If you’ve watched poker on TV at all you’ve probably watched a poker tournament – likely the World Series of Poker Main Event or the World Poker Tour.
The format is usually fairly simple. Each person pays a single buy-in and gets a pre-determined (and equal) stack of chips.
Play is divided up into timed levels with blinds (forced bets by two players each round) increasing gradually with each level passed. Antes are usually introduced in the later levels.
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In a “freezeout” format, play continues until one player holds all the chips and all the other players have busted. Once you’ve lost all your chips, that’s it. You’re out.
Depending on the payout scale, the players who make it into the top 10-15% of the field get paid a percentage of the prize money collected from all the buy-ins.
The bulk of the money is spread among the final 3-5 players, but lots of tournaments have flatter payout structures that pay out more to a bigger portion of the field. Some even pay half the field the exact same amount of money each while the rest of the field – those who busted - get none.
Whatever the tournament format, though – and there are now dozens of them, from re-buys and re-entries to turbos and shootouts - tournaments are a fantastic way for new poker players to get their feet wet.
You know exactly how much you stand to lose, and the enticement of a big reward lies just ahead if you get the right cards. Here’s a quick look at some of the benefits of poker tournaments and a quick guide to some of the options out there.
Low Risk, High-Time Commitment
If you're a little nervous about jumping into a poker cash game with a pile of money, tournaments are a nice alternative. You know exactly what the cost is to play and that’s the maximum amount you can lose should the cards not fall your way.
For a modest buy-in and small fee (online tournaments cost as little as $1, usually with a 10% fee on top) you can play for potentially huge amounts of money if you manage to navigate your way to the final table in a large, multi-table poker tournament.
Of course, you’ll need a few hours to spare and a fair share of both skill and luck. But if you survive until the very end the payoff will most certainly be worth it.
When you buy-in to a poker tournament, you put your money in at the start and that's it. In “freezeout” tournaments, which are still the majority of tournaments running online, when you bust, you bust.
You can’t buy any new chips and you can’t put any more money at risk (re-buy and re-entry tournaments are of course different from this, and very popular these days, but we’ll get to those a little further down the page).
Unlike in a cash game, you know right from the start what's at stake and you don’t risk getting carried away and investing more than you intended. You can get a lot of poker in for a single tournament buy-in if you manage to stay alive and a deep run in a tournament is one of the most exhilarating feelings in poker.
Of course, a tournament may also end very fast if you're unlucky. But, thankfully, there’s usually another one starting up very soon online and if you’re still interested in getting some more hands in, you can.
A freeroll is a poker tournament with a prize pool but no entry fee. The hosting poker room pays for the prize pool in an effort to attract new customers and provide extra value for their existing ones. In other words, a freeroll costs you nothing more than a few hours of your spare time. Poker Rooms Online lists all the best freerolls sorted by poker room.
These poker tournaments are a great way for beginners to build a bankroll from scratch and improve their game in the meantime. Most freerolls have relatively small prize pools, but occasionally the poker rooms offer larger free tournaments as part of a bigger promotion.
In some cases, you will need to play a number of real-money hands before you register, but most are completely free. Some freerolls can also be satellites to larger big-money events.
Regardless what you get for placing in the tournament, it's still something for nothing, and considering you get some solid entertainment and a chance to win money with zero risk involved; it's nearly impossible to pass up an opportunity like this. All you need to participate in these freerolls is a real-money account at the hosting poker room.
Freerolls are the Holy Grail for beginner poker players who want to build up a bankroll without risking a single dime of their own money. Freerolls usually have no entry fee at all, although occasionally for bigger freerolls you might need to buy-in with some “player points” you’ve earned or been given. Even though they have no entry fee, freeroll tournaments do have a prize pool with real cash or prizes.
If it’s a cash freeroll the prize pool will likely be small, and the field size pretty large, but free money is free money. Plenty of freerolls also offer tickets to real-money tournaments or bigger events as the prizes.
Occasionally a poker site will offer larger free tournaments as part of a bigger promotion. In some cases, you will need to play a number of real-money hands before you register, but most are completely free.
Regardless what you get for placing in the tournament, it's still something for nothing. Considering you also get solid entertainment and a chance to win money with zero risk involved, it's nearly impossible to pass up a freeroll opportunity. All you need to participate in a freeroll? A standard account at the hosting poker site.
Most poker rooms today offer tournaments with guaranteed prize pools. They call it “guaranteed’ for a reason i.e., even if the total buy-ins fail to meet the prize pool advertised, the host poker room will add the rest.
This is called an “overlay” and is a very good deal for players as you stand a much better chance of a return on your investment with fewer players to get through to the money. In poker parlance, that’s called “added value” and it’s something to always be on the lookout for.
Guarantees can be as small as $100 or $500, if there’s a particularly low buy-in, but they can range all the way up into the millions. PokerStars’ 10th Anniversary Sunday Million tournament, with a $215 buy-in, has a $10m guarantee – and its 55,000+ participants made it easily surpass it.
Multi-Table Tournaments (MTTs)
Multi-table tournaments are exactly what they sound like: Poker tournaments with multiple tables of players all trying to be the last person standing. They usually start with 10- or 9-handed play and slowly winnow down to a final table as players are eliminated.
Tables that lose more than a couple of players are “broken” and the remaining players with chips are mixed randomly into other open seats. When there are nine players left (usually, that is; sometimes this is six), that’s called the “final table” where the bulk of the prize pool is awarded.
Because so much is on the line and the pay jumps increase substantially for the highest places, players often make deals to split the remaining money according to the chip counts and play on for the title and a pre-determined, leftover amount of money.
It's not easy to win MTTs – especially those with thousands of players - but when you do, it's usually a massive, massive return on your buy-in. And one of your most memorable moments in poker.
Sit & Go's (SNGs)
A “Sit & Go” is also pretty much what it sounds like. Players sit down at the table and as soon as all seats are filled the tournament begins. Most SnGs only have one or two tables but some bigger ones online run with 45 or 180 players.
Most online poker sites literally have Sit & Go's firing up all the time – some filling so fast you can’t even click fast enough to get a seat. Keep trying though – you’ll find yourself in the heart of SnG action momentarily.
Most single-table sit-and-gos pay out the top 3 players although some formats can be winner-take-all. Just make sure you know which kind you’re playing before you jump in.
Sit & Go's are great for poker players still learning the game to get a taste of tournament poker without having to play for hours or outlast hundreds (or thousands) of players. They’re also a great tool for learning short-handed poker and can help prepare you for when you do make that big final table in a multi-table tournament.
Shootouts are an interesting intermediary between MTTs and SnGs. Essentially they’re a group of SNGs playing along simultaneously until each table has a single player left. The winner at each table then moves on to the next stage, which is either the final table itself or another round of single-table play resulting in individual winners.
The number of rounds you end up playing depends on the original field size, but more than likely you’ll only need to win a few rounds to win the whole thing. No one advances but the winner, though, so finishing second in the first round won’t do you much good – or win you any part of the prize pool.
Bounty tournaments are simply MTTs where players get an extra bonus for knocking out a specific player. One of the most famous Bounty tournaments is the World Poker Tour Bay 101 stop, where several famous pros are invited as “Shooting Stars.” Bust one of them and you get $2,500 and a signed t-shirt.
In most bounty tournaments online you simply get a small bounty paid out to you each time you bust someone. Bust enough players and you can make your buy-in back or more without even cashing in the event.
Money for paying out the bounties is taken from the prize pool. If collecting bounties is your goal, you’ll obviously need to alter your strategy slightly to claim a few more stacks. It might end up costing you your own chip stack, but it is a fun and exciting tournament to play.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out a “turbo” tournament is just a sped-up version of a normal poker tournament. If you have a limited amount of time to play poker, though, turbo tournaments are a godsend.
Blind levels increase much faster than in a normally paced tournament so your effective stack size changes quickly too. You’ll have to make quick decisions and get mixed up in the action a lot, but turbo tournaments will keep your game sharp.
Satellite tournaments are lower buy-in tournaments that offer seats in more expensive tournaments as prizes. If you have a limited bankroll, satellites are the best (and maybe only) way to qualify to bigger tournaments with life-changing money on the table.
Lots of online poker sites also offer satellites to live poker tournaments around the world, so if you’ve ever wanted to play the World Poker Tour, European Poker Tour or World Series of Poker, there’s your opportunity.
Prize packages typically include a seat in the tournament plus flights/expenses so you’ll get to experience an amazing vacation on top of a world-class poker tournament.
Re-Buys, Add-Ons and Re-Entry Tournaments
Sense a theme here?
Re-buy tournaments are tournaments where you can re-buy a new stack if you bust out. The re-buy period is typically for a few levels into the start of the tournament or if your stack falls below a certain level.
Sometimes just one re-buy is possible; sometimes it’s an unlimited amount. Add-ons allow players to buy and “add-on” a pre-determined amount of chips to their stacks within a certain time period.
Re-entry tournaments means you can re-enter the tournament after you bust out, sometimes up until the start of Day 2. One re-entry is standard but multiple re-entry is becoming more and more common.