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:

Level
Blinds Ante
1 10/20
0
2
20/40
0
3
40/80
0
4
50/100
20
5
100/200
50
6
200/400
100
7
300/600
150
8
500/1,000
200
9
1,000/2,000
500

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.

Poker Tournament Strategy

The biggest difference between a tournament and a normal game is that once your chips are gone, you are out of the tournament. In a regular game, you have the option to buy more chips at any time between hands. This makes tournament strategy a little different. Some players simply want to place in the money while others play to win. The obvious question is why doesn't everyone play to win? The answer has to do with the variance associated with two different playing styles.

Many players who are playing to win will move all their chips in with even the slightest advantage, sometimes as low as a 52- or 53-percent chance to win any given hand. If cards break their way, they can accumulate a large stack of chips, which is needed to win late in the tournament. Getting all of your chips into the pot, however, in marginal situations such as these often leads to busting out of a tournament early when cards don't go your way.

Players who just want to get into the money usually play much
tighter, trying to get better odds (often as high as 80 or 85 percent) before they push their chips into the pot. The problem with this approach is that the blinds usually eat a large part of their stack between these opportunities.

The correct strategy to become a successful tournament player is somewhere in between these two styles. As always, you should
bet when you are a favorite to win, but in close situations in a tournament it may be best to hold back unless you are getting short stacked (to have the smallest amount of chips in a tournament). If your stack gets too low, you will be forced to choose a good starting hand and probably bet all of your chips, hoping no one else has a better hand.

In the early stages of a tournament before the blinds get too high, playing very tight is recommended; that is, only entering the pot with your best hands. If the opportunity to get all of your money in with at least one other person while you have AA, KK, or maybe QQ, then by all means take it. If you are able to double-up early in a tournament, it not only gives you extra chips, but it also can be a tremendous psychological advantage by having a large stack. As you go deeper into the tournament, the larger the stack you have, the more you can force your opponents with fewer chips to lay down their hands instead of risking all of their chips against you.

Most tournaments are no-
limit (meaning there are no set amounts that may be bet) Hold'em, which brings up the need to discuss a few important points. Making just one mistake can end your tournament because all of your chips can end up in the pot at any time. For this reason it is important to play to the best of your abilities at all times. You must learn as much about your opponents' play as possible. Always pay attention, and do your best not to lose concentration for even a second.

The next important point involves
pot odds. No-limit Hold'em allows you to make the perfect size bet to cause the pot odds to be unfavorable to an opponent. It is important to realize which opponents will use pot odds and which will not, because trying to make an opponent (who does not recognize pot odds) fold can be a risky proposition. On the other hand, you can make the pot odds favorable to the players who use pot odds by placing a bet of a particular amount in order to induce a call.

Tournament play has many similarities to regular game play, but it also has many differences. Complete books are dedicated to tournament play, and there isn't enough room in this article to explore the finer points. If you use the information contained in this section along with your experience, however, you can become a good tournament player.

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.