The following is an excerpt from Endgame Poker Strategy: The ICM Book by Dara O’Kearney and Barry Carter. The first book to take a very deep dive into the subject of ICM in poker tournaments.
The more players in a tournament, the softer it will be. In the words of my friend and legendary podcaster/author Andrew Brokos, “if a tournament has 1,000 players it must be good, because there aren’t 1,000 good players”.
The more people left in a tournament the bigger your edge should be. You will have a bigger edge with two tables left than when you are down to five players. You will have a bigger edge at a nine max table than a six max table. This might go against the consensus in poker that short handed is softer. You might often see inexperienced players make short handed mistakes, but the more bad players who remain in the field boosts your own ROI.
To see this you only need to look at winrates for the best SNG players in the world, which are often barely 10% ROI for single table tournaments. This is why SNG regulars tend to migrate to tournaments because they enjoy a bigger edge. Most regulars greatly overestimate their edge on one table but equally underestimate their edge with two tables left, or more.
The more players left, the more bad players will tend to be left. When a bad player makes an error it improves your equity, even if they are on another table. Every mistake gets divided up between the winning players left in the tournament. Sometimes in a hand the equity from one bad player goes directly to another bad player, who will then make bad decisions with a bigger stack. Bad players have a compounding effect on your equity.
Does this mean we think you should devote all your time to 10,000 runner fields? No. In fact we think the best advice for most MTT grinders from an ICM perspective is to concentrate on small field tournaments, with some shots at larger field tournaments thrown in.
There are three reasons why you should probably concentrate on MTTs with fields around the 50-300 runner mark, rather than 600-10,000 runner fields.
1) ICM Practice
Players who started in SNGs like I did naturally understood ICM because it was the biggest part of the game. Then we saw ICM fall out of favour with the poker community for a while, but now everyone realises they need to understand it again. 75% of the private coaching I do is people who realise they have major ICM leaks.
When you play one table SNGs ICM is the most important aspect of poker strategy. For people who play 10,000 runner fields, ICM is not as big a part of what they do. They know they should play tight on the bubble but they only make a final table every 1,000 MTTs on average, so ICM is not as obvious to them. Unfortunately for them that means when they do make a final table they often make massive ICM mistakes, which are amplified because the prize pools are so big compared to the buy-in. An ICM mistake in the $22 Mini Sunday Million might cost you $3,000 in equity, for example.
If you play 200 runner fields, however, you will make the final table every 20 tournaments on average. You get to experience ICM extreme situations much more often and practice what you have learned in books like this. You will have the ranges drilled down and have an innate understanding for things like Bubble Factor, when to ladder, what a good deal looks like and so on. These things will be second nature to you for when you do actually go deep in a major event.
I once wrote a controversial article where I said I would take an average mid stakes online MTT grinder two tables out in the WSOP Main Event over Irish poker legend Andy Black. Andy is a great live poker player but had only made 15 notable live final tables at the time. I would much rather take the guy who has made thousands of final tables and has his ranges drilled in.
2) Variance Reduction
If you had unlimited time and unlimited patience then you should only ever play 10,000 runner fields because you will have the greatest edge in them. The best players in the world probably have a 400% edge in the WSOP Main Event, in a soft 100 runner live game it would not be 100%, in a 45 person field it would be about 40%, in an SNG it might be 20%. Variance and ROI have a proportional relationship, the bigger the field the bigger the edge, but also the bigger the variance.
The bigger the field size the bigger your sample size of tournaments has to be to realise your edge. In my own 14 year career I have never had bigger than a $20,000 downswing but it is normal for people to play 10,000 runner fields to have losing years. You don’t need a massive sample to realise your edge when the field sizes are 100-300. This is one of the reasons why Super High Roller tournaments, which tend to have 30-50 runners, thrive despite being made up of tough regulars, you might only need a sample of 500 MTTs.
Let’s put some numbers on this.
Looking at the flagship online poker tournament, the $109 Sunday Million at PokerStars. Assume it gets 7,000 runners on average each week and you have a 25% edge in this tournament. Using the tournament variance calculator at www.primedope.com you can see what happens if you played that event every Sunday for 10 years (520 game sample):
The graph above shows 20 random samples from 1,000 simulated samples. As you can see there is one massive outlier where we win almost $500k in profit but most of our runs end in a loss. Our EV is just $14,170 with a standard deviation of $83,632. With a bankroll of $10,000 (100 buy-ins) our risk of ruin is 86.5% and probability of loss is 56.9%
Compare that to the €109 SuperNova on Sundays at Unibet, which gets closer to 300 runners every weekend.
As you can see our 20 random samples are all closer together but with lower upside when we run great. Our EV is $14,170 and our standard deviation is $15,115. Our risk of ruin is now just 15.10% and our probability of loss is just 17.3%.
The upside is obviously much greater in the Sunday Million but 56.9% of the time we will lose money playing it every weekend for a decade. That only happens 15.10% of the time in the SuperNova. You would need to play a sample in the tens if not hundreds of thousands to realise your edge in a massive tournament like the Sunday Million or the WSOP Main Event. When you do the simulation for 10,000 tournaments then your risk of ruin goes down to 30% and probability of loss goes down to 0. This is simply never going to happen, you can never realise your edge in a tournament like this because you will never have time, but you can easily realise your edge in a 300 runner field event like the SuperNova.
Players who concentrate exclusively on large field tournaments often go broke and frequently have to get staked to keep playing where they will be in makeup for long periods, or they need a massive bankroll. I have never had to be staked to play, other than selling pieces, because I have always focussed on low variance formats.
It’s good to take shots at bigger field events, in fact shot taking is a legitimate bankroll strategy. Binking a large field MTT is a springboard to playing higher stakes – you cannot really grind your way to the high rollers. I now play large field events because I am at a stage in my career where I have other income streams for when I go on downswings. For up and coming players and those who want longevity in the game, concentrating on smaller fields will keep variance at bay.
3) Mental Game
If those simulations for the Sunday Million scared you, that neatly introduces the third reason why I advocate playing smaller field MTTs. Not having to deal with the swings of large field MTTs and having practiced all the tough ICM spots in smaller field MTTs over and over again will naturally give you fewer mental game problems to deal with. Dealing with long losing stretches can finish off a lot of good players and the pressure of tough spots in big moments can lead a player to perform poorly when it matters the most.
I have never had more than a $20,000 downswing in my career but I know very talented players who go long periods questioning if they will ever win again? Not having to rely on staking or being in makeup means you will have a much clearer head when you play poker. Knowing you have been in this situation thousands of times before in a tough ICM spot makes it easier to do the right thing and makes it easier to deal with when the cards do not fall your way.