed and any rebuy period has ended, and the total amount of the prize pool has been established. A schedule of payouts is then determined according to house rules. Keep in mind that different poker rooms will have different rules regarding the distribution of prize money, and these rules should be made available to the players upon request.

After calculating the total number of payouts and the exact amount of each, tournament staff will announce and post them, usually sometime after the first break. This can be done electronically, if there are monitors displaying tournament information, or manually, on a dry erase board. The payouts are graduated, so that the player finishing in first place wins the most money, and the second place finisher wins more than the third place finisher, and so on. At some point, the prize pool is exhausted, and subsequent finishers do not receive any prize money. If a player finishes outside of the money, they lose their entire buyin and receive nothing. If they finish in the money, they receive their buy in back, plus a premium on their investment. The players who end up finishing just outside of the money positions are referred to as finishing “on the bubble.”

As players are eliminated, the remaining field of players get closer to the money positions. As the money positions approach, significant changes in the action occur, which is a characteristic of the bubble forming. At this point, a majority of the fish have been eliminated, and the game is often tight and solid. Even though it is mostly tough players who remain, the blinds are high and threaten the stacks of those players with a low chip count. These players must decide whether they will let the blinds erode their stacks or whether they will take a stand and risk being eliminated outside of the money. As long as the field is not yet in the money, short stacks tend to play conservatively. They generally avoid taking a stand without a premium hand, until they become desperate. Their primary goal is to survive until they are in the money. This makes perfect sense, because an in the money finish garners a return on the money you’ve invested in the tournament, whereas a finish outside of the money results in the loss of your entire buy-in. Here is where game theory comes into play. The larger stacks know that the short stacks are playing conservatively, and are trying to hang on until they are in the money. Most of the short stacks have only enough chips to play one hand, and they are more concerned with not bubbling then they are about getting pot odds or accumulating chips.

The medium stacks are also not inclined to get involved without premium holdings, especially against larger stacks. They would prefer to wait out the short stack while taking a minimum amount of risk. The goal of the short and medium stacks is primarily to make the money. The large stacks know this and know that the bubble is an ideal time to be acquiring chips from the short and medium stacks. They become extremely aggressive, taking advantage of their increased fold equity. The big stacks especially target the short stacks, because it is less risky to steal from them, for a couple of reasons. First of all, the short stacks do not have enough chips to severely damage the big stacks. Secondly, the big stacks can create a situation whereby raising a medium strong hand can give the short stack pot odds to call with an underdog. When a short stack becomes desperate because he is facing blinds he cannot afford, he must widen his range of acceptable risk, which means he must be willing to commit with a weaker hand than he would under normal circumstances. This allows the big stack to lower the bar slightly on his raise requirement, knowing his opponent may be forced to take a stand with a weak hand. This works out well for the big stack, he can get action with the best hand by making the desperate short stack an offer he can’t refuse, the opportunity to get pot odds on his case money.

The bubble is an important time for the big stacks also, because they are jockeying for position with each other down the stretch. Tournament payouts tend to be top heavy, so that finishing one position higher can mean a great deal of extra prize money, especially at the final table. In the final stages of tournament play, you can never stop acquiring chips for long if you want to remain among the chip leaders. The bubble is a crucial time for everybody. Everybody is in the pressure cooker, as one mistake at this point can be devastating.

The bubble pops when a player finishes in the last “out of the money” position. When this occurs, all the remaining players are all in the money. This causes another change in the action. Payouts at the bottom end of the money are relatively flat. At this point, you do not gain that much additional prize money by inching a few places higher. If you want to make substantially more, you have to go deeper into the tournament. The incentive for the short and medium stacks now becomes to acquire chips. It becomes correct to assume more risk as there is not much difference between the payouts at this point. The result is that after the bubble bursts, a flood of gambling activity is unleashed. The short stacks who had been hanging on until the money all start looking for a hand to go with. A lot of players are eliminated in a short period of time, and the action becomes volatile. Eventually, the number of short stacks stabilizes at they either double up or are eliminated.

Usage: Bubble Boy, Went out on the Bubble, Bubbled

Previous Poker Term: Brush
Next Poker Term: Buck

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