What Is ICM and How Does It Work?

min read
Poker chips stacked in increasingly larger piles with a red arrow following the upward curve.
BetMGM Nov 04, 2022, 4:46 AM

During a game of online poker, it’s important to always know your real money equity; the independent chip model (ICM) allows you to do just that. The ICM is used extensively by professional players to plan their strategy at various stages of the game. 

For beginner to mid-level players, ICM provides an effective framework to understand their position in the game. We explain the model and discuss why it works.

What is ICM?

Through the conversion of chips, ICM calculates your financial position at any stage of the game. Basically, it gives you an accurate insight into your chips’ value. Understanding ICM is particularly crucial for poker tournaments because it will help you avoid making fatal financial mistakes.

Derived from the Malmuth-Harville formula in 1987, the ICM began life as a model designed to make horse racing predictions. It wasn’t until the online poker boom that ICM was taken seriously in poker, initially to estimate the value of a stack for deal-making decisions.

However, once multi-table tournaments became more fashionable, the use of the ICM, ironically, became less fashionable. Why? Using the model when playing single-table tournaments may be easy and manageable. However, once you start flicking between multiple games, time is not on your side and you no longer have the luxury of being able to take your time between moves. For this reason, the ICM suffered a dip in popularity with multi-table tournaments. But, as technology and casino platforms improved, ICM has started to make a profound comeback and experienced players have been taking full advantage of it. For beginners, it is crucial to understand how ICM works in poker. 

Why is it important?

The ICM is prevalent in the World Series of Poker – you will notice it at the bottom of your screen next to players’ hands. It allows you to identify your ranking in the game and assists you with mapping a viable poker strategy. When you play online poker for real money, you are bound to come up against players of all skill levels, personalities and strategies. Identifying your financial positioning in relation to others is a great way to differentiate yourself from the competition and formulate an effective poker tournament strategy.

Individuals can compare their financial position and strategy with those of their opponents and in that way gain an understanding of their position in a match. Additionally, the ICM also provides players with very useful information on the betting behavior of their opponents. For example, if a player’s chip value is $1,500, you know they have what it takes to play aggressively using big bets. This also suggests that they may bluff more often to scare off opponents, take the blinds and increase their chip value in small increments. On the other hand, if you’re going head-to-head with an opponent who only has $25 left, you know you have the betting power. If you called $25, they might think twice about going all-in, even with a strong hand.

Poker tournaments are known for being slow and including a lot of players. Having knowledge of your and your opponents’ chip values is an essential variable to guide your decision of when to bet, check or fold. Without it, you simply cannot grasp the financial risk/reward factor of certain decisions during a game.

Understanding your financial position and strategy in relation to those of your opponents not only helps you to make the right decision but also indicates when you should apply pressure through aggressive play in order to push them to fold.

How does it work?

Chip stacks and payouts are the two bits of information you will need so that you can use the ICM in poker. Simply put, you’re calculating the odds of each possible combination of finishing position in relation to yourself and the opposition.

To work out the odds of each player placing first, you work out the percentage of their chips in relation to all the chips in play. If four players have 50 of the 500 chips and three have 100 each, then the four players have a 10% chance of winning while the other three have a 20% chance. Unfortunately, this is the simplest kind of calculation in the ICM. However, thanks to newly introduced technology such as the ICMIZER, players can now use solvers to help simplify other calculations. 

Professional players who understand ICM efficiently will work out different scenarios in the game, such as the chances of player 1 ending third, player 2 ending first and player three ending second. It may seem daunting at first, but the more you practice, the clearer it becomes. As far as poker theory goes, it’s one of the most technical but useful tools out there. 

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Actress Vanessa Hudgens flipping casino chips next to the text "The King of Casinos"
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Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.

Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.