A common question for most new poker players is whether to play cash games or tournaments. While the same basic rules apply to both formats, there are slight differences in how they are played and the strategy employed. Depending on how you play and the strategies you favor and use, you can succeed in one format but fail in the other. 

Here we will take a closer look at both forms of online poker, tournaments and cash games, and try to start understanding the key differences. Whether you’re new to poker or have tried a few games, these differences can help you make an informed decision about which poker format is better for you, an overview of what to expect and some insight on what you might need to adjust if you switch.

Basic differences between cash games and tournaments:

Cash games                                                          Tournaments


– You can join a cash game whenever you want.                      – Tournaments have preset start times.
– You can cash out and go home whenever you want.             – While you can leave whenever you   
– You can buy additional chips whenever you want .                    want, you cannot cash out until 
– Static Blind Levels.                                                                            you are out of chips or the
– Cash games have lower variance.                                                 tournament is complete.
– Rake is paid with almost every hand.                                        – You cannot buy additional chips.
                                                                                                           – Blind levels will periodically increase.
                                                                                                           – Rake is paid once with the buy-in

Time Commitment 

Online poker tournaments require a significant investment of time by the players due to the scheduled start time and the unknown length of play. If you want to play poker tournaments, you must be present during the registration period and you are, essentially, committed to play until the tournament ends or you are eliminated. Furthermore, as tournaments are scheduled, it is entirely possible to not be able to find an event that meets your bankroll needs or personal comfort level.

Online poker cash games run all day every day and at a myriad of stake levels. You also have the ability to jump in or out as you desire, or as life needs you too. If you need to step away from a table for a short bit, you can save your seat and get back to it without having lost any of your buy-in through attrition. If it is difficult to devote your time, or a large section of time to poker, it may be a better choice to elect for cash games instead of a poker tournament. 

Blind Levels 

The blind levels for both cash games and tournaments follow the same base rules, but do not behave the same manner. In a cash game the blinds are static and never increase. When you play in a poker tournament the blind levels increase in regular timed intervals. Static blind levels that are found in cash games reduce variance and put very little pressure on players. This is due to players being able to wait as long as needed for a playable hand and the ability to buy more chips as needed. The negative about playing a cash poker game is every hand you play has the same structure which can make the game monotonous. Conversely, poker tournaments create enormous pressure that builds over time as the blinds increase which will affect a player’s decisions. The buy-in with which you are comfortable should be a major consideration when choosing which online poker format you play. 


Poker variance refers to the ups and downs – running good or bad – associated with playing poker. As mentioned, the variance in cash games is less than the variance in poker tournaments. It is the reduced variance why many players prefer cash games to poker tournaments when playing online poker. The image below, which graphs results from a professional poker player, illustrates the effect of variance. In cash games we can see a consistent winning trend, but in multi-table tournaments (MTT) the results are, with the exception of the two big wins, very up and down.


The skills required in an MTT are slightly different from the skills needed to be successful in a cash poker game. The differences are mostly related to the effective stack sizes. In cash games, we almost always start with a predetermined stack, usually around 100 big blinds (BB). Of course we have to adjust our decisions for players with smaller stacks, but  most of the time we will play efficiently with 100BB. 

In a poker tournament, stack sizes are constantly changing. Similar to cash games, we often start with around 100bb (sometimes more), but as the blind levels increase we generally are forced to play from an increasingly short stack position. This constant flux in our chip stacks changes our range and, by extension, the number of hands we can profitably play in different situations and table positions. A significant part of any poker player’s tournament career is played when the stacks drop below 20BB. When we reach that spot, we are in what is commonly known as ‘push-or-fold’. At this point, we usually only make pre-flop decisions as our stacks are not deep enough to participate in specialized turn and river scenarios. 

It is equally important to understand that, unlike in a cash game, time is a factor when playing tournaments. In a cash game, every hand follows the same structure. Tournaments have an ever-evolving structure that must be considered when we make a decision. Depending on how much time is left until the next blind level, or how many players are left before the bubble bursts, the correct preflop action changes as fluidly as the blinds. Tournament decisions are more dynamic, while cash game decisions tend to be more static. 

It is these changes which can cause issues for players. A poker player with incredible skills in one format does not automatically mean they will be successful in the other. This is often the reason many players specialize in either poker tournaments or cash games. Both require specific skills and by specializing in one area, we are able to reach our full potential quicker than trying to learn both skills. 

The skill sets do have some similarities. A tournament poker players’ strength in late tournament play can help when playing from the short stack in a cash game. Similarly, a player with strong 100BB cash game skills will generally do well in the early stages of a tournament. Being able to perform at a high level in both disciplines isn’t bad, it just takes a lot of study and practice.

My Opinion 

Personally, I prefer MTT’s. I enjoy the different stages (the constant increase of the blinds as you constantly fight your way out of a short stack position) of the tournament that you traverse on your way to the money. I particularly enjoy prize format tournaments and spend most of my tournament time playing for prizes (like WSOP tickets). With my experience I would argue that MTTs are harder, thus my drive to continue to improve and increase my winnings.

man multi-tabling online poker
About the Author: UnleqitPsycho is a 22 year old poker player living in Cologne, Germany. He started playing poker at 18 and can be found mainly playing MTT’s and Spin & Golds.