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How to Play Poker in a Tournament

Tournament poker, especially no-limit Hold'em, has been growing in popularity at tremendous rates over the past few years. What you see on television most of the time is the final table of a large poker tournament. Most tournaments follow the same basic structure. In this article, we will explain tournament structure and tournament strategy. Whether you are an experienced tournament player or just starting, you have come to the right place to improve your chance at success. We'll begin with an examination of tournament organization.

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Always find out the exact structure that a tournament will use before you enter, including the game, limit, bidding structure, pay-out percentage, and places paid.

Here is an example of a no-limit Hold'em tournament structure based on 100 entrants, each paying $110. (One hundred dollars goes to the prize pool and the other $10 is the entry fee, making the total prize pool $10,000.) The top ten places pay the following percentage of the prize pool. (Most tournaments pay out to the top 10 percent.)

1. $4,000 (40%)
6. $500 (5%)
2. $2,000 (20%)
7. $400 (4%)
3. $1,000 (10%)
8. $300 (3%)
4. $800 (8%)
9. $200 (2%)
5. $650 (6.5%)
10. $150 (1.5%)

Everyone starts with 1,000 in tournament chips, and the blinds start at 10/20 (meaning $10 for the small blind and $20 for the big blind). The big and small blinds are forced bets designed to put some money at stake and stimulate betting. The players who have to contribute the big and small blinds rotate one position to the left after each hand. The big blind is usually the minimum bet at the table you are playing at, and the small blind is usually half of that amount (for instance, if the table minimum is $10, the big blind would be $10 and the small blind would be $5). The blinds raise every hour (called levels), using the following schedule:

Blinds Ante
1 10/20

Notice that the blinds increase every hour and quickly reach a point that forces players with smaller amounts of chips (stacks) to take chances to keep from having the blinds eliminate them. Most tournaments are set up along this line in order to force action and to have a good idea of when the tournament will end.

Knowing how fast the blinds raise is an important element to consider before entering a tournament since the slower the blinds raise, the more the outcome will depend on a player's skill than on luck.

Another important consideration is how many places pay and how much they pay. Some tournaments are top heavy, paying the largest amount of money to the top few finishers while other tournaments spread out the prize money more evenly--sometimes paying out to the top 20 percent of entrants.

Some tournaments offer an opportunity to rebuy, usually within a set time limit if you lose all of your chips. We will discuss the part of the tournament after the rebuy period or a tournament that doesn't offer a rebuy option.

Choosing the right tournament is only part of the information you need to know. You might also wonder how should you play differently in a tournament than in a regular at-home game?
In the next section, we will cover tournament strategy.

For more information about poker tournaments and other venues to play poker, try the following links:
  • To see all of our articles on poker rules and advice, go to our main article on How To Play Poker.
  • Be sure you've got the Poker Basics down before you jump into a tournament.
  • Playing with a professional dealer and a pretty cocktail waitress is a lot different from your buddy's den. Be sure you know How to Play Poker in a Casino.
  • In a tournament, any hand could be your last. Extend your stay at the table by knowing How to Calculate Poker Odds.