A game of poker can be classified in a few different ways.
There are a variety of betting structures that can be used, such
as no limit and fixed limit, and there are different versions of
the game as well. Among these versions are the ever popular Texas
Hold’em, the slightly less well-known Omaha, and every version
In addition to these classifications, there are also two main
formats the game can be played in: cash games and tournaments.
The fundamentals of the game are the same in each but the two
formats both have certain characteristics which make them very
different from each other.
You’ll probably want to try both of these formats out when
you first start playing poker, so you really should learn the
mechanics of them both. We explain the basics of each one below
to help you understand exactly how they are played. We also
summarize the main differences and see if we noticed that one
version is clearly better than the other.
How Poker Cash Games Work: The Basics
Cash games are played on a single table and can involve any
number of players between two and ten. They are played using a
fixed blind level (such as $1/$2), which doesn’t change during a
game. A player may join an active cash game at any point,
providing there’s a seat open at the table.
To join a cash game you must first buy in. This involves
exchanging cash for the equivalent value in chips. There’ll
usually be a minimum amount you can buy in for and there may be
a maximum too. The house rules and the type of game being played
will determine whether or not a minimum and a maximum buy-in
will apply. A typical minimum buy-in is ten big blinds and a
typical maximum buy-in is 100 big blinds. So in a $1/$2 game,
for example, you may be able to buy in from anywhere between $20
Your chips all have a real monetary value when playing cash
games and money is won and lost in each and every pot. If you
put $10 into a pot and end up getting beaten by a better hand,
you’ll have lost $10 of actual money. If you win a pot with $50
worth of chips, then you’ll have won $50 of actual money (minus
what you had put in the pot of course). This aspect of cash
games might seem incredibly obvious, but it’s actually the
complete opposite to how you win and lose money in tournaments.
If you lose all your chips during a cash game, or are running
low, you can buy more by exchanging additional funds but any
table minimums and maximums will still apply. However, you can’t
usually remove any chips from the table unless you are actually
leaving the table.
On the subject of leaving, you can do this at any point
during a cash game. Any chips you have will be converted back
into cash. This is another significant difference to tournament
poker, which you will learn more about if you continue reading.
How Poker Tournaments Work: The Basics
Poker tournaments are a little more complicated than cash
games, primarily because they come in a range of different
formats and structures. We explain more about the various types
of tournaments in another article, so we’ll try to keep things
as simple as possible here.
Unlike cash games, tournaments can be played on either a
single table or multiple tables. This means the number of people
that take part is essentially unlimited. Tournaments can involve
just two players or thousands of players. Most, but not all,
tournaments that take place on multiple tables have a fixed
start time which is set in advance and these are known as scheduled tournaments for that reason.
The alternative to a scheduled tournaments is a sit and go
tournament. These don’t have a fixed start time as they start as
soon as the required number of players are entered and ready to
play. They are generally played on single tables, with between
two and ten players taking part but they can be played across
multiple tables as well.
To enter a tournament, you have to pay the relevant entry
fee. In exchange, you’ll receive a fixed number of chips (called
your starting stack), which will be the same as every other
entrant. You’ll be eliminated from the tournament if you lose
all of your chips at any point. You don’t have the option to
rebuy more chips in the same way you do in cash games, although
there’s one exception to this rule. There’s one specific type of
tournament where you are allowed to rebuy another starting stack
when you lose all of your chips during the early stages.
The chips in tournament poker have no monetary value, so
therefore real money isn’t won and lost on each hand. Instead,
players win money based on their finishing positions. Tournament
entrants are eliminated as and when they lose all of their chips
and the last one left with all of the chips is declared the
winner. The final finishing positions for everyone else are
determined by the order in which they are eliminated.
At the end of a tournament, the prize pool (which is made up
of all the entry fees) is distributed to the highest finishing
players. There’ll be a payout structure which
stipulates how many players get paid and how much each player
wins. There are no fixed rules regarding what that payout
structure should be and it’s ultimately up to the tournament hosts but it’s
typically based on the number of entrants.
A payout structure for a single table tournament with a $10
entry fee and ten entrants might look something like this.
The following illustrates what the payouts might look like
for a $50 buy in multi-table tournament with 100 entrants.
Please note that for the sake of these examples we’ve ignored
the rake applied to tournament entry fees. A casino, poker room,
or online poker site will typically apply between 5-10% rake on
each entry fee, so a $10 tournament might actually cost $11 to
enter. Entry fees are usually displayed with the rake separated,
so in this case it would be $10 + $1.
The final characteristic of tournaments that we need to
mention here is that the blinds increase over time. They might
start at 5/10, for example, and then increase every 10 minutes.
The blinds levels used in a tournament, together with the rate
at which they change and the size of players’ starting stacks,
form what’s known as the tournament structure. Different
tournaments use different structures depending on how many
players are involved, the type of tournament being played, and
how long it should last.
Cash Games & Tournaments: The Differences
The key differences between cash games and tournaments is
summarized for your convenience below.
Cash Game & Tournaments: Which is Best?
We’ve outlined the main technical distinctions between cash
games and tournaments above and it should be noted that there
are other differences that we didn’t cover as well. The most
significant of these is the strategy involved. Certain aspects
of basic strategy are essentially the same for both but many of
the strategic concepts involved are entirely different.
The two formats require slightly different approaches
psychologically, as there are further differences in terms of
the potential profits in relation to the amount staked and the
variance involved. We’re not going to go into detail with these
additional differences here, as this article is targeted at
beginners. All that you really need to know as a beginner is
that each of the two formats has its own set of characteristics,
which come with certain advantages and disadvantages.
You should also know that, to some extent at least, these
advantages and disadvantages are a matter of opinion. It’s not
really possible for us, or anyone for that matter, to state
definitively that either cash games or tournaments are the
“best” poker format, as it’s ultimately down to personal
Many poker players choose to focus on playing either just
cash games or just tournaments, while many prefer to play both.
Either approach is absolutely fine. There are certainly some
benefits to concentrating on a single format, but there are
benefits to playing both too. There’s no right or wrong approach
here and it’s entirely up to you to choose what you want to
Our advice on this subject is simply to try both formats out
for yourself. You might find that you enjoy playing one
significantly more than the other, or you might find that you
get noticeably better results in one over the other. If you’re
playing primarily for fun, then you should stick to what you enjoy the most, whereas if your goal is to make money, then you
should focus on what makes you the most profit.
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