Tournament phases can affect your tournament incentives. Unlike a cash game, you may be looking to control your volatility (and not necessarily take the highest chip EV decision) depending on what phase of the tournament you are in. In some phases, your potential future skill edge will mean you prioritize survival in the tournament over chip accumulation. Although ICM applies throughout any non-heads up tournament that is not winner takes all, there are certain phases where ICM pressure points are at their highest.
OUT of the money tournament phases
OUT1 (Deeper stacks)
Average stacks sizes will resemble deep, or at least non-shallow, cash games. Some (but not necessarily all) of these levels won’t have an ante, again akin to cash games. Hopefully you are entering tournaments where you believe you have a skill edge over the field. As such you don’t want to be taking on any unnecessary volatility. Doubling your stack won’t double your equity in the tournament.
If the tournament allows late registration, you need to consider whether you should skip this phase altogether, and start phase OUT2 with the tournament starting stack. This decision should be made by considering the opportunity costs of playing in this phase versus doing something else. For example, maybe there are cash games you could be playing instead, where you are profitable. Or maybe, if this tournament is likely to go on for several days, a little bit of rest will help lessen mental fatigue later on. You won’t miss much by sitting out this phase. You may be wondering if you will miss out on easy money from the weakest players if you miss this phase (after all, won’t the weakest players be eliminated first?) – this is not necessarily the case. The weakest players may also register late (their reasons for doing so may not be the same as yours). Also, as stated before you won’t be looking to take on unnecessary volatility in this level, so you won’t necessarily be able to punish the weak as much as you would do in cash games.
Another think to consider is if the tournament is a rebuy or reentry tournament, how this will affect play in this phase. Usually if the buy-in is on the lower end, and players can rebuy or reenter, you may see a lot of volatile play from many of your opponents. Whilst you are not looking on taking on any unnecessary volatility, it is still important to look for spots which are too good to pass up (even if it means putting your tournament life in danger). Your less knowledgeable opponents don’t understand that buying in multiple times in a tournament, has a massive impact on their ROI. This does not mean you should never renter or rebuy into a tournament – infact, if the tournament was appropriate for you to enter in the first place, there is absolutely nothing wrong with reentering or rebuying (providing you are not on tilt, from busting out) – however, you are not looking to gamble in this phase and then renter if it doesn’t work out (which is what several of your opponents will be doing, in a low buy-in reentry or rebuy tournament).
↕ The exact transition between this phase and the next will vary from tournament to tournament – look out for average stacks being reduced from deep or medium stacked cash game style stacks, to an average stack size more associated with tournaments. Often (but not always) the transition will be at the time that the late registration period is over.
OUT2 (Prepare for the bubble)
Your main goal in this phase is to chip up as much as possible, so that you can put ICM pressure on your opponents on the bubble. Future skill edge is important, however you will not be shying away from volatile spots that will give you a chance to chip up.
↕ The transition between this phase and the next, is when players start playing as if they are on the bubble. This could be when hand for hand play begins.
You are about to experience a pay jump from $0 to double the buy-in (sometimes more than double, sometimes less). This is an infinite pay jump. Your main goal in this phase is not to get eliminated, and look for opportunities to pick up easy chips from other players you can threaten with elimination (without fear of getting eliminated yourself), What you do will depend on your relative chip stack compared to everyone else, and also those on your table. If you have a really short stack, thoughts of building a stack to win the tournament should be set completely aside – your only goal is to survive the bubble. If you have a large stack, you should be putting massive pressure on shorter stacks – not even the middle stacks can take you on, if you could eliminate them, whilst there are short stacks present. If you have a middling stack, whenever bigger stacks have already folded, you can put massive pressure on the remaining players. We have a complete explanation of ICM at UnfairPoker.com, which you will need to understand to successfully navigate this phase.
↕ The transition between this phase and the next is the bubble bursting. Everyone remaining in the tournament, is guaranteed a payout.
IN the money tournament phases
ITM1 (Flat pay jumps)
After the bubble has burst, what will happen is that there will be several short stacks (who held on for dear life trying to survive the bubble) or shorter stacks. Although as we are in the money, there will be pay jumps from here on in, typically in this phase the pay jumps are extremely flat – this means the difference between getting eliminated immediately or getting eliminated several places higher is not that much. The short stacks will be looking to get it all-in asap, to try and get a workable stack. Other shorter stacks, will also be looking to get it all-in, to give them the best chance of taking a shot at winning the tournament. As such, even if you have a medium or bigger stack, you need to embrace any volatility – thoughts about your future skill edge is not important here, rather your main aim is to try and get a stack to put pressure on others in the next phase.
↕ The transition between this phase and the next is when the pace of the pay jumps increase (i.e. they are no longer as flat).
ITM2 (Bigger pay jumps)
Here pay jumps start to matter, as they are no longer flat. Some players are unduly concerned about making the next pay jump, and can be punished. Hopefully, you built up a bigger stack in phase ITM1, so you can put ICM pressure on others, and not have ICM pressure be put on you. You will be starting to get an idea of exactly who is left in the tournament, so you will be able to start to define your future skill edge. You are not looking to take on unnecessary volatility in this phase.
↕ The transition between this phase and the next is when we get to the final table in large field tournaments, or when we get to the final few players in smaller field tournaments.
ITM3 (Biggest prizes up for grabs)
The biggest pay jumps (and most of the tournament’s prize pool) is being paid out here. Do whatever it takes to win – take on volatility (bearing in mind any future skill edge considerations, which you should be able to define perfectly with so few players left). Understand when you can put ICM pressure on your opponents, and when they can put ICM pressure on you. Consider, making or accepting an ICM based deal if your opponents are better than you.
Other inflection points
The above tournament phases will usually each be made up of several levels – some levels within a particular phase will play out differently to others.
Some tournaments have varying antes as a fraction of the big blind. Sometimes you may be paying a relatively big ante. Sometimes the ante may be relatively small. All other things being equal, you are looking to take on the most volatility in the higher ante levels, and the least in the lower ante levels.
Varying blind increases
The exact number of tournament chips a player holds is irrelevant, what is important is the number of big blinds they hold. Every time the blinds go up, chips stacks are effectively cut. Blinds do not necessarily go up consistently through the tournament. Sometimes chip stacks can be cut by 50%, 33%, 25%, 20% etc. Think about how this will impact you and your opponents (especially in a fast structure), especially when there are back to back big increases in a fast structure.
End of day
In a multi-day live tournament, even though the end of day does not matter, some players are unduly concerned with making it through to the following day. Think about how you can punish them (usually they will be playing extremely tight). If many players are doing this, there is effectively an imaginary bubble situation here. Alternatively some players, who have a shorter stack nearing the end of the day, will be taking on unnecessarily volatility (as they can’t be bothered to come back the following day, unless they have a decent stack). Again, take advantage.