Play enough poker tournaments, and eventually, you’ll be the one eliminated on the bubble. That means you’ll be the last person in the tournament who didn’t make it into the money. It can be incredibly frustrating to lose this way. Most players will go into extreme survival mode when the bubble approaches and fold just about everything they’re dealt.

It’s the right thing to do – sometimes. But in a standard multi-table tournament, playing aggressively on or near the bubble can earn you more chips in the long run. In general, the more people are folding around you, the more you can get away with opening weaker hands and bluffing your opponents post-flop. Mastering the tournament bubble is all about recognizing these situations and adapting your play accordingly.

Understanding the Payout Structure

First and foremost, you need to understand the structure of the tournament you’re playing in. Before you sign up, make a note of the payouts. Is almost all the money reserved for the top finishers, with a tiny “min-cash” prize if you get eliminated just after the bubble bursts? Then you have even more incentive to play aggressively. Other tournaments might have flatter payout structures that reward the patient approach – or perhaps that min-cash represents a significant sum of money to you. In those cases, play more cautiously near the bubble.

You should always be aware of everyone’s stack size, of course, but this becomes even more important when the bubble approaches. If you’ve got a reasonably big stack, you can start opening wide and bashing your timid opponents over the head with it – but only if they have the right amount of chips. Too many, and you risk getting eliminated yourself. Too few, and they might be inclined to shove over the top of you with whatever they have left. Don’t call just because you can afford to lose the hand. Wait for better spots that present less risk to your hard-earned stack.

Once everyone clears the bubble and you’re all in the money, watch out: A lot of players will flip the switch and start going crazy with their hands, as if a pressure valve has been released. The shortest stacks at the table will be most likely to act this way, so once again, monitor those stack sizes, and remember how your opponents were playing before the bubble burst. When they zig, you should zag.