If you haven’t heard of ICM poker before, you’ve come to the right place. In poker, ICM stands for Independent Chip Model. It lets you convert your tournament chip stack into cash, and is based on how much money is left in the prize pool.

To help you understand ICM in poker better, our guide will cover it in more detail. Read on to discover how it works, how to calculate it, how to use it, when, and more.

How Does ICM Work in Poker?

ICM isn’t a standard part of poker tournament play. That is, it’s not something that is included in the rulebook. So, what is ICM in poker and why is it used?

Well, gamblers are always looking to make as much profit as possible. ICM helps a poker player work out their current tournament equity. It lets them see how much money in the prize pool should be theirs at any given moment.

The Independent Chip Model calculation is based on how many chips a player has relative to the number of chips in play, along with the payout structure. Knowing this information is ideal for:

  • Helping players plan their next moves in tournament play. This is especially true for the later or final tables.
  • Helping to determine how the prize pool is divided should a “chop” (a deal) be agreed upon before a tournament ends.

Based on the chip stack sizes, ICM poker helps to calculate the probability of each player finishing first, second, third, and so on. It then multiplies those possibilities with the payouts for each position.

What Factors Are Included in ICM?

Factors considered in ICM Factors not considered in ICM
The total size of the chip stack The size of the blinds or stack sizes in blind
The total number of chips in play The length of levels
The number of entrants The skill of the player
The payout structure The table position of the player
The number of players remaining The size of the tournament

When is ICM Important?

Knowing the value of your chips throughout a poker tournament gives you an advantage. Some people say ICM only matters at the end of the game, but that’s not quite true.

While it’s important to think about ICM throughout the game it becomes a lot more crucial when it gets down to the late stages of the event.

✅ The Bubble

The bubble in poker is the point of a tournament where the last player, or players, need to be eliminated before prizes are won.

For example, if a tournament has 10 payout places, the bubble would be when 11 players are left.

ICM is particularly useful in the bubble for helping you decide your next moves. You can use it to work out how to survive to the payout stage, to see if there are players you can apply pressure to, and generally understand when to play or fold.

Being at the table for the payouts is more important than having a meaningless win before being eliminated.

✅ Late Stage Tournament Play

While ICM should be used throughout tournament play, it’s most useful at late stages.

With your stack, you will be in one of three positions at the final tables – The Big Stack, The Medium Stack, or the Short Stack. More details for each stack type can be found in our terminology cheat sheet. What you need to know at the end stage of the game is that certain plays can be +chipEV while also being -$EV.

In other words, the play will win you chips, but you’ll lose dollars in the long run. Avoid these plays at all costs, because tournament play aims to win real money, not just chips.

What Is an ICM Chop?

A poker ICM chop, or ICM deal as it is sometimes known, is a poker term best described with an example.

Let’s say you’re participating in a $100 sit-and-go game against 9 others. Each player at the table has a stack of 1,000, with a payout of $500 for the person who finishes in first place. The second-placed player gets $300 and the third-placed gets $100.

After several hours of gameplay, some players will go bust. So, let’s say that at the end, four players are left at the table. The remaining players may consider doing an ICM deal/chop at this point of the game.

Payouts will be based on the monetary value of each player’s chip stack. Let’s say that the players left over have the following stacks:

  • Player 1 – 5,000 chips
  • Player 2 – 2,500 chips
  • Player 3 – 1,100 chips
  • Player 4 – 800 chips

To determine the monetary value of the stacks, you can enter the figures into an ICM calculator.

This will provide the following results:

  • Player 1 – 5,000 chips = $372.49
  • Player 2 – 2,500 chips = $267.95
  • Player 3 – 1,100 chips = $148.51
  • Player 4 – 800 chips = $111.04

If each player is happy with the figures and agrees to share the prize pool in such a way, then an ICM chop has been completed.

ICM Chop vs. Chip Chop

As well as the ICM poker chop, there is something else known as the Chip Chop. This is a more elaborate way of chopping up the prize money.

Essentially, each player gets the same percentage of the remaining prize pool as their percentage of chips in-play.

For example, let’s say that a table has three players left. Player 1 has 8,000 chips, player 2 has 7,000, and player 3 has 5,000. That equates to 20,000 chips altogether.

This splits into 40% for player 1, 35% for player 2, and 25% for player 3. If there is a prize pool of $2,000 in play, for example, this breaks down in the following way in a chip chop:

  • Player 1 – Receives $800 (40% of $2,000)
  • Player 2 – Receives $700 (35% of $2,000)
  • Player 3 – Receives $500 (25% of $2,000)

A chip chop is a popular way of splitting the prize pool, but if the numbers from this don’t look good to everyone, then an ICM chop may be requested instead.

An ICM chop is ideal for tournament players because ICM poker doesn’t consider all chips equal value. Instead, it is based on the fact that chips change in value as the tournament progresses.

Tournament players often consider ICM chops fairer as nobody will be offered more money than is available for finishing first place. Also, nobody is asked to accept a deal where they would receive less than what the next eliminated player is scheduled to receive.

The Difference Between $EV and Chip EV Explained

$EV and Chip EV are important terms you should know about when playing ICM Poker.

Chip EV – focuses on how your stack size might change during a game. It looks at each action you take, and whether it will increase or decrease your total chip size. Chip EV is good to know before making big moves that might change your tournament position.

$EV – evaluates your tournament equity and gives it a dollar value. It looks at your chip stack, the tournament’s payout structure, and the real money value of each chip. It’s important to look at $EV when thinking about your overall position in the tournament as you want to win enough to make the final cut.

Calculating ICM – The Basics

Calculating ICM will differ from situation to situation, but the basic formula is simple. Here, we will highlight a couple of methods to use for this.

The ICM Formula

To calculate the probability of a player finishing in 1st, you divide their chips by the total amount of chips in play. If you have a calculator to hand, this isn’t a complicated calculation to do. The math is a bit more complicated for second and third place, though.

So, if a player holds 1,000 chips and there are 8,000 in play, the probability of that player finishing 1st is calculated with 1,000 ÷ 8,000 = 12.5%. If someone else held 6,500 chips, it would be 6,500 ÷ 8,000 = 81.25%, which is much higher.

Second place is still doable by hand, although it is more complex. Let’s assume that the person with 6,500 chips wins, we remove their chips from play. Then, divide the chips of the player holding 1,000 by the remaining chips in play (1,500). 1,000 ÷ 1,500 = 66.6%.

You can repeat that for every possible first-place victory, depending on how many people are involved in the game.

ICM Software and Calculators

You can use ICM calculators to do the math for you. After all, even with just three players remaining in a tournament, the calculations for ICM are lengthy. This is why it’s better to have a piece of software on hand.

Players and poker rooms often use ICM software and calculators, especially when trying to work out the chop, as shown below:

Let’s say that a game features 10 players, has a buy-in of $10, each player has a starting stack of 1,000 chips, and the payouts are as follows:

  • 1st Place – $50
  • 2nd Place – $30
  • 3rd Place – $20

After some time, four players remain at the table. These are their stack sizes:

  • Player 1 – 6,000 chips
  • Player 2 – 2,000 chips
  • Player 3 – 1,500 chips
  • Player 4 – 500 chips

So, what is the value of those chips? All you need to do is enter the stack sizes and payouts into an ICM calculator, which will provide the following results:

A screenshot of an ICM calculator in operation

  • Player 1 – 6,000 chips = a value of $40.58
  • Player 2 – 2,000 chips = a value of $26.97
  • Player 3 – 1,500 chips = a value of $23.36
  • Player 4 – 500 chips = a value of $9.07

If all players in our example have the same skill level, that is how much they can expect to win in the long run. Player 1, holding more than 50% of the chips, will gain a considerably bigger payout than the person finishing second.

ICM Poker Strategy

Here, we have some insight into how you can adjust your overall poker strategy for ICM when you are short, middle, or big stacked. It’s similar to how your change your gameplan based on where you’re sat at the table. A player’s stack always relates to the blinds of that game.

A stack of $2,000 in chips may sound like a lot, but if the blinds are $100/$200, then it’s a small amount to play with in some poker games.

Here is an idea of what small, medium, and big stack sizes are:

  • Small – 40 big blinds (BB) or less.
  • Medium – 41 to 90 BB or less.
  • Big – 91 BB or more.

✅ Short-Stack ICM Strategy

If you’re a short-stacked player in a poker tournament you face the least pressure from ICM. This is because, in this position, you have the least to lose from it.

As a result, you are in the position of being able to up the ante and play aggressively.

✅ Medium-Stack ICM Strategy

Owning a midway chip stack might sound good, but you can encounter a few problems when medium-stacked. This is largely because you are forced to play a tighter poker strategy.

Why? Because it isn’t the best outcome if a middling-stacked player is eliminated before the short stacks go bust.

That could never be truer than when at the final table because most of the prize pool is awarded there. Medium-stack players have the most to lose at this point.

For example, let’s say you’re a player with a medium stack and 9 other players remain. You have a low-pocket pair in the BB. The short stack in the game has a single BB and is forced all-in on the next hand. The chip leader moves all in during pre-flop, putting you in a tricky position.

As the medium stack, try not to get involved in epic confrontations with the big stack. This could cost you equity and even your spot in the tournament. It’s better if the short stack(s) bust out first, increasing your tournament equity. Some chances against the short-stack are fine, but you still need to be cautious with these.

✅ Big-Stack ICM Strategy

You can apply lots of pressure to both the medium-stack and short-stack players in this position.

Medium players sit between you and the short-stack. They’re trying to preserve their equity in the tournament or pick up some more.

You shouldn’t be reckless about it, however. Always remember to pick your spots and to play your table position properly. Making rash decisions can lead to big losses, especially if you are too confident.

Always adapt your play to the game in front of you, and remember that making the payout is more important than just adding chips.

The Problem with ICM

Even though it’s the best-known method to value chips and evaluate tournament situations, ICM poker has some issues.

Mainly, it does not consider the position of a poker player. For example, a 4BB stack on the button is often much more valuable than the same stack in the first position.

It doesn’t consider skill differences either. This is because skill is impossible to quantify. The experience of your opponents at the poker table can impact how games finish just as much as an ICM poker strategy.

One final thing to remember is that ICM does not consider potential future situations. Sometimes it is better to pass on small edges and wait for a larger edge, for example.

How to Improve Your ICM Strategy

There are a few things you can do if you want to improve your poker ICM strategy.

We recommend reading guides like this one to learn more about the subject. Creating a good ICM poker strategy, especially for tournaments over cash games, is a great way to boost your chances of success.

It’s also good to understand ICM calculators better. As with free online poker games, you can use them to enhance your poker strategy.

One other recommendation is to practice whenever possible. The more you work with ICM and get used to it, the easier it will be to use in a game. Each ICM calculation is complex, and learning how to consider all remaining stacks at the table, plus payouts, is difficult.

Try one of the various useful ICM training programs available to download, especially if it highlights common ICM situations. The better your understanding of them, the better your poker play becomes.

Responsible Gambling

It’s important not to get carried away when playing ICM poker. Gambling responsibly is always a top priority, so be sure to:

  • Only gamble with money you can afford to lose.
  • Don’t go chasing your losses.
  • Set deposit, game time, and wagering limits on your poker account.

We have a dedicated page full of responsible gambling information for anyone looking to learn more. However, if your play is becoming a problem you should get help immediately.

One of the best sources for receiving assistance is the National Council on Problem Gambling. They provide a gambling addiction self-assessment test, along with dedicated text, voice, and live chat support.

ICM Poker – FAQs

What does ICM stand for?

What is ICM pressure in poker?

Is there an ICM formula?

Can you use ICM strategy to win in poker?