ICM Poker Strategy and How To Use It!

ICM poker tournament strategy

There are many things you need to learn to master the Winning MTT poker tournament strategy and math is not the last one. Quite contrary, it is an essential part of any winning strategy, and if you want to stay ahead of your competition, you have to continually improve your game and utilize all the tools at your disposal.

One of those tools is the so-called Independent Chip Model or ICM poker. Essentially, it an approach for converting tournament or SNG chip stacks to real money equity. It helps you make precise decisions, which bring positive expected value in the long run. Thus, understanding and learning this concept will quickly pay you dividends, so it is worth spending some time on it.

Poker ICM In A Nutshell

One of the reasons ICM was born is the difference between tournaments and cash games. If you play the latter, you know the exact value of your stack. If you have $100 in front of you, that equals $100. However, that is not the case with your chip stacks in multi-table and SNG tournaments. You have a specific chip stack, and you do not know the exact value of your chips unless you make some calculations. This is where ICM strategy comes into play.

The Independent Chip Model is based on two parameters. The first one is the payout structure, and the way prizes are distributed at the end. The second one is the list of stack sizes of the players remaining in the tournament.

It is a purely mathematical model that does not take into account stuff like skills of the players, position or table dynamics. ICM in poker simply measures the value of your stack size by converting the chips to real money value at any given moment. This is the reason why many final table deals in tournament poker are based on Independent Chip Model, or at least that is the starting point of the negotiations.

How Does ICM Poker Strategy Works?

The best way to understand ICM in poker would be to take a quick look at a simple example. Let us say three players enter a SNG with a $10 buy-in. There is no rake, so the total prize pool is $30. The winner of the tournament would collect $20, the second place gets $10, and the last place gets nothing.

Before the first hand of the tournament starts, each player has 1,000 chips. At this particular moment, the value of each stack is equal to $10, as all three players have the same chance of finishing first or second based purely on the amount of chips they possess.

In the first hand, the UTG player folds, while the other two go all-in. One of the contestants is eliminated, so now we have two players left. One of them has 2,000 chips, and the other has 1,000. If you use an ICM calculator, you will see how the value of each stack has changed. For example, each of the players is guaranteed to get the second place, which would bring him $10.

Since the player in the chip lead has twice as many chips as his opponent, he is considered two times more likely to win the first place and the last $10 of the prize pool. As a result, using ICM poker calculations, the 2,000 chips of this player have a value of $16.67. You get this by adding the guaranteed $10 for second place and the 66.7% chance of winning additional $10 for the first place. By the same logic, the other player’s 1,000 chips are now valued at approximately $13.33.

The most important thing to take away from this is that chips you lose are worth more than chips you win.

Let me explain this continuing our simple example. So if we go to the first hand of the previous example where all players have 1000 chips, which equals $10. You can easily see that if the player loses all chips, his value is obviously $0 because he just busted out and lost all his stack. However, the player who won the hand now has 2000 chips, but only $16.67 value of his stack as we calculated above.

Therefore, you can say that if you go all-in on the first hand and are in a position of a flip, you are risking to lose $10 and can win only $6.67. It perfectly illustrates this concept and that the value of the chips you hold is bigger compared to the chips you can win. Thus, you should utilize the advantage of ICP poker strategy, which can help you learn the right play based on the value of your stack, not just chip count and that is the winning play.

How and When To Use ICM In Poker Tournaments And SNGs?

What ICM Doesn’t Tell You

Texas Holdem poker game is very complicated, so you should not always simply follow ICM all the time, without considering other factors. As I already mentioned, the model does not include a lot of information in the calculations. For example, if you have a reason to believe you’re a much better player than your opponents, in reality, your chips have a much higher value than ICM suggests. The model will not take into consideration the fact that you are more likely than your opponents to put yourself in position to win.

How to Use ICM

So, poker ICM is obviously not a perfect model you should always follow, but it’s certainly a handy weapon when you play tournaments or SNGs. Especially in the later stages when there aren’t many players left, ICM in poker is a great tool to determine where you stand and what are your expectations.

Since it is too complicated to manually calculate the values of each player in every single situation on the table, we recommend you to use a poker ICM calculator. There are plenty of free options out there, and some paid features that are part of extra poker software such as HUDs.

You could use ICM calculator to analyze your play and find some leaks. It is perfect trainer for short-stack late stages of the tournament where your only option is to shove or fold and can help you build an excellent strategy for the end game.

You can easily do that after sessions and even check some of the spots where you were not sure about the decision. It could help to improve your game and find leaks that might be costing a lot of money in the long run.

ICM Pressure

One of the things you should always consider when using ICM is the so-called ICM pressure. The idea behind this term is to determine what possible difference a single hand could make to the value of your stack. For example, when you are close to the bubble, losing a hand and going out of the tournament will cost all of your value. This is where the ICM pressure is at its highest point.

In these spots, you should be looking to take advantage of aggressive play and be shoving yourself, much rather than calling all-ins from your opponents. This way you put a lot of pressure on your opponents, and if they know the basics of independent chip model, they will have to fold many hands just because it is mathematically incorrect to take big gambles on the direct bubble or big pay jump by calling.

If you are already in the money and have guaranteed a profit, the ICM pressure is usually much lower. Thus, you should always consider this when making decisions based on ICM and time your aggression carefully.

What Are The Biggest Risks When You Use Poker ICM?

Poker ICM strategy is undoubtedly a useful tool for poker players, especially when it comes to SNGs. Most of the successful players in this format are using the model and have built a strategy around it. However, that does not mean you should rely solely on ICM.

Obviously, this strategy will help you make mathematically correct decisions, but sometimes the table dynamics and style of your opponents could create opportunities to get the tremendous value that is not calculated by ICM. It could be compared to GTO poker strategy versus exploitative play, with the first option you are guaranteed not to lose money, but you can win more if you follow the second one in the right way.

Thus, you are risking to leave some money on the table by blindly following the independent chip model strategy, but you still should know it very well and then compare your options.


If you are planning to play tournaments or SNG, you need to master big blind play, c-betting strategies and much more. However, learning the ICM poker strategy is a must. Nowadays, games are really competent, and you should utilize every weapon you can find. Independent chip model is definitely one of the most powerful ones and should be part of your arsenal.

If you want to dig deeper into advanced poker strategy, learn more about check-raising and other vital concepts, you can always check out my complete training program “Poker Formula For Success” and make your life even easier at the tables!

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