ICM in Poker Tournaments: How It Affects Your Strategy

Poker Academy
10 Jul 2024
MTT Strategy
10 Jul 2024

In order to improve your poker skills, you cannot avoid the mathematical aspects of the game. This article introduces one of the most important concepts in tournament strategy — ICM.

Understanding and utilizing ICM can directly impact your tournament earnings and increase your winning rate.

What is ICM?

ICM (Independent Chip Model) is a metric that indicates the value of your chip stack in a poker tournament.

Most deals at the final table are distributed based on ICM.

ICM becomes necessary in MTT tournaments or SNGs where the prize pool is not proportional to the chip count. The prize distribution accelerates significantly as you climb the ranks.

For example, the prize pool for PokerStars' Sunday Million is distributed as follows:

  • 1st place: 15%
  • 2nd place: 11.03%
  • 3rd place: 8%
  • 4th place: 5.3%
  • 5th place: 4.09%
  • 6th place: 3.1%
  • 7th place: 2.14%
  • 8th place: 1.2%
  • 9th place: 0.77%
  • 10-12th place: 0.55%
  • etc.

This means that the value of chips in cash games and tournaments differs greatly.

In cash games, if you have $50 in chips, their value is $50. However, in tournaments, translating chip amounts to monetary value requires complex calculations.

This calculated value of chips is called the ICM value.

How to Calculate ICM

ICM can be calculated if you know the payout structure (how the prize money is distributed by position) and the stack sizes.

These calculations can be complex and are typically performed using tools like ICMIZER.

Before explaining ICM calculations, it is essential to understand that in tournaments, the probability of winning matches the ratio of remaining players' chips. This is mathematically proven.

For example, if there are three players left with chip ratios of:

  1. Player #1: 5000 chips
  2. Player #2: 3000 chips
  3. Player #3: 2000 chips

Their probabilities of winning are:

  1. Player #1: 50%
  2. Player #2: 30%
  3. Player #3: 20%

Example of ICM calculation

Imagine Bob and Alice are heads-up at a tournament's final table.

Their stacks and the payout structure are as follows:

  • Bob: 3000 chips
  • Alice: 1000 chips
  • 1st place: $70
  • 2nd place: $30

Based on chip ratios, Bob's winning probability is 75%, and Alice's is 25%.

Bob's ICM value is calculated as:
$70 * 0.75 + $30 * 0.25 = $60

Alice's ICM value is:
$70 * 0.25 + $30 * 0.75 = $40

Thus, ICM value is determined by the winning probability and the prize structure, but calculations become more complex with multiple remaining players and intricate payout structures.

Tools for ICM calculation

ICM can be calculated using tools like ICM Calculator, which can handle 2 to 15 players by setting the payout structure and chip amounts. 

Also, if you want to know the push/fold ranges using ICM, we recommend a tool called ICMIZER .

How to Use ICM

To visualize ICM, let's look at an example.

In a 9-player SNG with 4 players remaining, each holding 1000 chips, and payouts as follows:

  • 1st place: $50
  • 2nd place: $30
  • 3rd place: $20
  • 4th place: no prize

Imagine a player on the BTN goes all-in, and you hold QQ in the BB.

Let's assume you know the opponent has AKo. (In a real situation, you don't know your opponent's hand, but for the sake of simplicity, let's make this clear.) So should you call this?

Currently, all players have the same amount of chips, so the ICM value is the prize pool divided by 4, which is $25. This is because each player has the same probability of coming in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd.

However, when the amount of each chip changes, the value of the chips becomes more complicated.

Let's look at a situation where you call an all-in and either you or the BTN double up while the other is eliminated. One player doubles up and gets 2000 chips.

The new chip value for the doubled-up player isn't simply $25*2=$50. It is $38.33.

Even though one player has 50% of the total chips, the value of your chips is only 38.33% of the prize pool.

QQ against AKo has about a 57% equity.

In cash games, you would call without hesitation, but in a tournament bubble, you must play tighter.

In this case, the odds are 38.33/25 = 1.52,  so the required equity is 100/1.52*100% = 66.8%. Thus, folding is the correct answer.

Using ICM to understand the value of your stack allows for accurate decision-making.

Limitations and Drawbacks of ICM

While ICM has its advantages, it's not a perfect metric. Understanding what ICM cannot do is crucial for using it effectively.

Does not include future value

ICM only reflects the current value of your chips. By gaining chips and increasing your stack, you can put pressure on short stacks, giving you an advantage.

Therefore, the ICM value is slightly more favorable to short-stacked players.

Not taking into account the opponents' skill level

If your skill level is significantly higher than your opponents', following ICM isn't always the best play.

On the bubble, you need to play tight and passive, as explained in the previous example. 

With a deep stack, you can open-raise with a wide range, but if short-stack opponents do not understand ICM and shove normally, it may be better to play without considering ICM.


Understanding ICM can be challenging, but it’s a valuable tool for tournament play. Start by remembering these key points:

  • Chip value fluctuates during tournaments
  • Play tight near the bubble
  • The value of the chip you get is less than the value of the chip you risk

Remembering these three things will significantly help in tournaments.

As you become more comfortable, it might be a good idea to use your hand history to calculate the difference between using ICM and not using it.

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