Header Background

Poker Tournaments Explained

Poker Tournaments

Tournaments are popular. Other than High Stakes Poker, all that’s shown on TV is MTTs.

We think what makes tournaments sexy are the large prize pools. People like seeing people play for hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars. And you don’t get that that often with cash games.

It happens often with tournaments, though.

Of course, it depends on the buy-in and game, but many of the events shown on TV are the large ones with a $5,000, $10,000 or even $100,000 buy-in. These tourneys create prize pools that often reach the 7-figure mark. And that creates a lot of buzz.

So, naturally, a lot of people are curious about tournaments.

We thought it’d make sense to create a page that answers those questions – and many others.

What is a Poker Tournament?

A poker tournament is a game with a fixed format. Everything is predetermined – the blinds, buy-in, stack sizes, antes, structure and time limit.

The buy-in can vary from free (freerolls) to .05 to $20 to $100,000. There’s always a cut for the poker room, too, which is easier to see online. Most tournaments will be labeled $X+$Y where X goes to the prize pool and Y is the amount the poker room gets.

Once you’re entered you’ll want to log in or show up when the tournament is supposed to start. For sit and go’s (SNGs), that can be whenever, as they start whenever the tables are full. But for MTTs it’s a set time and place. If you’re online the poker room will automatically seat you (randomly) at a table.

From there you’ll have a stack of chips to play with. You’ll have the same amount as everyone else, unless the tournament offers re-buys and add-ons. Then the tournament will start.

A tournament will play very much like a cash game. Once every one posts their blinds, antes, etc., each player is dealt their cards. Then they play according to that game’s and variation’s rules.

But unlike cash games, tournaments have levels. Each level will be a predetermined length – it can be 1 minute, 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 1 hour, and so on. Each tourney will be different. But after the time’s up, when the next level starts the blinds will be higher.

For example, in a turbo 18-man on PokerStars, the blinds start at 10/20. After 5 minutes they go to 15/30, then 25/50, 50/100, and so on.

Note (Note: This is important to pay attention to, because if you don’t continue to add chips to your stack, eventually the blinds will be large enough that you’ll be blinded out. Then your tournament is over.)

The tournament continues like this until one player remains with all the chips in play.

Players are then paid according to the structure set from the beginning – although this does change a little in the beginning if the tournament allows late registrations (players can sign up and pay to play after the tourney starts).

The number of players paid will depend on the number of players in the tournament. SNGs are always fixed. For example, in a 9-10 man SNG 3 players are paid. In an 18-man SNG four players are paid. It’s seven in a 45-man and 9 in an 180-man. It just depends on the tourney.

When you play online any money you win will be put into your account balance automatically. We think some sites reserve the right to pay the next day on larger tournaments and payouts, but none that do this come to mind.

And that’s basically a tournament and how it works in a nutshell.

You’ll find tournaments online, in live casinos (not all are major “events” either), and even played in homes. They’re a great way to get LOTS of entertainment and value out of a fixed amount of money.

What Types of Tournaments Can You Play?

There are LOTS of tournaments you can play. The most popular game played is Texas holdem.

But since the “poker boom” more and more games are played in tournament form. And that includes both online and live (and shown on TV too).

That means you can play games like omaha, stud, razz, HORSE, other mixed games, and others, in tournament format. No limit is obviously the popular betting limit, but depending on the game, limit and pot limit is used, too.

And, as we mentioned earlier, stakes vary wildly. Online you’ll find stakes starting from free to .05 to around $500. There are some larger ones (including SNGs), but that’s where the bulk of tournaments fall. The Sunday Majors (the biggest tourneys of the week online) usually fall between $200 and $500.

Offline, you’ll find many tourneys starting at $20 to $500. It just depends on the room. But for the larger “events” they’ll start around $500 or $1,500, and then climb from there.

Other than the game and stakes, one other choice you’ll have to make is the type of tournament you’ll play. There are LOTS of them.

Here are the most common options:

  • Freezeout – Most tourneys fall into this category. Once you bust you’re out of the tourney.
  • Rebuy – Like a freezeout, except that for a short period (usually the first couple of levels) you can buy into the tourney again when you bust.
  • Turbo / Super Turbo – The levels are much faster. Instead of 20+ minutes, they’re something like 3-10 minutes. This requires a big change in strategy. And the faster the blinds the more luck that’s involved.
  • Guarantee – This is any tournament where a prize pool is guaranteed, no matter how many players show up. This is great because if the players don’t make up the prize pool, the room will. This is called an overlay.
  • Satellite – These are tournaments where the prize are seats to a more expensive/higher value tournament.

For example, several years ago we played a 5-table shootout for $15 that awarded a few seats to the Sunday Million, which you could buy into directly for $215.

Another good example is Chris Moneymaker – he won a $40 satellite to a higher dollar satellite, which then awarded him a seat to the WSOP Main Event which has a $10,000 buy-in.

Here are the most common options:

  • Bounty/Knockout – In these tournaments you pay a little extra. That little extra goes to a “bounty” which is paid whenever you or someone else knocks a player out of the tournament. For example, if there’s a $5 bounty on each player’s head, and someone knocked you out, they’d get your $5 chip.
  • SNGs – We mentioned these a bit already, but these are smaller tournaments with fixed fields that start once all the seats have been filled. These are great to play between tournaments or as a variance buster.
  • Deep Stacks – You start with a deep(er) stack than normal. Instead of 1,500 chips it might be 3,000. Or instead of 5,000 you might start with 10,000 or 20,000.
  • Shootouts – With these each table plays until there’s one player left. Then all these players play a final table. For example, in a 5-table shootout, the winner from each table would play a 5-handed final table for the prize(s).
  • Steps – This is common online. It’s sort of like a satellite tournament, but broken down even more. You might have 6 steps, starting from the lowest stakes (< $5) to the highest (+$500). You can buy in directly to any one of the steps (in this case 1-6), and then play to win a seat to the next level.

For example, you buy in directly to step 4, and if you win, you get to play step 5. Once you get to the last level the prize is usually a seat to a higher value tourney.

The great thing about these is if you lose, often times you get to play the step over or move down a step depending on where you finished. Even if you win nothing you get LOTS of value out of these.

Those are the most common tournament variations. But depending on where you play you’ll find other variations.

Major Tournament Events & Series

One unique thing about poker tournaments is you’ll find many events and series to join.

A series is simply a set number of tournaments hosted by a poker site or venue. They’ll have higher buy in tourneys, satellites to all the series tourneys, and maybe give out jewelry to the winners.

Here are the major tournament series in both online and live poker.

Those are the major events which are held once or twice per year. But you also have the Sunday Majors which are held once per week.

We say this as if you’ll find a major tournament series every Sunday at every poker site online. But that’s not really the case. PokerStars really has a monopoly on this. Right now they have 12 events running every Sunday with buy-ins ranging from $1+re-buys to $11 to $530 – and satellites running to all of them. Guaranteed prize pools for each event vary from $25,000 to $1,000,000.

Many sites run a (much) smaller version of PokerStars’ Sunday Majors. Sometimes they’ll host several larger tournaments throughout the week instead of all in one day. It just depends on the site.

How to Choose a Tournament to Play

Choosing a site to join for tournaments can be tricky. You could go a few different ways.

For example, you could join a new site where they’ll have smaller guaranteed tournaments. These often have overlays. You’ll have less players to fight through for the same prize pool.

However, these tournaments don’t get very big. And there’s not very many of them offered. On top of that, many sites have shut down tourneys when too few players show up instead of honoring the guarantee.

We prefer to go the other way. Look for sites that are established with lots of traffic and tournaments. We believe there’s more value in that. Not only will tournaments run more often, but there will be tournaments of all shapes and sizes. Tournaments with different games, variations, buy-ins, and blind levels/structures.

We would also look for a poker site that offers lots of live/online satellites. Often times the competition for the higher dollar buy-ins isn’t much greater than the lower stakes – it’s just a matter of who can afford it. Satellites give you a way to afford it.

From there choosing a tournament is rather straightforward. You want to choose a game and variation that you like and/or are good at. You might want to look at the blinds too, to make sure you choose a speed (normal to fast) you like and the structure jumps up in blinds at a comfortable pace. But we don’t think most players need to worry about stuff like that.

They should just find a game and get signed up instead.

Conclusion: Get More Out of Your $5 Than Just a Latte

There you have it – an overview of poker tournaments, how they work, and different types of tourneys you can play.

From here it’s a matter of choosing a game and getting started. If it were us, we’d choose a $5 or $10 turbo MTT with a starting stack of 1,500 and 3,000. Maybe find one that offers bounties – which can be lots of fun.

WAY more fun than you’ll get out of your $5 latte from Starbucks.