Poker is one game that has taken the world by storm. Its popularity can be attributed to many factors, chief among them being that poker is a game for everyone. Whether you’re a seasoned player or a complete novice, there’s a place for you at the poker table. Another reason for poker’s immense popularity is that it’s a game of skill. Yes, there is an element of chance involved, but your ability to ‘read’ people and make the right decisions will help your success. Poker is also just plain old fun. There’s nothing quite like going head-to-head with an opponent in a battle of wits and nerves and coming out the victor. So whether you’re looking for a new hobby, wanting to test your mettle, or just looking to have some fun, give poker a try – you won’t be disappointed.

One of poker’s biggest strengths, when compared to other games, is the number of ways you can play it. There are countless poker variants, each offering different rules and challenges. That means the game is always fresh and replayable, no matter how many times you’ve played it. It also means that there’s a poker variant out there for everyone. Whether you’re looking for a fast-paced game or something more strategic, you will find a poker variant that suits your fancy. The only downside to this myriad of choices is they can confuse newer players, many of whom will not know where to start. They might not know which to choose between Texas Holdem or Omaha or which format to play, between cash games and tournaments.

Texas Holdem is generally the best variant for beginners because of its popularity, straightforward rules, and strategic depth. However, choosing between tournaments and cash games is more subjective and requires more knowledge about both types. This guide will go in-depth into tournaments, explaining what a poker tournament is, how it works, and even the different tournament types.

What is a Tournament?

A tournament is a poker game where the competitors play against each other until one player is left standing. Unlike a cash game, a tournament has a fixed buy-in and set start time. The last player standing wins, receiving the lion’s share of the prize pool. To facilitate this, the blinds steadily increase over time, and new forced bets that everyone must pay, known as antes, are sometimes added. All of this is done to ensure that players are continually eliminated until only one remains. The winner’s share of the prize varies based on the number of players but can be as high as 50%, or even 100%, of the prize pool, which comprises entry fees, buy-ins, and rebuys. Most tournament entrants are not paid out; you must progress to a certain point to receive any prize money. Poker tournaments can be either single-table or multi-table. Single-table tournaments have between 2 and 10 players, while multi-table tournaments can have thousands of players.

Tournament Variants

Tournaments have many variants that treat elimination differently. The most common one is a freezeout. If you lose all your chips, you’re out of the tournament entirely in this format. Another popular tournament variant is the rebuy. You can buy extra chips if your stack falls below a predetermined amount. You can only do this early on in the tournament. Finally, there is a reentry variant. Like the rebuy, you can reenter the tournament by paying the entry fee again; however, you are treated as if you just joined the tournament, so you will be reseated at another table.

Finally, tournaments can have variants based on their purpose. Most poker tournaments are standalone competitions, where the reward is the prize pool. For some particularly prestigious tournaments like the World Series of Poker (WSOP), you can also get additional awards like an infamous WSOP gold bracelet. There are other tournaments, known as “satellites.” These satellites act as qualifiers for bigger events, with the winner receiving the buy-in for the main competition. Many satellites are online, and even the most prestigious tournaments, like the WSOP, have them. The 2003 WSOP main event winner, Chris Moneymaker, qualified through a $39 online satellite tournament. He managed to turn his $39 into a full-blown WSOP win worth millions and this story is what sparked the poker boom from. 

Tournament Advantages

The biggest advantage of a tournament is the potential reward you get compared to a cash game. Cash games are steady, and you rarely see significant bankroll swings in either direction unless you’re playing at stakes much too high. Tournaments give you a chance to win big, with some tournaments giving millions of dollars for a single win. This makes them arguably more engaging and thrilling than cash games, as you stand to win millions, but you can potentially drop out and lose it all at any point. Cash games can feel mundane, especially if you’re burnt out from too much grinding. A tournament will be your best bet if you want to spice things up and play poker for thrills. Another advantage of tournaments is that, at least in the early levels, your competition will likely be weaker than cash games. Many experienced poker players frequent cash games to make a living, while casuals often choose tournaments because of how they are viewed  in pop culture. So, if you aren’t too serious about poker and want an exciting time, you might prefer tournaments. 

poker tournament in progress

Tournament Disadvantages

One of the biggest disadvantages of tournaments is that the winner takes home almost all of the prize pool, which means tournament outcomes are far more susceptible to variance than cash games. That can be a big problem if you don’t have enough bankroll to cover the downswings. Even the pros suffer from droughts and downswings when playing tournaments, so it’s essential to remember that anyone can have a stretch of bad luck. If you’re not prepared for the swings, then tournaments may not be your best option.

Another problem with poker tournaments is their format. Unlike cash games, you need to schedule a tournament in advance since you never know how long you’ll be playing. The tournament format also makes it more confusing to track how much money you have, as chips aren’t 1:1 with real money. You need to use advanced concepts like the Independent Chip Model to determine where you stand in the tournament. This can be confusing and frustrating for new players trying to learn the game. Another problem with tournaments is that they often have a lot of dead time, where players just sit around waiting for the next hand to be dealt, particularly when you get near the money and the tournament goes to hand-for-hand play. Depending on your perspective, this can be seen as positive or negative. Some people enjoy the social aspect of poker and use this time to chat with other players. Others find it boring and prefer the faster pace of cash games. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide which format you prefer, and hopefully, this gives you a basic understanding of the difference between cash games and poker tournaments.