# What Is ICM In Poker? How To Use ICM in Your Poker Strategy

If you play poker tournaments, it’s crucial to understand poker ICM, or the Independent Chip Model. While it might sound like technical jargon, knowing ICM poker strategies – and what does ICM mean for your poker strategy – is incredibly valuable.

## What Is ICM: The Essentials

• ICM stands for Independent Chip Model poker
• The core idea is that the best strategic move in terms of gameplay might not be the most advantageous move considering your position in the tournament
• Factoring Independent Chip Model poker into your play can inform what plays you make and reduce your chances of getting eliminated from a poker tournament

Let me explain.

## How Is The Independent Chip Model Used In Poker Tournaments?

The first thing you need to know about ICM poker is that it only applies to tournaments and online poker tournaments. Not cash games.

When you’re playing poker, you want to ask yourself what is the best decision mathematically. Am I getting a good price to complete my flush draw? Straight draw? Gutshot? Do I think I likely have the best poker hand? When you’re playing a poker tournament, however, you want to ask yourself two questions:

• What is the best mathematical decision I can make?
• How will this decision impact my position in the tournament?

It’s the second question that changes everything – and gets to the heart of ICM poker model.

For example, let’s say you’re getting excellent pot odds to draw for a flush. The math tells you to call, even if it’s for your entire stack. In a cash game, you should always take this opportunity because you can profitably win money; if you miss your flush draw, you can easily rebuy.

Now let’s say you’re a big stack in a poker tournament or online poker tournament and there are only five people left. According to the ICM model in poker, you would not want to take this opportunity because it would jeopardize your position.

The chips you would lose are worth more than the chips you would gain. Said another way, the benefit of going from second or third in chips to first in chips is not worth the risk of elimination.

## What is ICM in Poker?

Here’s another crazy example.

• Imagine there are three people left in an online casino poker tournament.
• You’re tied for the chip-lead. The person in third place is very short-stacked.
• Your fellow big stack goes all-in — and you look down at a shiny pair of pocket jacks.

What do you do here?

• In a normal three-player cash game, you would almost always call. It’s highly unlikely your opponent has a better hand than you, especially with so few players.
• But in a poker tournament where you need to factor in poker ICM, you should fold.

Why? Because even if you have a better hand than your opponent, it’s not worth the risk. Perhaps they have Ace-Ten, where you’re a nearly 70% favorite. Or a pair of threes, where your equity is closer to 80 percent. Doesn’t matter. The 20-30% of the time that they will outdraw you poses too great a threat to your chip stack.

Image Credit: Kitreel/Shutterstock

## A Real Life Example Of Extreme ICM

I once put someone to the ultimate poker ICM test. I was at the final two tables of a \$350 tournament, fewer than 20 people remained. First prize was over \$30,000. I was second place in chips.

Only one person had more chips than me — had me ‘covered’ — and he raised preflop. I called with a pair of nines. The player in the big blind was a short-stack and went-all in. The then chip-leader called.

I decided to go all-in to isolate the short-stack, figuring my pair of nines could likely beat one player but would struggle against two.

The chip leader was outraged, visibly distressed, and asked for an exact count of my stack. We were incredibly close. After someone called ‘time’ on him, he finally called… with pocket aces.

Why the hesitation? With a pair of aces?! Because of ICM. Even though he was an 80% favorite against almost any hand I had, it was still an enormous risk. Eighty percent of the time, he would win the pot and increase his chip lead. But 20% of the time, he would finish with just over a min-cash and a meager profit margin.

Mathematically, he should always call. But ICM poker made him think twice.

## Strategies For Utilizing Poker ICM

### Short stack IMC poker strategy

Since you don’t have much to lose, you can play more freely and aggressively. When you’re low on chips, ICM poker doesn’t really apply since there is no ‘expected payout value’ to deserve.

### Medium stack IMC pokerstrategy

you need to keep an eye on stack sizes at all times. If you’re at a final table and in the middle of the pack, it would be a disaster to get eliminated before a short stack. You have to play much tighter in hopes that a smaller stack will bust — earning you a higher payout.

### Big stack IMC pokerstrategy

big stacks can apply great pressure on middle stacks according to ICM poker. The middle stacks still have a lot to lose so you can ‘bully’ them by presenting tough decisions. A middle stack might fold a strong poker hand, such as as pocket queens if a micro short stack is about to bust.

So as a big stack, you can shove wide. Just be cautious when it comes to tangling with other big stacks — you want to tread those waters carefully and generally avoid.

## What Is The Major Drawback Of ICM Poker Analysis?

As you can see from my real life example, an ICM poker analysis made what would usually be a slam-dunk easy decision a close call. It changes the math.

In detailed ICM analysis, a computer calculates your decision — factoring in payout considerations. Advanced programs can, in fact, adjust your decision based on your current ranking. Truly adhering to ICM means following the math adjusted for your tournament standing, but in everyday play, it involves prioritizing the potential for larger pay jumps over the immediate strength of your hand.

The ICM poker model generally encourages more conservative play, focusing on avoiding short-term swings to achieve bigger payouts.

However, the granular Independent Chip Model approach is unrealistic for most players. Humans can’t process these decisions quickly (it’s hard enough to learn basic poker probabilities). Calculating whether you should call an all-in with Ace-King based on your tournament position is nearly impossible for most people. In practice, you might fold Ace-King due to ‘ICM pressure,’ aiming to avoid variance and maintain your chip lead.

### ICM Poker Doesn’t Take Into Account the Human Factor

Another drawback of strict ICM analysis is that it doesn’t account for the human factor. Some players are tighter and bluff less than a computer might assume. (Computers tend to overestimate bluff frequencies.)

Your decision to call or fold will also depend on your ‘reads’ and ability to spot tells. Someone born before 1945 might jam a smaller percentage of hands than a younger player, but computers don’t incorporate a senior citizen discount.

Customizing ranges in computer applications called ‘solvers’ can help, but emulating this on the fly is extremely impractical and overall unnecessary.

As long as you weigh your standing in the tournament against your actual hand, you are already taking Independent Chip Model poker into consideration.

## ICM Poker Demystified: Elevating Your Game with Strategic Insights

Understanding what is ICM in poker tournaments can increase your chances of winning by reducing risks. It involves adjusting your decisions based on your poker tournament position rather than just the value of your hand.

While mastering ICM Poker can lead to better choices — you can even study and memorize computer outputs — it’s also important to balance the math with the practical realities of live play and human decision-making.

Title image Credit: Kitreel/Shutterstock