Tournament poker has become the proving ground for aspiring players looking to make a name for themselves. While more money can be made playing cash games, the prestige and ego boost comes from dominating the tournament scene. If you’re new to tournament poker, welcome to one of the fastest-paced, most action-filled events on the planet.
The first step to dominating poker tournaments is understanding what you’re getting yourself into. Not all tournaments are created equally. Certain tournaments favor more skilled players, while others favor those that need a little Lady Luck to help them get to the finish line. If you’re looking to prove that you have the most skill in the game, you’re going to want to play in the tournaments that predominantly favor the skilled players.
The factor that determines which side of the aisle a poker tournament favors is known as the blind structure. The blind structure determines how much play there will be in a tournament. A structure that favors stronger players is one where the average chip stacks (measured in big blinds) stay the deepest for the longest. A structure that favors weaker players is one where the chip stacks (measured in big blinds) stay the shallowest.
Basically, the more room you have to play and make moves and the longer you have to wait for better cards, the more skill is going to be involved. In tournaments where you don’t have a lot of wiggle room, there is a lot more weight placed on what cards you get. In deeper and longer structures, the variance of the cards will be less.
This is a tough concept to put into words, but once it clicks, it will make perfect sense. Here’s an analogy: let’s say that we’re trying to figure out who the best Tetris player is. If you’ve ever played Tetris, you know that the game spits out random blocks, and sometimes you can get unlucky with what blocks come out. If we only let everyone play three games, it’s very possible that the best player in the world could get unlucky all three times and put up bad scores.
However, if we allow the players to play 100 games, the better players are going to rise to the top, because they’re not going to get unlucky run-outs 100 times in a row. This is the same with poker. A deeper and longer structure gives more time for the better players to utilize their skills and not just rely on getting good cards.
This means that if you really are one of the best and want to prove it, you need to be playing in tournaments that allow your skill to shine through. Sure, you can still get unlucky in the best structure in the world, but it will give you more wiggle room to absorb this bad luck and persevere through.
Now that you understand what we are looking for and why we are looking for it, let’s talk about exactly how you identify one of these great structures.
A Complete Picture
We’re going to start out by giving you a statement about several different tournaments. We want you to decide which of these tournaments has the best structure for skilled players:
- Tournament 1 – The starting stack is 50,000 chips.
- Tournament 2 – The blinds start at 10/20.
- Tournament 3 – The levels are two hours long.
- Tournament 4 – The tournament is called “The Mega Deepstack Invitational.”
Which of these four tournaments has the best structure for skilled players? It’s a trick question. All of them actually have terrible structures. Tournament 1 has the blinds start at 5k/10. Tournament 2 only starts you with 200 chips. Tournament 3 starts you at 50/100 with 1k chips. Tournament 4 has the same structure as Tournament 3.
The point we’re trying to make here is that the only way to know if a blind structure is any good is to have ALL of the information about the tournament. You need to have information about the starting stack size, blind schedule, and the level duration. Putting all of these pieces together will give you an accurate picture of how the structure stacks up.
You also need to be careful of some of the tricks poker rooms will play to try to make you think a tournament has a great structure, like giving the tournament a cool-sounding name.
We’re going to walk you through each of these components individually and let you know what you should be on the lookout for. Remember, though, you need all of the components together, or else you have no idea whether the structure is good or not.
Starting Stacks Sizes
More is USUALLY good when it comes to stack sizes. However, as we stated, it doesn’t mean much if they increase the blind levels along with the stack sizes. Ideally, we’re looking for a tournament that starts you with at least 100 times the big blinds, but hopefully more. For example, if the blinds start at 25/50, you should hope to see AT LEAST a 5k chip starting stack. More than that is definitely going to be better.
Be careful that you don’t let this fool you. We see players all the time raving that you start with 100k chips or 200k chips in a tournament! They’re excited because they are imagining that size chip stack with the blinds they’re used to. You must tie the stack size in with the blind schedule and then see what the ratio is.
The blind schedule refers to the different levels that a poker tournament is offering. You’ll have to study this fairly closely to see any issues, but this is one of the most important factors. For instance, let’s take our example from the last section. Let’s say we have a tournament with 25/50 blinds and a 5k chip starting stack. It’s not the greatest, but we’re initially happy with that.
We look at the blind schedule and realize that it goes 25/50, 50/100, 100/200, 200/400, 400/800, 800/1600, etc. The blinds double every single time they go up. This is insane and is going to shrink that 5k chip stack in a heartbeat. Though things start out great, the doubling blinds are going to get ridiculous as the tournament goes on. This tournament will turn into a super-turbo in a matter of a few levels.
What you should be looking for is a blind schedule that follows a much more “typical” progression. Below, we have what you’ll see in most tournaments. We have a few levels colored in red, and we will address why. It’s also important to point out that we have not included antes in this example, though they are commonly seen in tournaments. We have yet to see a tournament abuse the ante schedule, so it’s not necessary that we cover it here for you. We also only went to the 1500/3000 level, but the structures usually continue on much further. Most of the issues you can find will be visible in this first set of levels.
If you see this structure, you can give the tournament a check mark in this category, at least. If the stack sizes and level durations are good, then this would be a great structure. We marked several levels in red because we wanted to point out the levels that get dropped by tournaments the most frequently. Usually, if a tournament has these levels, the structure is going to be good. If a tournament does not have any of these levels, it’s going to be a much faster and less favorable structure.
Should you not play a tournament that doesn’t have the red levels? That’s going to be up to you. We’ve seen some great structures before that are missing one or two of these levels. If they are missing all of them, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play. It just means that you should be aware that the tournament is going to be a faster structure where luck is going to play a larger role.
Great players can still win in faster structures. They’re still going to have an edge. That edge is just going to be diminished some, and not as big as it would be in a more favorable structure.
Finally, we reach a criterion that is uniform across the board! Well, sort of. Longer level duration is always going to mean a better structure. The longer that is spent on each level, the more play and “wiggle room” you’re going to have to let your skill shine through.
Now, we did say that this was almost uniform across the board. What were we talking about? It’s possible for a structure to be too good. If the levels are so obnoxiously long that the tournament takes forever, it might not be the most effective use of your time. You want to be able to let your skill shine through, but you don’t want to be playing the same tournament for three weeks, unless it’s a huge tournament.
Make sure that you weigh the prize pool versus how long the tournament is predicted to last. If it’s too much of a time investment for a small prize pool, the structure might be over-the-top too good. There really is no magic formula here for what is best. All we can say is that you need to weigh the two factors and make sure that you’re happy with it.
The Tricks of the Card Rooms
Card rooms and casinos have gotten pretty masterful about making tournaments that seem to be great structures that are actually turbos. Why would they do this? Well, they know that players want great structures, but it costs them a lot more money to run a good structure. You don’t pay additional rake for the tournament if it runs longer. You pay the exact same entry fee whether the tournament takes five minutes or five days.
We wouldn’t say that this is scummy or anything like that. We understand what the poker rooms are trying to do. What is a little shady is when they try and hide the fact that the tournament has a quicker structure.
Here are some of the more popular tricks to look out for:
Just because a card room calls something “deep stacked” does not mean that it actually is. Card rooms and tournament directors love to give tournaments catchy names that lead players to think that the structure is better than it really is. We’re all for catchy names, but we just want you to make sure that you don’t “take their word for it.”
We talked about this earlier, but wanted to reiterate it again. Be careful of events that start out great and turn sour quickly. Make sure you look at the entire structure before you make your assessment of whether or not you want to play the event. A few dropped levels are fine, but if a lot or crucial ones are missing, then that could be a red flag.
We couldn’t think of what to call this one, so “piggybacked structures” is the new phrase we are coining. Imagine this: you play in an event this year, and the structure is incredible. Next year, the same event comes around, and you don’t take the time to look at the structure. You assume that it’s the same event, because it’s put on by the same people, with the same name…it has to have the same structure. Right?
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Sometimes tournament directors will change the structure of a tournament from year to year without drawing attention to it. They will piggyback on the fact that everyone knows that the structure the year before was great and will just assume it will be this year. Make sure that you check a structure each time you play the event. If anything has changed, you need to reassess whether it’s an event you want to play in.
The Key Takeaways
The idea here is that if you’re a good player, you want to be playing in poker tournaments that favor skill over luck. Tournaments that do this are ones with a structure that allows for more play. If a tournament has a deep structure, your skill will have much more time to shine through. You’ll be able to survive some unluckiness and push through to the victory.
Remember that in order to determine whether or not a tournament is good for you, you need to have the complete picture. You need to avoid the casino tricks and assess the starting stack, blind schedule, and the level durations together. The only way you can get an accurate picture is by combining all of these factors together.
Lastly, we want to point out that just because a tournament does not have a great structure does not mean that you shouldn’t play it. It just means that the lucky ducks are going to have a slightly better shot at beating you. You will still have a skill edge, but you’re also going to have to catch some cards to go along with that skill edge.