Everything You Need to Know About Poker Tournaments

by Jeff Harris
on November 13, 2017

Poker tournaments offer the perfect blend of skill and big prizes. This has made poker tourneys more popular than any other form of gambling tournament.

With this popularity also comes lots of variety in terms of formats and games. And this can be confusing when you’re trying to get started in the poker world.

If you’re looking to find the right tourneys that suit your tastes, keep reading as I discuss everything you should know regarding poker tournaments.

Poker Tournament Basics: Buy-ins, Prize Pools, Formats, and Blind Structures

Tournament Buy-ins

Players must pay a buy-in to enter most poker tournaments. The buy-in seeds the prize pool that everybody is competing for.

The land-based or online poker room running the event charges a small fee, too. This fee is normally 10% of the buy-in.

Here are common examples of what poker tournament buy-ins look like with the fee attached:

  • $1 + $0.10
  • $5 + $0.50
  • $10 + $1
  • $20 + $2
  • $50 + $5

The larger number to the left represents the portion of the buy-in that goes into the prize pool. The number on the right represents the 10% fee that poker rooms charge for running the event.

Prize Pool

The prize pool represents the cash payouts that players are trying to win.

Tournament prize pools are top heavy, meaning the highest finishers win the majority of the money. Most tourneys only see 10% to 15% of players win a payout.

Let’s look at an example of a tournament payout structure involving a $1,000 prize pool:

  • 1st – $200
  • 2nd – $150
  • 3rd – $100
  • 4th – $75
  • 5th – $50
  • 6th-10th – $25
  • 11th-20th – $15
  • 21st-35th – $10

Prize pools can either be guaranteed or be based on how many players enter the tournament (variable).

A guaranteed prize pool means that the poker room must make sure the tournament meets the stated amount. If the guarantee is $10,000 and there’s only $8,000 in prize money, the poker room must cover the remaining $2,000 (a.k.a. overlay).

A variable prize pool only pays what the players contribute. If 50 players pay a $10 + $1 buy-in, then the prize pool is $500.

Elimination Formats

The standard poker tournament elimination format is a freeze-out, where players are eliminated for good when their chip stack runs out.

Tournament finishes are determined in reverse chronological order, meaning the last remaining player wins 1st place, second-to-last gets 2nd place, and so forth. A player’s place is determined when their chip stack runs out.

Another tournament format is a rebuy. These events allow players to add chips to their stack and buy back in after they bust out.

Most rebuy events only let you add chips or buy back in up to a certain point in the event. Once this point is reached, the tournament operates like a freeze-out.

One more tournament format is a shootout. These events start with different tables like multi-table tourneys.

But the difference is that only the top player from each table can move on. Table winners are then combined onto new tables, where the shootout format resumes.

These differ from freeze-outs and rebuys, where tables are only combined after so many players have been eliminated.

Table Sizes

Poker tourneys are also categorized by how many players are on each table.

A standard multi-table event features 9 or 10 players on each table. But you’ll also find poker tournaments that have two (heads up), six (6 max), or eight players per table.

Heads-up events are much like shootout tournaments because only the winner moves on to the next table.

Blind Structures and Levels

As you may know, poker games feature big and small blinds to ensure that there’s betting action in each hand. Blinds increase in tournaments as time goes on in order to speed up the event.

The blind structure can differ based on the tourney format, starting chips stacks, and the number of entries. Here’s an example of a standard structure:

  • Blind levels increase every 15 minutes.
  • The starting big blind is worth 1/50 of your starting chip stack.
  • Blind levels double from here on out.
  • The final big blind will be equal to the tournament starting chip stack.

All of this can vary based on the specific tournament you’re playing. But this is just one example that you’ll commonly see.

The thing to keep in mind here is that faster blind levels mean there’ll be more luck involved in the tournament.

Some players enjoy faster tourneys with more chance involved. But if you’re somebody who likes to take your time and pick spots, then you want events with higher blind structures ranging from 20-60 minutes.

Types of Poker Tournaments

Multi-table Tournaments

The most common style of poker tournament is a multi-table event, meaning there are multiple tables.

The number of tables depends upon how many players enter, along with the table format. For example, a tournament with 900 players and a 9-table format would require 100 tables.

The tables are combined as players are gradually eliminated. The last remaining table is referred to as the “final table.”

All of the biggest tournaments feature a multi-table format. This includes events like the World Series of Poker Main Event and the World Poker Tour Main Event.

Sit and Go’s

Sit and go’s (SNGs) are single-table tournaments that begin as soon as there are enough entries. The number of players required to start an SNG depends upon if it’s a heads up, 6 max, 9 player, or 10 player format.

SNGs operate like multi-table tournaments with regard to the main rules. But the difference is that the entire event takes place on one table.

The prize pool distribution is based on the size of the sit and go. Two players are paid in a 6-player SNG, while three are paid in a 9-player SNG.

Here’s a sample prize pool based on a $1 + $0.10 SNG with 9 players:

  • 1st – $4.50
  • 2nd – $3.00
  • 3rd – $1.50

Bounty (a.k.a. Knockout) Tournaments

Bounty tournaments put bounties on each player’s head. You pick up a small prize for every player you eliminate from the tournament.

Your buy-in is split up, with a percentage going to the regular prize pool and the rest going to seed bounties.

These tourneys are fun because you can still win prize money even if you don’t finish near the top.


A freeroll is a poker tournament that doesn’t require a cash entry fee. A freeroll is divided into one of three classes:

  • 1 – Open – No entry fee of any kind is required.
  • 2 – VIP only – Only players of a certain VIP status can enter.
  • 3 – Points – You must use loyalty points to enter the freeroll.

Each style of freeroll has its pros and cons.

Open freerolls are desirable because you don’t have to spend any money or points to play. The drawback, though, is that the prize pool is small and lots of people enter.

VIP freerolls normally have large prize pools. But the downside is that you have to be a high-volume player to participate in the biggest VIP events.

Points freerolls offer a good balance between decent prize pools and limited entries. The only catch is that you have to play a lot of real-money poker to earn enough points for the entry.


Satellites are tournaments where the prizes are seats into larger tourneys.

Oftentimes the satellite buy-in is one-tenth the value of each tournament seat being given away. An example would be a satellite that requires $100 buy-ins to play for seats worth $1,000 apiece.

Most satellites guarantee a certain number of seats in order to draw players. If more players enter than there are seats available, the poker room will increase the number of prizes.

Satellites are a great way for players with small bankrolls to play their way into larger tournaments. But the catch is that you’ll lose out on the tournament seats far more often than you win.

Tag Team

A tag-team tournament features teams of two or more players.

The team members alternate blind levels. One player will play the first level, the second player will play the next level, and they continue alternating from here on out.

The team is knocked out of the tournament if a team member is eliminated at any point.


Turbos are poker tournaments with faster blind levels than normal. Turbo blind limits can range from 3 to 10 minutes.

Like I mentioned before, faster blind levels create more luck. This means that casual players who don’t study much poker strategy can have a better chance to win in turbos.

What Games Are Used in Poker Tournaments?

Texas hold’em is by far the most widely-used poker game in tournaments. Most of the world’s biggest poker tourneys are based on hold’em.

This game sees each player receive two hole cards, and five community cards are dealt throughout the rounds.

Of course, there are lots of other poker games used for tournament formats. Here’s a list of some of the different games that you’ll find in the tourney world:

  • 2 7 Triple Draw Lowball
  • 7 Card Stud
  • Badugi
  • O.R.S.E.
  • Limit Hold’em
  • Omaha
  • Omaha Hi Lo
  • Pot Limit Omaha
  • Razz

Where Can You Find Poker Tournaments?

Poker tourneys are held in a variety of locations, including casinos, bars/pubs, dedicated poker rooms, community centers, homes, service organizations, and online.

Those who hold poker tournaments in bars, community centers, and service organizations need to follow the laws of their local and state governments. Community centers and service organizations often must obtain a charity gaming license before they’re allowed to use poker for their cause.

Most local and state governments allow home poker games as long as nobody is profiting through rake and/or food and alcohol sales.

Casinos are popular settings for major poker events. This is especially the case with larger casinos in Atlantic City and Las Vegas.

Online poker began in the late 1990s and was slow to get started. However, the game experienced a popularity explosion in the mid-2000s.

The poker boom has since cooled off, but there are still plenty of people who play online. Internet poker is an excellent way to enjoy the game when you want to participate in big tournaments, but don’t live near a major casino or poker room.

Poker Tournament Strategy

Playing Each Stage

Poker tournament strategy can be broken down into three categories:

  • 1 – Beginning stages
  • 2 – Middle stages
  • 3 – Late stages

The reason why tournament strategy breaks down this way is because of the blind levels and your chip stack.

The beginning stages give you an opportunity to play more conservatively because the blinds are at the smallest compared to your stack. This means that you don’t have to take unnecessary risks until the blind levels begin increasing.

For example, it’s not worth calling a big pre-flop raise with K Q offsuit in the early going. But these types of hands gain more value as players are eliminated and the blinds start increasing.

This is why you need to open your play up more in the middle stages so that you can avoid having your chip stack dwindle down. If you play a conservative hand range in the early stages, then you need to add a few more hands to your starting-hand requirements in the middle stages.

The late stages require even more urgency, because the blinds are reaching their highest amount. At this point, you can’t afford to continue folding and waiting for premium hands.

If you see any kind of opening at all in the later stages, you need to take advantage so that you can sustain your chip stack.

Shove or Fold Mode

The golden rule of poker tournaments is to keep your chip stack from falling to 10 big blinds or less.

The reason is because a small chip stack doesn’t give you much leverage when facing larger stacks. Going further, a chip stack with 60 big blinds will be less hesitant to call or raise a stack with 6 big blinds.

You need to increase your chip stack fast if it falls below 10 big blinds.  This is why I strongly suggest that you either push or fold in this position.

Here’s an example:

  • You have 5 big blinds.
  • There’s a 4bb raise.
  • You have Q J suited.

Normally this would be a bad position to re-raise yourself all in. After all, suited connectors like Q J are best played in multi-way pots where you can see the flop cheaply.

But you only have enough big blinds to last five more orbits. And Q J suited maybe the best hand that you’re going to get in this timeframe.

Another point worth making here is that it’s practically worthless to call the 4bb raise, instead of shoving your stack in the middle. If you lose this hand, you’re only going to have one big blind and will need to continue doubling up just to avoid blinding out.

Keep Analyzing Opponents Throughout Tournaments

Playing each stage and shoving/folding is made much easier when you’ve analyzed and built profiles on your opponents.

You should be analyzing other players as soon as the opening hand is dealt. You’ll see a lot of these players in the early stages on your first table and others.

Many good players are conservative in the beginning, so you can’t base all of your analysis early on. But you can at least get an idea of who’s aggressive and plays with a wider hand rage versus the tight players.

Poker Tournament Records

Biggest tournament prize pool – $82,512,162 in 2006 WSOP Main Event

Biggest online poker series – $90,000,000 in 2016 PokerStars SCOOP

Biggest tournament prize – $18,346,673 won by Antonio Esfandiari in 2012 WSOP Big One for One Drop

Largest land-based poker tournament – 22,374 players in 2015 WSOP Colossus

Largest online poker tournament – 253,692 players in 2015 PokerStars event

Youngest WSOP Main Event winner – Joe Cada in 2009

Youngest WSOP bracelet winner – Annette Obrestad won 2007 WSOP Europe Main Event at 18 years, 364 days

Most land-based tournament winnings – $34,333,814 by Daniel Negreanu

Most online tournament winnings – $14,268,207 by Chris ‘moorman1’ Moorman

Most WSOP gold bracelets – 14 by Phil Hellmuth

Most WSOP cashes – 125 by Phil Hellmuth

Most cashes in a single WSOP – 15 by Ryan Hughes and John Racener in 2017


The information above should help you navigate the basics of poker tournaments, including rules, tourney formats, and strategy.

I emphasize basic with the strategy, though, because becoming a successful tournament player takes hard work. It’s a good idea to play low-stakes events and practice executing strategy before moving up the ladder.

You should then start watching poker pros’ Twitch streams, read online articles, and check out books to improve your game even more. With enough effort, you’ll eventually become capable of winning profits.

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