Mastering Poker Tournaments: Unleash Your Skills and Crush the Competition!

Intermediate
icon-thumb-up 0% icon-clock-grey 26 min

Ready to dominate the poker scene? This ultimate guide reveals insider strategies for Poker Tournaments, turning you into a fearless contender.

 Discover pro tips, mind-blowing bluffs, and winning secrets that'll leave your opponents begging for mercy. 

Get ready to take your game to a whole new level by discovering:

What are Poker Tournaments

poker tournaments

Poker tournaments are competitions where players bet and play poker to win money or prizes based on their skills.

For the beginning or otherwise inexperienced player, tournaments can be great places to experience the game for short money.  

They are often offered for low buy-ins, limiting how much a player can lose for one playing session. Similarly, as tournaments frequently attract new and learning players, they can be an excellent source of profit for the skilled player.

Fun fact

Tournaments are also places for those seeking public recognition and glory in poker.  Poker celebrities became famous chiefly by playing in and winning major poker tournaments.  

How Tournaments are Different from Cash Games

Playing in a poker tournament is different from playing in a cash game. While the rules of the game, the ranking of the hands, the dealing of the cards, the play of hand, and the awarding of the pot are generally the same as a cash game, some key differences affect strategy.

In cash games, players play for as long as they like, with chips that have an intrinsic value and that may be cashed in at any time. 

The blinds of a cash game typically remain the same throughout the play of a game.  

Players come and go as they like, buy in as often and for as much or as little as they wish (within the limits that the cash game may impose), and may add to their stack repeatedly, at will, or not at all as they choose.

Tournament Structure

A standard poker tournament, however, is played for a fixed duration, with each player starting with an equal stack of chips.  The tournament ends when one player has accumulated all of the chips. The blinds increase at fixed intervals throughout the game – to ensure that the event eventually ends with a single winner

For example, a tournament may begin with blinds at 25/50, increasing every 20 minutes, first to 50/100, then to 75/150, then to 100/200, etc.  This exerts pressure on participants to play.  If they play too tightly, their stack will eventually be whittled down to zero by the escalating blinds and antes.

Players only leave the tournament when they have lost all of their chips (or if they are the last player standing and have won all the chips). Their chips have no intrinsic cash value and may not be redeemed.  The winner of the tournament is determined by who ends up with all of the chips.

Remember - Tournament entry costs vary

Some are as little as $1. A few have been for as much as $1,000,000 per player.

There are even free tournaments, often run by casinos as a reward for those who play regularly or as an enticement to play in the future.  Free tournaments are also sometimes offered by bars and restaurants to bring in potential patrons, with prizes paid in the form of food and beverage comps. 

Tournaments are also run as charity fundraisers, with participants donating money and winners receiving prizes rather than cash.

Tournament Payouts– the Prize Money

Typically, the amount paid out to the winner or winners of a tournament is based on the number of people entering the tournament.  

For example, if 100 people enter a tournament that costs $100, the prize pool would be $10,000. The tournament operator usually tacks on an additional charge for themselves. That’s where their profit comes from.

In the example above, if the house charges $20 per entry, the total buy-in to the event would be $120.  $100 would go into the prize pool, and the additional $20 would be kept by the event group. 

Tournaments typically pay declining percentages of that prize pool, based on the order of finish, with the person lasting the longest getting the most of the money.  A player finishing in the money is said to have “cashed.”

In the 100-person tournament example above, with a $10,000 prize pool, the house would probably pay 10 places or so, with a prize schedule something like the following:

  • 1st place: $3,000
  • 2nd place: $2,100
  • 3rd place: $1,300
  • 4th place: $900
  • 5th place: $700
  • 6th place: $600
  • 7th place: $500
  • 8th place: $400
  • 9th place: $300
  • 10th place: $200

The Tournament Charge or Rake

Typically, the house has to make money from a tournament.  They do this in a few ways.  In the example above, they add a fee.  That’s their profit, needed to pay the dealers and other staff, keep the lights on, and pay all of the other expenses for operating a poker room. 

Sometimes the house takes its money from the announced cost of the tournament.  A $100 contest may put $75 into the prize pool, with the house taking $25. 

A higher percentage of the tournament tends to go to the house in smaller tournaments than larger ones.  20-25% is typical for $100 and smaller events.  10-15% is standard for $1000 and larger events.  

Keep in mind

The house may also take money out of the winner’s prize.  3% is not uncommon.  A savvy player understands what the house’s take is.  If you think the house is taking out too big of a bite, take your business elsewhere.  

Tournament Variations 

There are many tournament variations.  Here are the most common:

1. Freezeouts

Freezout tournament

A freezeout is the simplest form of tournament.  A player who loses their starting stack is out of the event. They may not re-buy, re-enter, or add on to their initial starting stack of chips.  When they’re out, they’re out.

2. Re-buy Tournament

Re-buy tournament

A re-buy tournament allows players to purchase additional chips, typically in the beginning stages of the tournament. 

Re-buys allow a player to continue playing even if they have lost all or a significant portion of their initial stack of chips.  For example, in a $100 tournament, with a starting stack of 10,000 tournament chips, a player who has fallen below that starting stack may be able to rebuy an additional 5000 in tournament chips for $50 during the first two hours of play.  Similarly, if a player has lost all of their chips, they may buy another starting stack of 10,000 chips for $100. That money is added to the prize pool.

Some tournaments limit the number of re-buys; others allow unlimited re-buys for the first stages.  Players often change their strategy after the re-buy period is over, playing more aggressively and recklessly when re-buys are permitted and tightening up when the re-buy period is over. 

3. Add-on

add on tournament

An add-on is a type of re-buy that usually occurs only at the end of the re-buy period.  It allows all competitors, no matter their stack size, to add to their stack with an additional purchase of chips.  So, for example, all players in a $100 tournament may elect to add an extra 10,000 chips for $50 when the re-buy period is over.  As with other re-buys, that money is then added to the prize pool, increasing the payouts to those who finish in the money.  

The re-buy and add-on model of tournaments remains popular for smaller tournaments, free tournaments (that give a free starting stack but charge for re-buys and add-ons), and charity events.  Major tournaments have tended to move away from this model, however, essentially replacing it with re-entry tournaments.

4. Re-entry Tournaments

re-entry tournaments

A re-entry tournament allows players to continue to play after losing all of their chips by giving them the option of buying into the tournament again for the exact terms of their initial entry.  This is colloquially known as firing a second bullet. 

A $1,500 tournament, with re-entry, for example, would allow a participant to buy in initially for $1,500.  If they subsequently lose all of their chips, they may buy in again for another $1,500.  Unlike a re-buy, however, the re-entry only partially funds the prize pool, with the same deduction for the house that is made in the initial tournament entry. 

5. Shootouts

shoot-out tournaments

Unlike a typical tournament that consolidates tables and moves players to different tables to keep tables full when players are knocked out, a shootout is a multi-table tournament that keeps players at their table until there is one winner at their table, who advances to a table of other table winners. 

You have to beat all of the players at your table to move on.  This process continues until there is one final table.  It then plays out precisely as a final table does in a conventional tournament.  

6. Sit & Gos (SNG)

sit and go tournament

A SNG tournament is typically a single table tournament that starts not at a pre-determined time but rather when all the seats of a table are filled with players.  It typically has a very aggressive blind progression.  It is prevalent online; and is rarely spread in a brick-and-mortar poker room.  As the game is usually short stacked, with the quick escalation of blinds, successful SNG play requires a thorough understanding of shove/fold strategy.

Poker Tournament Mixed Game Variants

Theoretically, any poker variant may be played as a tournament.  As you might expect, the largest number of tournaments are ones featuring no-limit Texas Hold’em (NLHE). 

 It is the most popular form of poker today, and is accordingly the most popular form of tournament poker.  But there are also tournaments featuring Pot Limit Omaha, Limit Hold’em, 7-Card Stud, Crazy Pineapple, 2-7 Lowball, Badugi, Omaha High-Low, and any other casino poker game you can name.

There has been a recent interest in what is commonly known as “Mixed Game” tournaments

These tournaments feature more than one poker game, played typically in rotation.  HORSE is an example of a mixed game.  In it, five games of limit poker rotate. 

  • The first round is Hold’em (H);
  • The second Omaha, High-Low Split with an 8 qualifier (O),
  • The third Razz (R).  That’s 7-card Stud played with the low hand winning the pot. 
  • The fourth game is 7-card Stud (S)

The final game is 7-card Stud, High-Low with an 8 qualifier (E).  There are many other mixed game tournaments, including HOSE, OE, SHOE, ROE (standing for Round of Each – No Limit Hold’em and Pot Limit Omaha), and 10-game mix (that includes limit games, pot limit games, and no limit games). 

Another mixed game tournament format is Dealer’s Choice. The dealer may pick from a pre-selected list of allowed games.  The list sometimes has as many as 40 games to choose from.

The dealer then deals one round of that game.

Turbo and Hyper-turbo Tournaments

hyper turbo tournament

Some tournaments are designated “turbo” or “hyper-turbo.”  This simply refers to how quickly the blind levels escalate.  While a typical tournament may have blinds going up every 15 to 30 minutes, a turbo typically has blinds escalating every 5 to 10 minutes. 

A hyper-turbo tournament escalates the blinds every 3 minutes or so. 

The quickened blinds are also often matched with a diminished starting stack size.  While a conventional multi-table tournament (MTT) might have players starting with 100 or 200 big blinds, a turbo might provide only 50 big blinds, and a hyper-turbo 25 big blinds.  

A winning strategy needs to account for these differences and respond accordingly.  With the quickening escalation of the blinds and a shortening of the stack sizes, you’ll need to be more aggressive in a turbo and much more aggressive in a hyper-turbo, as you’ll be busted out sooner if you do nothing. 

Specifically, in a hyper, you’ll often be faced with a decision of whether to shove or fold pre-flop. 

At first glance, with the emphasis on fast play, you might conclude that turbos and hyper turbos require less skill than a conventional tournament.  While it’s true that there is less room for much post-flop play; it’s also true that turbos, and especially hyper turbos attract the beginning and more recreational players.  With these softer fields of players, a skilled player will have a decided advantage.  So brush up on your shove-fold charts, and win in these games!

Deep Stack and Monster Stacked Tournaments

deep stack tournaments

Tournament starting stack sizes have evolved over the years.  While a typical MTT in the 1990s and before often started players with 3000 or 5000 in chips, those in the early 2000s began giving players bigger stacks, with 10000 or 20000 chips.  

The term “deep stacked tournament” was coined then and is still in use today. They were favored by many skilled players since they gave them more opportunities to recover from bad beats, and to apply their superior skills more methodically against unskilled opponents.  

In 2010 or so, and continuing today, tournament operators started giving players starting stacks of 40,000 or more. These are known as monster stacks.  

Some players prefer them for the same reasons they liked deep stacks.  Other players hate them because they often take longer than conventionally structured tournaments. 

It's essential you not be fooled into thinking that a large starting stack size necessarily means more play than a tournament with a smaller starting stack. You’ve got to do the math to see.  Determine the ratio of the starting stack to the starting blind.  

For example, consider two tournaments. 

The first announces itself as a monster stack, with 40,000 in starting chips.  The second is a conventional tournament with 10,000 chips.  At first glance, you might think the monster stack provides more play.

But upon closer inspection, you see that the “monster stack” tournament, with the starting stack size of 40000, starts with blinds of 100/200; while the other tournament, with a starting stack size of 10000, starts with blinds of 25/25. 

Do the math and compare. The “monster stack” starts you with 200 big blinds, the latter with 400.  The monster stack provides you with less play.  You’ll need to adjust your strategy accordingly.

Bounty Tournaments

bounty tournaments

A bounty is a prize for knocking out another player from the poker tournament.  

At the start of a bounty tournament, each player is given a special bounty chip in addition to their starting stack of chips.  If and when they are knocked out, they provide the bounty chip to the opponent who knocked them out.  

Unlike tournament chips, those bounty chips are redeemable for cash when a player exits the tournament.  

For example, in a $125 bounty tournament, with a $100 entry and a $25 bounty, if you knocked out six players and then got knocked out without cashing, you could still redeem your six bounties for $150, netting you a profit of $25.

Guaranteed (GTD) Prize Pools

guaranteed prize pools

Tournaments typically pay out a prize pool that corresponds to the number of entries.  For example, a $120 tournament, with a $20 fee and $100 paid into the prize pool, with 100 entrants, would have a prize pool of $10,000.  

The same tournament with 50 entrants would have a $5,000 prize pool. But some tournaments are publicized with a guaranteed prize pool.  This means that they will pay out an amount worth no less than that guaranteed amount, no matter how many people register for the poker tournament.  

If a $100 tournament is announced with a $10,000 guaranteed prize pool, but only 50 people enter, they would still provide a $10,000 prize pool since it was guaranteed.  This is called an overlay – meaning the players are getting extra money from the house added to the amount of their tournament entry monies.  It doesn’t happen often.  But when it does, it’s one of the rare situations when players can earn back more than they paid in to the tournament.

How Tournament Strategy is Different from Cash Game Strategy

tournament vs cash game

As we saw earlier, in many ways, a tournament is similar to a "cash game ."  The dealing of cards, dealer rotation, hand rankings, betting of the chips, and the need for a knowledge of probability and psychology are all the same. The chief difference is three-fold. 

  1. Ever-escalating blinds force action
  2. When you lose your chips (after the rebuy phase in a re-buy tournament), you are out of the tournament
  3. You make money based on the order in which you are knocked out of the tournament. 

In a cash game, blinds are constant. The $5/10 game you sat down in will remain a $5/10 game. But a tournament has ever-increasing blinds. 

They go up after each period of fixed duration.  

A tournament that begins at $100/200 will eventually reach $10,000/20,000. In a tournament, you must win chips or go bust. 

Accordingly, your strategy must reflect this different landscape. While a very tight style of play might work in some cash games, it will probably fail in a tournament.  

The blinds will devour your stack if you aren't aggressive.

In a cash game, if you go all-in and lose, you can purchase more chips and continue playing.  But in a tournament, with some limited exceptions, you are done once you lose your chips. 

Your perspective on risk and reward differs from a cash game. You must be much more careful about putting in all your chips, even if you have the best of it. Once you are out of chips, you are out of the tournament (assuming you are not in the re-buy phase of the tournament).

A tournament also differs from a cash game in the payout. In a cash game, you can leave when you want, cashing out whatever chips you have. 

A tournament only pays you if you finish "in the money," typically in the top 10-15% of the field. In the above example, 11th place pays nothing.  "Cashing" requires that you survive. 

Players need to know where they and their opponents stand relative to the prize pool. 

If their opponents lose their chips in a cash game, they can add to their stack.  If they didn’t lose their chips to you, you gain no benefit. 

But in a tournament, you benefit from the demise of other players – as their loss moves you up higher toward or within the prize pool.  When an opponent loses all of their chips, this helps you. This may affect how you play a hand.

Here's an extreme example of how that might play out:

You are at the final table of a $100,000 buy-in tournament, with 50 entries, that is paying out the $5 million prize pool as follows:

  • 1st $1.5 million
  • 2nd $1.1 million
  • 3rd $900,000
  • 4th $800,000
  • 5th $700,000

Six of you are left. You are, by far, the smallest stack, and you have Ah As in the Big Blind.

Blinds are 300,000/600,000.  

poker tournament all in example

Jose, UTG, is the biggest stack, with 30 million tournament chips. He goes all in. Everyone else calls. You can either call or fold.  What do you do?

On the one hand, you have the best possible pre-flop hand with your Aces.  If this were a cash game, you would almost surely call. But this is a tournament.  

If you call and lose, you will be out of the tournament with nothing to show for your efforts. 

If you fold, conversely, it's highly likely a few of your opponents will be knocked out of the tournament, guaranteeing you a nice payday. 

In this admittedly contrived tournament situation, it makes sense to fold your AA!

Other differences affect your strategy in a poker tournament.

In a cash game, especially one played live as opposed to online, psychology plays a significant role.  It’s essential to learn the type of player you are against and their particular traits, mannerisms, etc.  In a typical cash game, you will often be playing with the same players and able to observe them over a long period. 

You will also usually have plenty of opportunities to exploit them based on these observable traits.

But in a tournament, especially a large multi-table tournament, you and other players will be moved from table to table as the game progresses.  You will face many for a brief period. You will have much less opportunity to play against any particular player – and, accordingly, less of a chance to observe or exploit the traits of any specific player. 

Your play must, by extension, tend to be more mechanical and formulaic, and less personal.   

Other Essential Tournament Strategy Considerations

Here are some additional thing to consider while participating in a poker tournament, that may not seem too obvious at first glance:

Different strategy for different stages of the poker tournament

poker strategy tournaments

Tournament strategy often focuses on adjusting ranges and levels of aggression to fit each of the three or four different stages of the tournament.  

A conventional way to approach an MTT is to play extremely tightly in the early stages, just hoping to survive as others are knocked out.  This traditional approach then calls for players to open up their ranges somewhat in the middle stages of the tournament, trying to accumulate chips as they move toward making money.  

They might then tighten up as they near the “money bubble” – trying to ensure that they at least cash.  Once they make money, they may become more aggressive, as they risk getting knocked out, knowing they have at least profited somewhat from their entry.  

But the above strategy gives rise to counter strategies that seek to exploit this conventional style of play.  Someone employing an exploitive counter-strategy might well be incredibly aggressive early in the tournament, taking advantage of most players’ aversion to getting knocked out early.  

They might tighten their range in response to players becoming more aggressive.  

And they might themselves become much more aggressive as the money bubble approaches, exploiting once again their opponents’ fear of getting knocked out just shy of making money. You can always learn more about strategy and tactics from my dedicated guide on how to play poker in the Academy.

Opposition Research

opposition research

It helps to have information about opponents, especially as you near or play on a final table.  You can see cumulative player tournament amounts of cash by checking out sites that keep track of tournament results, like thehendonmob.com.  

You can also do an online search of your opponents to see if there have been any articles written about them or whether there is any video of them playing or teaching poker.  

Preparation

preparation checklist for tournament

You’ll be well served to treat tournaments, especially large MTTs, as the serious, competitive events that they are, by getting physically, emotionally, and mentally ready to play your best game.  I find it useful, for example, to plan some rigorous exercise and some time to relax before the start of a tournament.  

You also want to be prepared with the best information and other resources you might want during the event.  I spend some time looking at the structure sheet and, if available, information on my opponents seated at my table.

In addition, it’s often helpful to bring a supply of essentials with you while you play.  Specifically, here is a checklist for what to get to your next tournament. I’ve provided some elaboration where necessary.

  1. Snack food: Tournaments can last a long time. Casino and other poker room eating places can be expensive, with slow service, and sometimes with bad food. There may be little time to leave the floor and eat. You may not be able to get the food you want during the typically brief breaks.  To plan for this, have a supply of some easy-to-eat foods that you’d enjoy. Fresh fruit, dried fruit, nuts, energy bars, and chocolate are examples of snacks you might want to have on hand for a tournament. 
  2. Hydrating and/or energizing beverages: Yes, there are often servers who can get you water and other beverages while you play.  But they can be expensive and may not include your personal favorites. It couldn’t hurt for you to have your supply.  
  3. Charger/battery: You want to make sure your phone and other electronic devices don’t lose power during a long session.
  4. Phone: Make sure your ringer is off.
  5. Headphones
  6. Eye drops: Long sessions can be a strain on your eyes.  Eye drops can really help.
  7. Medicine/analgesic: Once again, as the session stretches on, you don’t want to be caught without essential medication.  It also helps to have something to dull any headache or other pain that might develop.
  8. Sweater/Jacket: Tournament rooms can become very cold, especially in hot desert climates with over-compensating air conditioning.  You don’t want your physical discomfort to be a distraction. I always bring a lightweight jacket to wear if necessary.
  9. Support team: It can help to have someone you can call for information on an opponent or someone to reach out to if you need something at the table.
  10. Notebook/electronic record: You’ll want to keep track of problem hands, exciting situations, and questions to ask yourself when the tournament is over.  You can go old school with paper and pen or have an electronic device.
  11. Hand wipes/hand cleaner/Tissues/napkins: Those chips are dirty – really, really dirty.  Minimize your chances of coming down with something.  Keep those hands clean!  
  12. Money/credit cards: You’ll want this for incidentals you may need to buy during the tournament, pay a massage therapist, and tip waitstaff for bringing you food and beverage.  Unlike in a cash game, your tournament chips cannot be used for cash.

Deal Making and ICM

deal making and ICM

Tournaments are structured to end with a single winner.  Even so, sometimes, much of the time, in fact, players agree to settle the tournament before this happens.  This may be done for any of a number of reasons.

Sometimes players are tired and just want to stop the tournament. 

Sometimes players nearing the end of a tournament do not want to risk getting little or nothing for their efforts. They may seek to negotiate a payout other than the one that ends with a single winner winning first place.

This sometimes takes the form of negotiating that the bubble (the last player not making the prize pool) gets some money.  This extra place may be paid out of the winnings of the rest.  So, for example, in a tournament paying 10 places, an agreement may be made to diminish the prizes for those places to give the person in 11th place their buy-in back. 

Similarly, in a tournament that pays a huge amount for first place and a small amount for second place, for example, the final two players might agree to combine and then split both prizes.

I’ve seen the final 15 people in a tournament all take an equal share of the prize pool.  I’ve seen the player with the largest stack take the entire first-place money, and the next five players divide up places 2 through 6. There are as many arrangements for deals as there are imaginations.  

There is a skill in making these deals.  Some players are very good at negotiating a deal that is favorable to them; others are vulnerable to settling for much less than their “fair share.”  Typically, no deal can be made until and unless all remaining players agree to the deal. 

A new player should resist any settlement that they don’t think is fair.  

One objective method for settling a tournament before its conclusion is referred to as ICM.  It stands for Independent Chip Model.

Simply put, ICM uses a player’s stack size to determine the percentage of the prize pool they are likely to win based on the stated payouts for each place in the tournament.  It does not consider a player’s skill or experience, just their chip stack. 

For example

Without getting into the math of it, it recognizes that a player with a lot of chips is likely to finish much better than a player with very few chips – if they were to play out the tournament until the end.

Players can use ICM to provide an objective way to make a deal.  But remember, no deal, based on ICM or anything else, may be made unless it is unanimously agreed to.  It’s always acceptable to say that you just want to keep playing.

Conclusion

Poker tournaments can provide immense entertainment, as well as bragging rights and a chance at true poker glory. 

There are tournaments to fit every budget and level of experience.  

Before you pick one to play in, it’s worth taking a few minutes to consider the total cost, including any re-buys or add-ons if they are offered, as well as the amount the house is taking out of the prize pool. 

A tournament can be over in one hand, of course. But if you’re going to play, you should also find out the potential duration of a tournament and make sure you have all the time you need to win it!

And remember, you can expand your poker knowledge with my Academy guides series that go in-depth on all the details you will need at the table.

Was this guide helpful?
Ashley Adams
Ashley Adams Professional Poker Player
Ashley Adams has been playing poker since 1963, when he learned it, literally, at his grandfather’s knee. He began playing professionally in 1993, when Foxwoods Resort Casino opened its poker room.
Read All Poker Guides
icon-arrow-up