The Basics of Poker Tournaments


If you want a big payday without having to risk much money, a poker tournament is probably your best bet—literally. With the rise of the World Series of Poker, poker tournaments are more popular now than they’ve ever been. Most casinos with cardrooms offer poker tournaments on an almost daily basis.

The problem with poker tournaments is that they require some different skills and strategies than regular ring game poker play. Getting experience in smaller buy-in poker tournaments is a necessity if you hope to have a chance at some of the bigger poker events.

Don’t just read this post and buy into the World Series of Poker Main Event for $10,000. Spend some time playing in the $50 and $100 buy-in tournaments at your local casino, first. If you’ve never played tournament poker before, prepare for an education, even if you’ve been playing ring game poker for a long time.

The changes in payment structure require you to shift gears in ways that you’ll never deal with in a ring game

This post is meant to provide newcomers to poker tournaments with enough information to get started playing in tournaments. Entire books have been written about tournament strategy, and you should read some of them if you’re serious about your tournament career.

Even though this post can’t possibly be comprehensive, I’ve tried to give you enough of the basics that you can get started without making a fool of yourself.

What Is a Poker Tournament? How Do Poker Tournaments Work?

A poker tournament is a competition with a buy-in. You get a certain number of chips in exchange for your buy-in, but those chips are both worth everything and worth nothing. You get paid cash based on how well you place in the tournament. The chips don’t have an intrinsic value like they do in ring games.

On the other hand, if you lose all those chips, you can’t progress any further in the tournament. This makes those chips all-important.

I love poker tournaments for a lot of reasons. Tournaments offer you an opportunity to play with professional, big-name players. Imagine if you could play baseball with Clayton Kershaw. You’d probably lose, but how cool would it be to just be in the game with him?

If you can afford the buy-in, you can play in a poker tournament with Phil Hellmuth or Doyle Brunson

You might even get lucky and bust a famous player. Poker has a luck element, unlike some other sports with famous players.

Tournaments are also a way to win lots of money without putting a lot of money at risk. They’re also exciting and more competitive than regular ol’ ring games. And they can be a cheap way to get experience with games you’re not familiar with—a lot of times you can play in a tournament for a long time on a small buy-in, especially if you’re willing to play conservatively.

If you play poker online, you can find tournaments with buy-ins as low as a dollar. Even in traditional brick and mortar casinos, you can often find tournaments with buy-ins as low as $20. If you can hang in there in the tournament for 3 hours, you’ve gotten a lot of education and action for your money.

Also, unless the tournament has a re-buy structure, you can’t risk more money than your buy-in. The most you can lose in a $20 buy-in tournament is your $20 entry fee.

Tournaments can vary dramatically. The first consideration for a tournament is which game is being played. The most popular forms of cardroom poker are usually available, at least some of the time, in tournament format. These include:

  • Texas holdem
  • 7 card stud
  • Omaha
  • Lowball
  • Razz

Some tournaments even feature a mixed game structure, like HORSE. That’s an acronym that stands for the games being played:

  • Holdem
  • Omaha/8
  • Razz
  • Stud (7 card stud)
  • Eight or Better (7 card stud)

The rules for these games are more or less the same as in ring games. The main difference has to do with the buy-in and the payouts.

If you want to play in a poker tournament, you pay a entry fee—the buy-in. In many tournaments, when you run out of chips, you’re out of the tournament. In others, you can buy more chips during the early stages of the tournament. These are called “re-buy” tournaments.

The blinds and bet sizes go up during the tournament based on how much time has elapsed. Eventually, everyone will have busted out of the tournament but one player. That’s 1st place. The other places depending on how soon or how late you bust out of the tournament. If you bust out when only 2 players are left, you’re 2nd place. If you bust out when 3 players are left, you’re 3rd place, and so on.

The prize pools for most tournaments are divided between the top 20% to 30% of the players. The higher you place, the bigger your payout is. Some tournaments are winner-take-all, but those are the exceptions, not the rule.

If you’re playing online, you’ll also see a lot of tournaments in “sit and go” format. These are usually single table tournaments that start as soon as enough players have bought in to fill the table.

Where Can You Find Poker Tournament Listings?

Poker tournaments on the internet are easy to find on the cardrooms’ websites, but what if you prefer brick and mortar poker?

Where do you find tournament listings?

The best sources are probably in the classified ads section of the larger poker magazines. These include Cardplayer magazine and Poker Digest. Both magazines are published twice a month.

You can also find poker tournament listings in the cardroom section on your local casinos’ websites. I mostly visit a single casino, because it’s the only one that’s a reasonable drive from me. That makes finding tournaments a lot easier for me.

I think a lot of poker players are in a similar situation.

How Betting Works in a Poker Tournament versus Ring Game Play

When you buy into the tournament, you’re given chips with a certain dollar value. For example, you might get $1000 or $1500 in chips when you buy in for $20. You can’t trade those chips in for cash, though. You get paid based on how you place in the tournament.

The limits usually start at $10/$20, $15/$30, or $25/$50. Those limits go up based on a timer that the tournament manager keeps up with. Usually they go up every 30 minutes, but that varies based on where you’re playing. In sit and go tournaments online, the limits go up after a certain number of hands, rather than after a period of time.

The blinds and antes in tournament poker work the same as in ring game poker. The major difference is that the size of the blinds and antes increase as the betting limits increase.

And just like with ring games, you can play in limit, pot limit, or no limit formats. I’ve covered the differences in those formats in previous blog posts.

Your winnings, like I mentioned earlier, depending on how you place. These prize amounts are based on a percentage of the buy-ins received by the cardroom. The cardroom also keeps a percentage of the buy-ins for hosting the tournaments.

Here’s An ExampleYou pay $22 to play in a tournament. The cardroom keeps $2 and applies your $20 to the prize pool. You’re in the tournament with 99 other players, so the prize pool has $2000 in it.

1st place might pay 40% of that, or $800.2nd place would probably pay 20%, or $400. 3rd place would pay 10%, or $200.

The prize amounts would continue to drop depending on how many places get paid. In a tournament this size, you might only see payouts for the top 10 players or the top 20 players, depending on how the casino sets up the prize structure. The lowest payouts are usually 1% of the total prize pool, which is basically like winning your entry fee back.

The big prize pool relative to the buy-in is one reason why poker tournaments are so exciting. Sit down with $20 at a $3/$6 limit table, and good luck winning more than $18 in the next 3 or 4 hours. In fact, there’s a good chance you’ll go broke—even if the cardroom would let you buy in for so little money. (They probably want you to buy in for at least $60 with those limits.)

But in this hypothetical tournament, you might win as much as $800 in 3 or 4 hours.

But your odds of winning also depend on the size of the field and the skill of the other players as compared to your skill level. If you and all the other players were exactly as skilled as one another, your chances of winning 1st place would be 1 divided by the number of players in the tournament.

In the hypothetical example above, that would mean you’d have a 1/100 chance of winning 1st place.

Since the casino takes $2 of the $22 entry fee, though, you need to be more than “as good as” your opponents, on average. You need to be good enough to overcome that disadvantage. This is true for any tournament where the casino takes a cut.

On the other hand, sometimes casinos and cardrooms will guarantee a minimum size prize pool. If they don’t get enough entrants to cover the size of the prize pool, you have a situation where you have a positive expectation just based on that extra amount of money in the prize pool.

Here’s how that works:

Suppose you have a guaranteed prize pool of $5000 in a tournament with a $50 entry fee. The casino needs 100 participants in the tournament to cover the prizes with entries. But only 75 people enter the tournament, which means the casino only collected $50 X 75 entry fees, or $3750. The casino ponies up the extra $1250.

Now you have a 1/75 chance of winning 1st place instead of 1/100. That’s a seriously positive expectation situation. Any time you can find a poker tournament with a guaranteed prize pool, it’s worth participating if you can afford it because of the possible overlay.

Finally, you need to keep in mind one other thing about the betting in a poker tournament. The value of those chips change during the tournament. They have no real dollar value except in proportion to the amount of equity you have in the prize pool. They also change in value based on how much time has elapsed.

As the betting limits increase, the chips become more valuable. If you have $1500 in chips when the blinds are $10/$15, you can afford to wait to get a good hand. But when the blinds are up to $200/$400, you have no choice but to gamble with speculative hands. Otherwise, the blinds will eat your stack, and you’ll be out of the tournament.

The Most Common Poker Tournament Mistakes to Avoid

One of the important things to remember about tournaments is that they have a higher variance by their very nature. When you play in a cash game, you can reduce the standard deviation a lot by playing conservatively. But when you’re playing a tournament, you need to place to get any money.

The size of the field affects your variance, too. Generally, when you have fewer participants, you have a lower variance. You’re more likely to win with fewer opponents. But the number of places that pay a prize also matters. There’s a big difference between a tournament where the top 30% of the players get a prize and a tournament where the top 20% get a prize.

Note:For those reasons, one of the biggest mistakes you can make as a tournament player is to put too much of your bankroll into a single entry fee. Solid bankroll management tells you that you should have at least 40 times your buy-in before entering a tournament. This can help you avoid going broke or having to play at lower limits.

On the other hand, it’s okay to take a shot at a big tournament—especially if you’re not a professional player. If you don’t need the capital to maintain your poker career, you can afford big gambles like this.

Another big mistake new tournament players make is to play the game just like they would if they were playing in a ring game. You have 2 factors you need to account for when making decisions in a poker tournament:

  1. You usually can’t buy more chips.
  2. The betting limits keep going up.

How do you avoid making this mistake?

Play tight in the early rounds when the bets are small relative to the size of your stack. In fact, this is the stage of the tournament where your strategy will most resemble your ring game strategy.

Then loosen up and get more aggressive in the later rounds when the bets are large relative to the size of your stack. If no one has bet or raised before you, steal those blinds as often as you can. A lot of times, this will mean pushing all in with speculative hands. That’s a big adjustment for most poker players.

Don’t underestimate the skill level of your competition in a poker tournament. Generally, these players are more skilled than the players you’ll see at the ring games.

A lot of players try too hard to win the poker tournament in the early stages. These players are too loose and too aggressive. Their plan is to build a huge stack early on. This is a big mistake.

It’s hard to build a big stack when the betting limits are low. You’re risking too much for too little. The size of the blinds is what determines how loose you need to play. And you always need to be aggressive. Being able to shift to a higher gear later in the tournament is what separates the men from the boys.

Also, don’t worry about defending you blinds until they’re worth defending.

How to Win at Poker Tournaments Consistently

Generally, poker tournament winners, especially in the early stages of the tournament, benefit from playing way tighter than usual. Your chips are only valuable if they’re sitting in front of you after the other players bust out. You should play fewer hands, and when you do play hands, you’ll play them more aggressively.

Later in the tournament, you’ll need to loosen up your starting hand requirements. But you’ll still need to play very aggressively. You can’t stay in the game without stealing the blinds, and you can’t steal blinds if you’re not betting and raising into them before the flop.

Important:You should pay close attention to the size of your chip stack compared to your opponents’. You need to know where they are in relation to you to make rational decisions about what to do next.

Any chance you get to bust a player is one you should take. If you leave an opponent with even a single chip, he can go on a surprise winning streak and become a real threat to you. If you have the chips (and the cards), put your opponents all-in.

Poker rewards study, and tournament poker rewards study more than most other styles of the game. Luckily, you can read any of several great books about playing in poker tournaments. If you’re going to get serious about playing in poker tournaments, you should read Tournament Poker for Advanced Players by David Sklansky. Dan Harrington’s books on holdem are also essential reading, as they cover a lot of tournament concepts. They’re collectively known as Harrington on Holdem.

Chopping Pots at the Final Table

When you get to the final table, or when you get to the final 4 or 5 players at the final table, it’s common to cut a deal with your opponents. This is sometimes called “chopping the pot.” The best time to make a deal is when there’s a big difference in the prizes. If the chip stacks are close, that’s also a good time to make a deal.

Here’s An ExampleYou’re playing in a tournament where 1st place pays 30%, 2nd place, 20%, 3rd place, 10%, and 4th place, 5%. The dollar amounts might be $300, $200, $100, and $50, respectively. That’s a total of $650.

If you split that 4 ways, everyone would get $162.50. You’d come out ahead if you were going to place 3rd or 4th, but you’d come out behind if you were confident about winning 1st or 2nd.

Should you make this deal?

Maybe. Maybe not.

You need to consider your relative chip stack, for one thing. If you have a sizable chip lead over your opponents, you might be giving up quite a bit of equity in the prize pool.

You also need to consider your relative skill level, too, though. If your opponents are a lot better than you, it might be worth making this deal even if you have a lot of chips left.

If you’re good at math, you could also suggest pro-rating how much each player gets based on the size of his chip stack. If 2 players have 10% of the total chips left in play, and the other 2 players have 40% of the chips left in play, this deal might make sense for all of them.

You don’t have to make a deal if you don’t feel good about it. Some players prefer to take their chances and go for the big prize pool. That’s their right as tournament entrants. Don’t feel pressured by your peers at the table. If you don’t think it’s a good deal, just say no.


Poker tournaments are a fun way to get a lot of action for a low buy-in. But you also get a shot at a bigger payday than you could possibly hope for playing ring games.

Playing well in poker tournaments requires additional skills as compared to playing poker in ring games. You have to be able to shift gears depending on the stage of the tournament in which you’re playing.

If you’re competitive and want to go for a big payday, poker tournaments are the best option for the skilled gambler.

Petko Stoyanov
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About Petko Stoyanov
My name is Petko Stoyanov, and I've been a gambling writer for more than ten years. I guess that was the natural path for me since I've loved soccer and card games for as long as I can remember! I have a long and fairly successful history with English Premier League betting and online poker, but I follow many other sports. I watch all big European soccer leagues, basketball, football, and tennis regularly, and I keep an eye on snooker, volleyball, and major UFC events.