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Poker Tournament Considerations

by Sam Braids

As a result of widespread television coverage, poker tournaments have grown tremendously in popularity. For poker players, tournaments offer high entertainment value for a fixed dollar amount that is paid up-front. Many tournaments have modest buy-ins (less than $100), and online there are tournaments with buy-ins less than $5. That means players with any budget can afford to play in tournaments. Popular poker games that are played in a tournament format include Hold'em, Omaha Hi-Lo, and Omaha Hi Poker.

The object of a tournament is to determine a winner who will be awarded a cash prize from a prize pool formed from the entry fees. The winner is the person who at the end has accumulated all the chips. Rarely does one person take all the cash. Usually, there are prizes for the various runner-ups (2nd, 3rd, and so on).

If you have experience in cash-games and decide to play in tournaments, here are some differences to consider.

• You need to have the time available to play the entire event. The only way to cash out of a tournament is to play it through and finish in the money. This is the most important difference for tournament play. In a cash-game, you can pick up your chips and leave at any time. You don’t have to play a single hand. But you should not enter a tournament unless you have the ability to play serious poker until the end. Behavior such as “chip dumping” or “soft playing,” when a player intentionally gives away chips to another player by calling large bets and then folding, is unethical. Penalties and disqualifications can result. If for some reason, it becomes impossible to continue play, your chips should be left on the table and the forced blinds will eventually shrink your stack to zero. In an online tournament, that is how the software handles the stacks of players who become permanently disconnected during a tournament. The blinds will eventually remove their stacks.

• An hourly win-rate has no meaning for tournament play. Instead of expectation per hand, you need to think in terms of expectation per tournament. Top tournament players enter hundreds of tournaments each year. Professional golf is a good model for regular poker tournament players. A golf-pro does not expect to finish in the money or even make the cut in every tournament entered. The expectation is that he or she will finish in the money enough times to pay the expenses for all the tournaments entered and turn a profit.

• The skill versus luck factor is a much longer-term consideration for tournament players. Winning a tournament requires both skill and luck. If you don’t know how to play well, you won’t win a tournament. But a series of bad beats can still knock you out even if your play is perfect. It is also hard to win without hitting one or more miracle draws along the way. Again, golf is good model. It requires a great deal of skill to play professional golf, but random wind gusts and bad bounces can alter the distribution of thousands of dollars in prize money at the end.

• Tournament play requires a more aggressive approach than cash-game play. The escalating blinds make it impossible to wait out long periods of bad cards. Tournament players are often forced to take chances that cash-game players would have no reason to take. A tight-passive player might make a small steady income in cash-game play, but not be able to win tournaments. Conversely, a loose-aggressive player might do well in tournament play, but go broke facing careful patient players in a cash-game.

• Poker is still poker and the differences between cash and tournament play, while real, are not as great as many people think. Many tournament novices make the mistake of over-aggression, especially at the beginning, thinking that they need to come out swinging and accumulate chips as soon as possible. Patience is still important in tournament poker, especially in the beginning. At the start, the blinds are small compared to the average stack size and that means play should be close to that of a cash-game. Also, remember that in tournament play, the goal is not to win pots; it is to eliminate opponents by taking their stacks. That means patiently waiting for the right moment when you can set a trap or induce a major mistake.

The poker skill that tournament play will test to the utmost is your ability to adjust to changing circumstances. Sit in a cash-game and you might play for several hours in the same seat with the same relative position to the same opponents. The stakes will not increase and you can be as patient as necessary during the long periods of bad cards. But a tournament is by definition a constantly changing situation. Opponents are eliminated, players are moved, stack sizes grow and shrink, short-handed play is common, and winning often requires prevailing in a heads-up format. Success requires understanding each new situation as it develops and making the appropriate changes to your play.

Sam Braids, physicist and author of The Intelligent Guide to Texas Hold'em Poker, has for decades studied, researched, and played poker and chess. His poker experience is widespread, including time in West Coast cardrooms, Mississippi riverboats, and Atlantic City casinos. He holds a doctorate in physics and teaches advanced physics and mathematics. His technical proficiency includes a great deal of expertise with computers and the Internet.