Profiting from ICM Pressure Defense

To apply “ICM pressure” means to bet or raise into players who are risk averse because of the stage of the tournament. The bet or raise can be preflop or postflop, into one or multiple opponents, in SNGs or MTTs.  ICM pressure is a crucial skill of the game, and a good tournament player should be very capable of applying it.


Let’s look at some common examples of ICM pressure:


1. The big stack shoves into the mid stack on the bubble of a 9man SNG.

2. In a 180man final table, two very short stacks fold. A big stack minraises, and the other big stack 3bet shoves over him.

3. On the bubble of a major MTT, a 25 bb stack opens the cutoff. The button covers, and he makes a 2.2x 3bet.


While each of these examples do involve ICM pressure, there are crucial differences among them.


In example (1), the mid stack has absolutely no defense. Depending on the stack distribution, he may have a profitable calling range of something like 99+. The 97% of the time he’s not dealt a high pair, unless he wants to spew it off (which is definitely a popular option these days), he simply has to fold.


In example (2), the opener also has no defense once he faces the shove. Notice though that he did have the option of openshoving pre instead of minraising (even if it’s a significant overbet), eliminating the other big stack’s option to apply ICM pressure.


The real difference comes in the third example. The button is applying smallball ICM pressure. His 3bet is essentially saying: “You can’t 4bet without committing to this hand, and if you flat I can barrel post and put your whole stack at risk.”  And yet, in a way, the cutoff is still the one in power. He can 4bet shove and be the one to have fold equity on his side. Since this is a great spot for the button to 3bet on the bubble, it’s much more likely that he (the button) is making this play with air instead of a hand strong enough to call it off.  The proof of this fact is that it’s kinda difficult to actually be dealt a good hand.


This leads us to the big rule of this blog.


Suppose it’s a very good time for an opponent to apply ICM pressure; and he’s a good/aggro player; and he bets or raises small.  If all three of these conditions hold, you should shove over him very wide.



As a general example of this rule, it’s become fairly common in the midstakes 9mans that when raise/calling as the big stack on the bubble, to see that a midstacked reg has 3bet shoved a hand like K5o over your open.


I want to look at an MTT example though, coming from the final table bubble of last week’s Hotter $55.


Villain and I are the only two regs at the table. The big blind is sitting out.


This hand is a textbook example of the rule. It’s a great time for Villain to apply ICM pressure, since there’s a payjump at 9 and most players place additional value on FT’ing a large MTT. He was an aggro reg, definitely capable of applying ICM pressure. And instead of shoving, he 3bet a smaller amount.


Dec 15 Blog Hand 1


I’m not opening ATC in that spot, but if I had 32o in my opening range, it would probably be a profitable 4bet shove also. What are the odds that an aggro player with a perfect 3bet spot is actually dealt a hand strong enough to induce with a small 3bet? Even if he did have a hand as strong as 99 or AQ, he’d probably just shove. I think his range here is something like TT/AK to induce, and then a ton of air combos – probably at least five times as many as the value combos.


So I did shove the KQ.  Shortly after though, I made a weak fold. The SB was sitting out. Here’s the hand:


Dec 15 Blog Hand 2


Even with the dynamic developing, it’s just too good a spot for him to open with SB sitting out and it being the FT bubble.  So the fold I made was incorrect.  He’s very capable of opening wider in a spot like that (quite possibly ATC), it’s a good ICM pressure spot, and I have fold equity on a shove.


There are two caveats to this idea of shoving over players trying to pressure you. The first is be careful if you have a lot of history against someone. If you’re always shoving over min-raises and small 3bets, it becomes easier for other regs to set you up. The other caveat is that if you don’t have any info on your opponent, then don’t assume he’s someone capable of identifying good ICM pressure spots — there’s a much higher chance that he has legitimately picked up a hand he’s willing to go with.


So here are the conclusions.


If you’re the player looking to apply ICM pressure, it’s often better to just openshove or 3bet shove, even if it’s an overbet. Your risk/reward ratio is worse. But you completely take the play away from your opponent(s); the only way they can fight back is if they’re lucky enough to be dealt a premium hand strong enough to call.


If you’re the player facing ICM pressure, and a reg opponent makes a smaller raise, you will usually have a ton of fold equity if you shove – typically more than enough to show a profit despite it being a disastrous outcome if you’re called.

About Collin Moshman

Collin Moshman graduated from Caltech in 2003 with a degree in theoretical math prior to becoming a professional online sit 'n go player. He is the author of best-selling poker strategy books Sit 'n Go Strategy,
Heads-Up No-Limit Hold 'em, and The Math of Hold'em. Collin is also the lead SNG coach for Cardrunners and Pokerstrategy. He lives in Mexico with his wife Katie and dog Wilbur, playing on Pokerstars as tfnc314.


  1. MarinaOrel says:

    Nice one, Collin!

  2. It has to be said that my game has improved exponentially through Collins’ teaching. If anyone knows more about Poker than Collin, their name must be God. I even watch re-runs before a session on occasion,just to get me in the ‘zone’. It just goes to show that with the right teacher,even an idiot can learn to play some.

  3. I have noticed when i am perusing the various poker sites,or the sites that do teaching videos like CardRunners, Drag the Bar etc, that very few people leave comments. You get them of course, but on a people who watch,V, people who post after watching type basis, very few people post really. Take that ratio on some of the threads on 2+2 and sometimes it is just insanely poor. DevilFishs’ demise thread had about a few hundred thousand visits, yet relatively few posts, perhaps Fishs’ example is not a good one cos he did get several pages of wellwishers messages (and no surprise really, all things considered about the guy, his longevity in the game being one of them) but even his on a ‘stack to pot ratio’ paled into insignifigance V visits to the thread. Collin is excellent at answering people who leave comments, or ask him a question. I guess a lot of folks who use them are too lazy to post,or as in after a Moshman video, Collin clarifies everything so well that people don’t need to ask questions, and they would look stupid if they asked questions of the obvious.

  4. I am really looking forward to railing Collin in the Stars tourney which starts in 2 days and 9 hours time (but whose counting?) featuring Elky. It is 15K FPP’s entry, and also features Dario Manieri, you may remember him as a young boy in High Stakes Poker, or The Big Game, one of those or perhaps both shows he may have been on,anyways i am backing Collin to bink this,especially in this esteemed company. I’ll also wager that Collin knows more about poker that anyone else on the table, Elky included. It’s got Collin Moshman written all over it imo….can’t wait,genuinely buzzing when i think about it, ever since i saw it mentioned on Twitter, no pressure Collin but we have high expectations here.

  5. Tournie 1193602794 is the way there on Stars incidentally.

  6. I think people who play poker on a casual basis, must secretly be masochists. I mean,how often does a casual player have a winning day or session,not very often is my guess. It takes lots and lots of work to get adept at poker, then you can go for ages getting it in good, only to be sucked out on time after time, then there is the period of getting all in pre with good pocket pairs , say TT + and always getting outflopped by everyone. Then there is the period where you have finally flopped a set only to have it beaten by someone playing any two suited cards, from any position regardless of the price to see a flop, i find that type of player particularly annoying, especially when they bink a couple of big pots by playing like a Kama-Kazi pilot. I think you have to be crazy to wanna keep playing, especially when you are having a cruel run of proceedings and keep getting a sort of physical pounding via the cards. But we do keep playing. Not necessarily on the same day, but invariably we have another shot at it. Even after a run of getting beaten so many different ways that some of the variations elude me at time of posting, we still give it another try,yes covert masochists we may well be,. I think the only way around this syndrome is to play lots of tables at the same time but by gosh, poker can sure mess with ones emotions.

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