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Poker Tournament Differences From Cash Games

Tournament vs Cash Games
Shocking might be the correct word for how many people we’ve talked to who believe all forms of poker are the same. Specifically, we’ve asked a lot of people whether they think there are many differences between cash games and tournaments. The overwhelming response is that the only real difference is that you’re able to cash out of cash games when you want and you’re stuck in tournaments until the end.

While this is certainly correct, there are a lot more differences between the two that you need to be aware of. If you’re currently playing cash games and tournaments exactly the same and strategically treating them the same, you’re setting yourself up for failure. In this guide, we’re going to walk you through the important differences between cash games and tournament poker. We’ll also tell you why it’s important that you know and understand the differences and how you can apply that knowledge to help increase your poker success and profits.

Why This Is Important

What’s the difference between an alligator and a crocodile? The correct answer is, “Who really cares?” They’re both capable of eating you for breakfast. The point of that statement is to draw attention to the fact that with poker training you should always be asking yourself why it’s important to learn things before you invest the time to learn them. This way, you can effectively budget your time to have the biggest and most positive impact on your game.

The main reason being aware of the differences between cash games and tournaments is important has to do with strategy. There are strategic implications that need to be accounted for when you transition from one play format to the other. If you’re attempting to apply a one size fits all approach, you’re going to be making mistakes.

In addition, the different formats lend themselves better to different play styles as well as different lifestyles. If you’re trying to play the format that doesn’t fit you best, you’re effectively a 2-year-old trying to put the square peg into the round hole. In case you’ve never seen a child or been a child, that square peg will never go into that round hole no matter how strong or creative you are. Trust us, we tried many years ago.

There are less impactful reasons this information is important, but these should be plenty to get you motivated to read on and take what you’re about to learn (or get a refresher on) to heart.

Also, for those curious, you can tell the difference between a crocodile and an alligator based on whether you see them later or you see them in a while.

Escalating Blinds and Changing Conditions

The first and probably most obvious difference between the two formats is that in a tournament the blinds change. In a cash game, the blinds will always be the same no matter what. If you’re in a $1/$2 game, the blinds are never going to be anything but $1 for the small blind and $2 for the big blind. In tournaments, though, the blinds will gradually escalate according to a predetermined structure and time schedule.

Strategically speaking, this means a few different things. First, in both formats, you need always to be aware of how many chips you have in relation to the blinds. But, due to the changing levels in a tournament, this becomes that much more important. For example, if you have $200 in a $1/$2 game, you have 100 times the big blind. If two hours later you still have the same $200, you still have 100 times the big blind because the blinds have not changed. Your strategic implications based on stack size will not change.

In a tournament, though, if you have 10,000 chips at 50/100, you have 100 times the big blind. If you have the same 10,000 chips two hours later, but the blinds have gone up to 200/400, you now only have 25 times the big blind. How you choose to operate your stack when you have 25 big blinds is vastly different than how you would with 100 times the big blind (or at least it should be). If you’re not paying attention to how the changes in levels are affecting your stack size, you’re going to be playing improperly and could cost yourself a shot at winning the tournament. You also need to be paying attention to how it’s affecting your opponents’ stack sizes as their strategy will change and the effective stack sizes in hands will also change.

In addition to the changing number of big blinds you have, the different situations you’re in are going to be changing too in a tournament. In a cash game, every hand is exactly the same. There are no changing conditions outside of how other players might be choosing to play. In a tournament, though, you have early stages, end of the day bubbles, the actual bubble, final table bubbles, final table play, shorthanded play, and more. As the tournament progresses and blinds increase and players are eliminated, the circumstances will be changing.

Each of these different circumstances requires you to adjust your play and react to how other players are going to be adjusting their play. For example, if you’re on the money bubble of a tournament, you may be required to make calls or folds that you normally would not, due to the fact that the next person out of the tournament gets no money. You may have to make a looser call because you know someone is trying to be a bully, or you may have to make a tighter fold because you know another player is terrified of bubbling and would only be pushing hard with a huge hand.

There are a million different instances that we could discuss here, but the point is all the same.


You have to be knowledgeable of the changing conditions and willing to adjust accordingly. The player who adapts the best to each different circumstance within a tournament is the player who is most likely going to have the best shot at bringing home the bacon.

As stack sizes change with the blinds, you’ll also see the value and playability of certain hands fluctuate. Hands that favor deep stack play will lose value as the stack sizes get shallower with increasing blinds. Additionally, hands that can suffer or be more difficult to play in deep stacked situations will increase in value as the stacks become shallower. This is an adjustment that you’ll need to learn to make if you have hopes of being successful in tournament poker play.

If you’re looking for specifics on all of these changing situations, they can be found in some of our other sections including our deep stack poker strategy section, short stack poker strategy section, and bubble play sections. Additionally, there are adjustments that can be made that you’ll learn about in some of our other guides. We highly recommend spending some more time working through these sections if you’re looking to improve your game.

The Ability to Leave and Game Select

We mentioned in our intro that this was the most popular answer when we asked people what the differences between poker tournaments and poker cash games were. While they were correct, we fear that a lot of the people who answered did not understand the strategic implications that come with this ability or lack thereof.

In cash games, you are free to play when you want, for as long as you want, and can quit when you want. If you feel like playing one hand and leaving, fine. If you feel like playing for 12 hours straight, fine. If you feel like playing zero hands, also fine. The point is that you have a lot of flexibility in what you are allowed to do. This needs to be taken advantage of.

You need to be willing to take the time to evaluate games and see if they are profitable for you to play in. You should be looking for games that are the most favorable to you and offer you the most potential upside. In our game selection strategy section, we offer a nice analogy that paints this picture very clearly. Imagine that you’re given the opportunity to play basketball for money. If you win your game, you get $100. You also have the choice between playing on one of two different courts. On court one, you’d be playing against Kobe Bryant. On court two, you’d be playing against a short, middle school kid.

Are you just going to pick either one of the courts without thinking about it? Of course you aren’t. You’re going to choose to play against the middle school kid and take the easy money. This is the basis of game selection and something that you get the opportunity to do when you’re playing cash games. If you’re not taking advantage of it, you are a silly, silly person.

With tournaments, you don’t have this luxury. You are forced to sit where they tell you, and you can’t change seats or leave until the tournament is over or on a scheduled break (which you still can’t change seats on). This does not mean that you can’t still game select to a degree. You can look at the tournament field as a whole and assess the difficulty level. If you have options between multiple tournaments on the same day, this can be very helpful to make sure you’re playing the event with the best value. That is, of course, unless you are an ego-snob and will only play the more prestigious of events.

After you make your tournament selection, it all becomes the luck of the draw. You may end up at a great table with a lot of terrible players, you may get stuck at the table of doom filled with sharks, or you may find something somewhere in the middle. Regardless, you need to be prepared to make quick assessments of the other players at your table. If you find that you’re at a very difficult table, you need to figure out the breaking order of tables.

Will you be there all day? Is the table going to break shortly?

If you’re going to be there for a while, it’s time to lock in and get ready for battle because you’re going to have to find a way to win chips at the challenging table. If you’re going to be breaking very soon, you might be able to hold off on going to war and hope to get moved to a more favorable seat. We’re not saying to run and hide from better players, but there’s no reason to take the hard road to get chips if an easier one exists right around the corner.

Convenience Factors

If you’re someone who isn’t sure which poker format is right for you, you may want to take a look at some of the different conveniences that you may or may not be afforded with each format. As we mentioned, cash games give you the ability to come and go as you please. If you’re someone with a short attention span or who goes on tilt easily, this should be appealing to you. Cash games will allow you to work around those issues (and any similar) allowing you always to be playing your best at the tables.

If you’re someone who has the ability to persevere through long sessions and is able to keep focused when fatigue sets in, you may find a lot of success in tournament poker. While the rest of the field is struggling to keep their eyes open late in the day, you’ll be stepping on the gas and cleaning up the easy chips. It might not be as enjoyable as being able to come and go as you please, but sometimes being profitable in poker is about finding the situations where you have the biggest edge.

Regarding the stress level, you’re going to get different responses from different people on which of the two formats are more taxing on your mind. Some would say the fact that you have actual money in front of you at the cash tables makes it more of a mental grind. Others would say that the constant changing conditions of a poker tournament would make it more taxing on the mind.

In all honesty, everyone is right. It comes down to which fits your style and mindset best. If seeing the real money move back and forth puts you on edge, stick to tournaments. If you like that the game conditions are always somewhat similar, stick to cash games. Remember, as well, some players play both formats and prefer the mix.

The Availability of Action

If you were to walk into a brick-and-mortar casino or log into an online poker site right now, one thing is for sure – you’d have cash games to choose from. You might not see the exact stakes you want or have a ton of options, but you’re most certainly going to see some form of cash game action. In higher trafficked casinos and online poker rooms, you’ll have a ton of options to choose from at pretty much any point of any day.

Tournaments, on the other hand, must be scheduled. They are not 24/7, and only happen when someone takes the time to organize one and put it on the schedule. Even then, bigger tournaments don’t always come around that often, even if you live in a place like Las Vegas or Atlantic City. Poker tours have helped to create some big prize pools throughout the year, but you’re forced to travel if you want continual action, or wait until the series hits your town.

Online poker has made this infinitely better, but you’re still required to wait for when the tournaments start. If you want to grind cash games at 3 am, you’re all set to go. If you want to start a poker tournament at 3 am, you may be out of luck, unless you catch some sort of graveyard event or play on a poker site whose main clientele are from another country.

This means that your personal schedule and availability of time to play will have an effect on which format fits best for you. If you’re playing for a living, it’s not really going to matter. You’re going to want to play whatever format you’re the most profitable at. If you’re more of a recreational player or someone in the process of transitioning to playing full-time, time constraints are going to be important.


Poker tournaments take time. In fact, they take a lot of time, and you have no option of cutting that time short unless you feel like setting money on fire. They also only come around at certain times, and if you miss the high-value events, it’s going to have an effect on your bottom line.

If you have limited time to play, you may want to look at starting with cash games. If you still want to play some tournaments, you’ll have to become diligent about scheduling your time. Make sure that when you block time off to play a tournament, that you take care of all of your other obligations so that you can fully focus on the task at hand. Due to the long nature of tournaments, you may have to take care of quite a few things before you play if you want to have an uninterrupted session.

Find the format that fits you and your personal situation and goals best. It’s as simple as that.

The Potential Wins, Losses, and Cold Streaks

Everyone likes talking about the spoils of being a successful poker player. Let’s talk about what you can expect and what you can look forward to when it comes to the two different game formats. Regarding overall profit, neither jumps out as a winner. Each format will have varying stake levels, and the total long-term amounts you can win will vary based on that.

Regarding individual session wins, though, things are greatly different. In a single cash game session, you will have some bigger wins and maybe some bigger losses, but you’re never going to have a massive win. In tournament poker, though, you have the potential for a massive win. It’s not uncommon for a couple hundred dollar buy-in tournament to have a first place price in the five or six-figure marks. You’re never going to win anywhere near that in a cash game session risking the same amount.

For example, if you buy into a $2/$5 cash game with $500, you could have a great session and win several thousand dollars. We’ve seen wins, though rare, as big as $5-10k. Usually, though, it’s going to be more in the hundreds or a few thousand range. On the other side of the coin, we’ve seen poker tournaments with a buy-in of $500 where first place is over $100,000! Yes, you can still have smaller wins, but the potential for big money is going to be there.

For all of you that are already saying, “Why on Earth would I ever play cash games?” here are a few things that you need to realize to put this more into context. First, you are not going to win every poker tournament you play. In fact, you could be the best in the world, and you’re still only going to be winning 1-2% of the tournaments you play (this is an oversimplified number, but a good base for discussion). You’ll also probably only be making money about 20% of the time if you’re a good solid player.

This means that a lot of the sessions you play are going to be complete duds. If you match up with these numbers, four out of five tournaments you play you will be making no money and losing your buy-in. In cash games when you don’t have a winning session, it’s possible that you just break even. You don’t always lose all of your buy-in money.

For this reason, you can go long stretches in poker tournaments without having a win or making any money. This can be taxing, especially if you need money to live off, don’t have the proper bankroll, or aren’t emotionally strong enough to handle the swings. You can have cash game swings as well, but things don’t usually swing as hard as they can for tournament poker players. This is why a lot of tournament players also play cash or sit and gos to supplement their income and their bankroll while hunting for the big score.

One other difference we want to cover is the potential for loss with each format. Theoretically, your potential for loss with both is always infinite. You can always buy back into cash games forever, and you can always play more tournaments. But, your single session loss potential will be different. In cash games, it’s unlimited. In tournaments, it is capped at the size of the buy-in.

Here’s an Example

If you buy into a cash game for $200 and lose, you can buy in for another $200…and so on…and so on. If you buy into a tournament for $200 and lose, you’re out, and you can’t lose any more money. Yes, you no longer have the potential to make any money, but you also can’t lose any more.

Strategically speaking, this is going to be more important for people who have self-control issues or like the knowledge that they can’t lose any more than a certain amount. If you struggle with self-control, tournaments will be better for you. You’ll be limited on how much you can lose and will not have to worry about losing your bearing. You will still have to be careful in rebuy and reentry tournaments, but for the most part, you’re going to be more insulated.

If the money swings affect your game, you’re going to struggle in cash games. You might find yourself going on tilt or playing sub-optimally because you’re  thinking about the money. If this is you, you may want to look more into tournament poker.

The Wrap Up

As you can see, there are quite a few differences between tournament poker and cash game poker. While some of these differences will only affect preferential choices, some of them have major strategic impacts. If you’re not already accounting for these strategic impacts, it’s time to make some changes in your game.

For those of you that have read this guide to try and decide which format is best for you, we have some parting thoughts. Give both options a try and see what you like and dislike about each. Don’t try and draw conclusions about your winning abilities from too small of a sample size, but do draw conclusions about what you like and what you don’t like. It’s ok to determine what you prefer from a small sample size. You only have to try eating a food once to know you don’t like it.

Find the game format that fits you best, make the necessary strategic adjustments that we covered here, and work your butt off to try and be the best player at that format that you can be. With enough practice and hard work, you can really start to turn a great profit and achieve all of your poker goals and dreams.