The Basics of Tournament Poker

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The Basics of Tournament Poker

If you're thinking about playing poker, but are intimidated by the thought of losing a ton of money in a cash game, you should definitely consider playing in a poker tournament. Tournaments are generally cheaper than cash games -- some are even free to enter -- and always have a greater potential profit for the money invested. But before you jump into one, you should know what they're about and how they differ from cash games.

In a poker tournament, you pay a set amount (the buyin), get the same amount of chips as everyone else (the starting stack), and then you play until you're all out of chips, or you've won the tournament. Instead of people cashing out their chips whenever they feel like it, winners are paid by how they finish. Usually 10 to 15 percent of the entrants get paid, with the winner getting the most, second place getting the second most, etc.

In this format, you can only lose what you've paid to enter, but you can win a lot more, depending on the number of entrants. Chris Moneymaker paid $40 to enter a satellite tournament, and ended up winning over a million dollars when he won the 2003 World Series of Poker. Most casinos post what their payouts are according to how many players enter the tournament. Above is a payout table from one of my local cardrooms:

The players column is how many players entered the tournament. The places paid, is how many players they are going to pay. The ordinals along the top represent what place you finished in. If there were 10 players including you at the time that you lost your last chip, you would be said to have gone out in tenth.

As you can see, as more players enter, the number of places paid goes up, but the percentage amount usually goes down per slot. However, the larger size of the prize pool means that each place actually pays a higher amount despite being a lower percentage.

As an example, if you took a standard buyin of $200 into a $1-$2 No Limit cash game, on a very good night you could maybe win three or four buyins for a profit of $600 to $800. Take that same $200 and buy into a 150-man tournament with the payout structure above, and your possible profit is 26% of the prize pool or $7,800.

Luckily for cash games, there are other things to consider when choosing what to play because from a pure potential profit stand point there's no comparison.

One of the most fundamental differences is that in a cash game, if you run out of chips, you can just buy more. You're never out until you decide to leave. In a tournament, once you lose your chips you're done. You're buyin is gone and your shot at profit is gone with it. In a tournament, survival is paramount. And on the other side of things, if you're way up in a cash game, you can walk away with your profit. In a tournament, you can't walk away when you're ahead; you have to play to the bitter end. Again, survival is tantamount.

In a cash game, the blinds and antes never change. In a tournament they go up at set intervals. You must continue to grow your chip stack throughout the tournament or soon you won't have enough to pay the blinds. You can play the same strategy throughout a cash game; in a tournament you must master strategies for a number of different stages.

There are differences between tournaments as well, some subtle and difficult to figure what effect they will have on your potential win. How long the blind levels are, how many chips you start with, and how much money does the casino charge to run the tournament are some of the more important factors you should know before deciding whether to play a certain tournament. There is a Tournament Efficiency Calculator at Tourney that does a good job of judging whether a tournament is a good one or not.

It's hard enough to crack the top 10% consistently when you know what you're doing, so before you jump into a tournament for the first time, you should definitely do your research. Two books to get you started:

  • Kill Phil: The Fast Track to Success in No Limit Holdem Tournaments -- This is a great book for beginners because it outlines a system that eliminates a lot of the disadvantages that novices face when going up against skilled players.
  • The Winning Poker One Hand at a Time books -- Three volumes of three top poker pros reviewing hands they played in tournaments large and small, online and live. Getting inside the head of consistent winners is a key step to becoming one yourself.

And one more thing that everyone who plays poker should do, regardless of whether they're playing cash or tournaments: keep records. How can you know if you're a winning player if you don't keep track of how much you've won and lost? How can you tell if your new strategy is working? How can you tell if you're improving? All you need is a spreadsheet and a few minutes after each session to enter in how long you played and how much you won or lost. The results may surprise you.