The Secret to Developing a Winning Mystery Bounty Tournament Strategy

13 min read

Mystery Bounty tournaments are the big hit of the year, drawing huge fields and awarding massive prizes. Videos of players slowly sweating a bounty card and then celebrating a big win have been shared hundreds of times on Twitter, and each mystery bounty event seems to draw yet more players as the fervor grows.

mystery bounty tournament winner
There’s no question about what Donald Nimneh won in a recent Mystery Bounty event at the Wynn. (Image: Twitter/Wynn Poker)

For those who aren’t familiar with how these tournaments work, a chunk of the buy-in, usually around one-third, goes into a separate prize pool for the bounties. These bounties don’t start until the money bubble breaks, and then everyone becomes a mystery bounty. Every time you bust a player in the money, you get to draw a mystery bounty. And those bounties can be surprisingly large.

In the example I use below, the Wynn Millions mystery bounty with a $1,600 buy-in, the top bounty prize was $100K. Can you imagine having a fairly small stack after the bubble breaks, with hundreds of people still to go before the final table, and then you bust a short stack the first hand after the bubble and pull a bounty envelope worth a hundred grand? 

These tournaments are also interesting because they require some unique strategy adjustments that remove the option of the formulaic “solver-bot” style that many of the top grinders have adopted in recent years. You have to really know how to think about these tournaments to get the most equity from them. I did some research on that and found it very tough to come up with any kind of formula that covers these things, but I did learn a lot about how to approach them. 

I used the most recent mystery bounty event at the Wynn Millions here in Vegas as a basic guide to the payouts and bounties. The buy-in for that event was $1,600 and the breakdown of where the money went was as follows. 

$950 – Standard Prize Pool 

$500 – Bounty Prize Pool

$150 – House Fees

I also based all of my strategy adjustments on a flat prize pool, which is standard in these events. You can see that the top of the payout structure was much flatter than in a typical tournament. The top five spots definitely dropped the most because of the bounty money coming out of the prize pool. 

Wynn Mystery Bounty Payouts
Nice payouts, but flatter than a typical tournament because of the huge bounties. (Image: Hendon Mob)

Mystery bounty strategy

The beginning of the tournament doesn’t play all that much different from a typical tournament, and it shouldn’t. All of the money that’s usually in the top spots is still quite far away, and there’s no reason to make any significant adjustments until at least half the field is gone. But there will be some things that are different. 

Part of the genius of the mystery bounty format is the way it adds the feel of extra gambling to an event without adding significantly more variance. This brings in players who love the idea of pulling a card to win $100K, and also adds a bit of a party feel to the whole thing. People will be a little looser and will be gambling a bit more than they usually would. Remember to take this into account when making decisions in the early portion of the tournament. 

Approaching the bubble in a mystery bounty event

Serious tournament poker players make a lot of their money on the bubble. “Bubble crushing,” as it’s sometimes known, can be crucial to building a big stack when it matters. In both of my deep runs in the WSOP Main Event, I more than tripled my stack in the hours before the bubble broke by stealing blinds and three-betting open raisers relentlessly. 

In a mystery bounty event, bubble crushing is drastically more important. Squeaking into the money with a short stack in a mystery bounty tournament gives you so much less value than it would in a normal tournament because so much of the prize pool is locked up in bounties that you can’t claim because you don’t have enough chips to bust anyone.

And, piling up a big stack before the bubble has so much extra value for the same reason. With a big stack, you can call short stacks with weaker hands and reraise to chase other players out of the hand and isolate the short stacks. That big stack doesn’t have as much value right after the bubble breaks in a normal tournament structure because the short stacks aren’t afraid of anything, and busting them doesn’t add much equity to your stack. 

The real value in mystery bounty events is in knowing how to build up a solid stack before the bubble breaks and then knowing how to use it to collect bounties during the time right after the bubble breaks when the short stacks are frequently going all-in. The number of bounties claimed per hour of play will be much higher right after the bubble breaks than at any other time, and the players with the big stacks will get most of those bounties. 


Jamie Gold chip stack
Jamie Gold knew how to leverage his massive chip stack at the 2006 WSOP Main Event. (Image: CardsChat)

Building a big stack on the bubble is an art. Knowing who’s afraid to go broke before the money isn’t enough; you have to also know how to capitalize on that fear, and it isn’t always through relentless aggression. I’ve seen intermediate players fail miserably at building a stack on the bubble by simply cranking up the aggression and assuming that everyone will fold, only to discover that anyone who does get involved with them probably has a big hand. 

The key to crushing the bubble, as in so many other situations in poker, lies in reading your opponents’ ranges accurately. Just turning the aggression level up to 11 and assuming everyone will fold is like thinking you can be a professional race car driver by just pushing the pedal down farther than everyone else. Things will end in disaster. 

You need to be aggressive on the bubble, but when someone pushes back, keep their fear in mind. Would they really be reraising with a range where they would fold to a lot of four-bets? Sometimes a player being afraid to go broke on the bubble doesn’t mean they will fold and, in fact, it may mean the opposite. When a player who should be scared of going broke before the bubble breaks is willing to fight back, don’t put another chip in the pot because they have a big hand and they probably aren’t going to fold. 

Take what they give you, but make sure you go from the gas to the brakes instantly and get out of there when they put up a fight. You can go back to stealing in the next hand and get those chips back, but getting all-in against a player who will only put chips in the middle with a monster isn’t how you build a stack. 

Playing after the bubble breaks

Once the bubble breaks in a normal tournament, it’s typical for the players who have built up big stacks to tighten up drastically. No one is afraid anymore and the short stacks are going to stuff their chips in with anything that looks playable, hoping to double up or go home. So, trying to push people around at this stage goes from being a great strategy before the bubble to being a huge mistake. 

But in a mystery bounty tournament, you’ll have to change up your strategy. The reason you piled up those chips on the bubble was so that you could get a bunch of those mystery bounties, so go ahead and fight for them. Reraise if a short stack is all-in and a few people have called. Raise when a short stack is in the blinds because if there are callers, and the short stack goes all-in, you can reraise to isolate them and have all that dead money — and the bounty in a heads-up pot. 


But, be careful getting roped into big pots while chasing bounties. Be the aggressor, but also be willing to fold if someone clearly has a big hand and isn’t giving you a great price to crack it. It won’t take long for the flood of bounties to slow down and things to return to a more normal feel. 

Deeper in the money

Once the flow of bust-outs is reduced to a trickle, you’ll be back to playing fairly normal tournament poker, but the ICM implications will all be different. In a normal tournament, the payout structure dictates fairly careful play once you’re deep in the money because the pay jumps are big enough to change the value of chips significantly. But with those bounties in play, and with a much flatter payout structure, you care less about surviving and getting those tiny pay jumps than you do about getting some more bounties. The average bounty is probably bigger than the next pay jump until you’re in the top five spots unless the big bounties are all gone. 

Most of these events will have some guaranteed bounties that are very large. Keeping track of how many of these are left is important. If the big bounties are gone early, you may play almost like a normal tournament with a flat payout structure. If the big bounties are mostly still in play, the bounty prize pool could actually be bigger than the remaining payouts. 

I ran some numbers using 10 players with equal stacks and a flat payout structure like the Wynn Millions. When one player busts another and now has twice the stack of everyone else, they only gain 37% more equity than they had even though they have 100% more chips. ICM becomes very important in these situations.

But, if we account for bounties and assume they have broken about average in terms of big bounties remaining, then each player you bust will award the equivalent of 3% of the remaining prize pool, which nearly doubles your equity gain. 

Mystery Bounty ICM Strategy
We can see that while player 9 has twice as many chips as his opponents, he doesn’t have nearly twice as much equity. (Image:

Taking into account the assumptions above, it would still be a terrible idea to take a coin flip. You need to be a better than 60/40 favorite to take a coin flip if there’s not significantly more extra money in the pot. But if there are lots of big bounties left, it might change things enough to make a coin flip into a fantastic proposition. This is why we have to keep a close eye on what’s left in the bounty pool vs. what’s left in the standard prize pool. 

The final five

Once you reach the final few spots, the pay jumps may not be as big as they would be in a typical tournament, but they’ll still be much bigger than the average bounty unless some big bounties are still waiting to be revealed. Pay close attention to how many bounties are left. Some players may not have claimed their bounty prizes yet, and that may skew the amount that is available. 

Some of these events also include envelopes that grant you extra draws for more bounties. The Wynn Millions did this, with envelopes that included $500 and an extra draw or even three extra draws. If you reach the final five players and one of these envelopes is left, there will be at least eight total envelopes left, and one of them will be worth drastically more than the others. 

If you’re ever in doubt about a situation in a mystery bounty, default to playing smart solid poker. If you do something crazy and go broke, you don’t have a shot at any more bounties and your day will be done. 

Hellmuth Photo HORSE event
Your strategy should change when you reach the final table of a mystery bounty event. (Image: Chris Fox)

If you end up short-stacked, be aware that you’re going to be called any time you put your chips in the middle, sometimes in multiple spots. This is a great time to use the short-stacking strategies I wrote about extensively in my book Short Stack Ninja. One example hand should serve to illustrate how you can get help from other smart players when you have a short stack. 

If you have four big blinds, you’re almost certain to be called if you put your chips in. But how you put them in can make a big difference. If you’re the open raiser, and the big blind is a smart player, you can raise the minimum, hoping to get multiple callers before the big blind reraises to put you all-in, and the players who called behind have to fold. 

You may not have a shot at a bounty now, but you’re using the value of your own bounty to convince the big blind to reraise and isolate you, giving you great pot odds in a heads-up pot. Even a hand like 6♠ 4♠ can be worth playing in a spot like this where you think you might be getting three or four to one on your money all-in against one player. And if you get your triple up, you’ll have a chance to play poker again and run up a stack that can start claiming bounties again. 

The same can be true if you’re in the big blind with five big blinds in your stack. If a big stack makes a small raise and gets two callers, it can be a great spot for you to reraise the minimum and let them reraise again to guarantee that the other players fold, and you’re heads up with all that dead money in the pot. 

Now take all of this strategy advice and remember that the better players will know these things too. That should affect how you play against them because it will help you figure out what their ranges are and how they’ll respond to your bets.

One last tip

These mystery bounty tournaments are soaring in popularity and, if you don’t register early, you can end up waiting a long time as an alternate. This gives you less time to pile up a good stack that will help you crush the bubble and hit the money with a monster that scoops up bounties by the dozens.

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