Playing the Poker Bubble in Tournaments

poker bubble

Tournament poker is a minefield isn’t it? You’re constantly being moved and facing opponents you know little about. The blinds and antes are increasing and your stack size is changing too and with it, your strategy and hand selection does too. In this article, we will be looking at the poker bubble, what it is, common errors and what I think correct poker bubble strategy is when approaching it.

What is the Bubble in Poker?

The poker bubble is the closest place to cashing, without actually cashing. Every tournament has a bubble position. If 180 pay and you finish 181st, you’ve busted out on the bubble. It’s a bad place to finish as it means you’ve invested the maximum time without making any money.

Common Mistakes Players make on the Bubble

I’ve noticed three main errors players tend to make when approaching the bubble of a tournament.

Probably the most common mistake tournament players make is tightening up too much. They stop stealing the blinds and opening as wide from late position. It’s like they have their sights on cashing and forget about the big picture – securing a final table place finish. This may not cost one lots of chips but it’s missed opportunities.

There is a lot of moving around on the bubble, particularly in live poker as they even out the tables. Many players don’t’ seem to adapt to their new surroundings. You may have been the big stack at the previous table, but you may be average on the next. Bullying people won’t work here as often and they may be more aggressive or taking more flops. It’s important to quickly eye up stacks when you move as this will affect how you play.

Aspiring professionals make this mistake a lot. They ready strategy that says exploit the bubble and think this means raising ½ their hands. To be fair, on the rare occasion, you may be able to get away with this. But on most tables, in the long run, this style won’t reap rewards. You’ll find yourself over committing, calling all-ins with below par hands and doubling up opponents too often. 

Bubble Strategy Tips

The bubble is just another part of the tournament. Yes, it’s important to cash and maintain a good ITM rate, particularly if tournaments are your bread and butter. But, as with most things in poker, we need to look at the big picture and the long term. This means finding a happy medium between maintaining a good ITM rate, taking advantage of opportunities and keeping your stack competitive as you go into the deep stages of a tournament. To do this, we can do a few things.

Look for 3 Bet Opportunities

A 3 bet is a great weapon to employ at the bubble. A 3-bet that works will often, increase your stack a high % so it’s important we try to find opportune moments to use it. In my experience, doing it against the small blind works very well. When it folds to them, most tournament players feel obliged to steal. It’s logical, the blinds are high and they are getting a good price on trying to pick it up with little resistance. This means we can 3 bet very wide and pick up even more chips. This works very well on big sites like Full Tilt, but sadly they’ve now closed. Players are unlikely to call out of position with weak hands. To illustrate the value of the 3 bet at the bubble, look at the example below:

You have 78,000 with the blinds at 1,000/2,000 and an ante of 100. It folds to the small blind who is a TAG player. He has around 66,000 and opens to 5,400. You are in the big blind with Ks 8c and decide to 3-bet to 15,700 and he folds. You increase your stack by 8,300 or 10.6% to 86,300.

Attack the Survivors

As we know from earlier, a lot of people are making the mistake of just surviving. They will happily give up their blinds and fold to ensure they cash. These are the players we should look to attack. They are the ones whose blinds we can take, almost with impunity. I say almost, as good regs, will pick up on this and may try some re-steals. This is not too problematic though. Each steal that works, is a free round paid for. It’s only if they’re re-stealing a lot when you need to re-adjust.

The 4 Bet

This weapon is only for the bravest and savviest. The 4 bet steal is an effective counter strategy to the gung ho players we mentioned earlier. The problem arises when you do it too much or run into a monster. You need a very good understanding of your opponent and the right situation to pull this off.  Please only do it if the criteria below fits the scenario:

  1. Your opponent has 3 bet wide before
  2. You have fold equity
  3. You have a solid table image

Without the items above, a 4 bet is unlikely to work. Stack sizes and fold equity is absolutely critical. Your opponent may 3 bet with an Ace Ten thinking he is ahead of your range and find himself committed when facing your shove. He may shrug at his laptop and make the call and be delighted to see he dominates your Ace Deuce. To avoid this, you need to ensure he is not pot committed. It also helps if you’ve not shown down any crazy bluffs. You don’t want people making hero calls against you at the bubble.


The bubble is another stage in a tournament that needs to be navigated. It’s a great time to increase your stack, provided you know how to strike the right balance of maintaining a solid image and staying active enough to steal. If you find yourself bubbling too much, over a decent sample, you may want to re-think your strategy. We offer tournament coaching and hand history review sessions can help too.

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This article was written in 2021 and has been updated.

Narciso Baldo is the Director and Head Coach of Texas Hold'em Questions. He has been playing poker for over 16 years. After spending many years as a professional, he now runs UK poker training site Texas Hold'em Questions. Narciso regularly writes poker articles sharing tips, strategy, news and experience with gambling enthusiasts. Narciso also writes for reputable gambling portal Casino City Times, (bio here). Contact: