Tournaments are an appealing way to play poker for a number
of reasons. For starters, they can be a lot of fun and provide
players with an opportunity to win large sums of money relative
to the amount risked. The rules for tournament play are also
usually relatively simple, so you can easily take part in them
even if you’re not an expert player.
However, tournament poker is somewhat complicated by the fact
that there are so many different formats and structures that can
be used. None of these are particularly complex individually,
but it can take more time to understand all of the different
types of tournaments and how they work.
In this article we attempt to make the various aspects of
tournament poker as clear as we possibly can. We look at the
main ways in which tournaments can be classified, along with the
basic formats that are part of those classifications. We also
provide details on some other specific types of tournaments and
explain blind structures and payout structures.
Tournament Classifications & Basic Formats
There are a few ways to classify the basic formats of poker
tournaments, with each classification relating to a particular
aspect of a tournament. For example, a tournament can either be
played in a single table format or multi-table format. This
particular classification relates to the number of tables in
The following are all the main classifications and the aspect
of a tournament they relate to.
The number of tables in play.
Sit & Go/Scheduled
The way the tournament starts.
The speed that the blind increases by.
Whether players can buy additional chips.
Full Ring/Shorthanded/Heads Up
The number of players per table.
Please note that a tournament will generally fit into one
format from each of the above classifications. This might all
seem a little complicated but it should be fairly clear once you
fully understand all of the different formats. We’ll now explain
each of the main classifications in detail, and take a deeper
look at how each individual format works.
Single Table/Multi Table
The distinction between a single table tournament (STT) and a
multi table tournament (MTT) is as obvious as the names suggest.
An STT is played on just one table, while an MTT is played
across two or more tables.
STTs are the simpler of the two formats, as all the entrants
are seated at one table and play basically continues
uninterrupted until the winner is determined. Because MTTs take
place over more than one table, and possibly hundreds of tables
for particularly large tournaments, it becomes more complicated.
As and when players are eliminated during an MTT, other
players may have to move tables to ensure that the number of
players at each table is as close to equal as possible. As a
tournament progresses, the total number of tables in play is
reduced until the last few players are all sitting at just one
table. This is known as the “final table” and it’s where the
tournament is then played out until its conclusion.
Sit & Go/Scheduled
The difference between sit and go tournaments (SNGs) and
scheduled tournaments is equally simple. An SNG has no fixed
start time, but rather starts as soon as the required number of
players has entered. The majority of SNGs take place over a
single table, although small MTT SNGs are fairly common too.
A scheduled tournament does have a fixed start time.
Tournaments of this type have a registration period during which
players can enter and then they’ll start at the pre-arranged
time. They’ll typically run regardless of how many players enter
but some tournaments do require a minimum number of entrants in
order to go ahead. Some have a maximum number of entrants
The terms regular and turbo refer to the overall speed of a
tournament. They are basically a way of describing which blind
structure is being used. We’ll explain more about blind
structures later, but in very simple terms, they relate to the
speed and rate at which the blinds increase through the
different levels. During a regular tournament, they’ll increase
relatively slowly, whereas in a turbo tournament they increase
There are also super turbo or hyper tournaments. These are
typically only available online and the blinds go up at a very
fast rate to make them even quicker than standard turbos.
The term freezeout applies to any tournament where players
are eliminated as soon as they lose all of their chips. Most
tournaments fall into this category, but there are some rebuy
tournaments that allow players to buy more chips when they have
lost their starting stack.
Typically a player will have to pay an additional amount of
money equal to the original entry fee in order to rebuy. They’ll
then receive additional chips, usually the same amount they
started with. All the additional money spent by players on
rebuying goes into the prize pool. Rebuying is only allowed for
a fixed period of time (this varies from one tournament to the
next), but the number of rebuys allowed by each player is
usually unlimited. Once the rebuy period comes to an end, the
tournament effectively reverts to a freezeout.
Full Ring/Shorthanded/Heads Up
Just like cash games, tournaments can be classified based on
the number of players allowed on each table. A full ring game
allows for the maximum, which can be nine or ten, while a heads
up game is limited to just two players per table. A shorthanded
game typically allows up to six players per table.
Specific Types of Tournament
In addition to the main formats and classifications that
we’ve discussed above, there are a few other specific types of
tournaments that you should be aware of. We’ve explained each
one of these below.
A guarantee tournament means that the prize pool is
guaranteed to be at least a certain amount, regardless of how
many players enter. Poker rooms, casinos, and poker sites add
guarantees to tournaments in order to make them more attractive
to players. The idea is that by doing so they should get enough
entrants to cover the guarantee anyway.
If the entrance fees don’t cover the guarantee, then the
organizers of the tournament have to make up the difference from
their own funds. Any amount that they have to add to the prize
pool is known as an overlay.
Example of a Guarantee
Multi table freeze-out tournament.
$50 + $5 entry fee.
If 200 or more players enter, the guarantee is covered.
If less than 200 players enter, there’s an overlay.
A shootout is a type of multi table tournament. In most MTTs
the tables are balanced as and when players are eliminated, but
shootouts work differently. They consist of two or more
“rounds”, where all players stay at their designated table until
there’s just one player remaining. This marks the end of the
round, the tables are rebalanced at that point, and another
round begins. Eventually all the remaining players end up at one
table and then the tournament is played to a conclusion.
Example of a Shootout
100 players enter.
Ten tables are used, with ten players on each.
Each table is played down to one player.
The ten players who “won” their table are then moved.
Ten players make up a final table, which is played as normal.
A satellite tournament is one where players are competing to
win entry into another tournament that has a higher value entry
fee. The prize pool doesn’t consist of cash, but instead is
effectively made up of one or more entries to the relevant
tournament. In some satellites, however, there may be some cash
awarded to players who just miss out on the main prize.
If satellite tournaments have more than one tournament entry
up for grabs, then they generally won’t be played until just one
player is remaining. For example, if there are three entries in
the prize pool, then the tournament will finish when there are
three players remaining. Each of those three players will win an
entry to the relevant tournament.
Example of a Satellite
Satellite to a $100 + 10 buy in tournament.
$10 + $ 1 entry fee.
38 players enter.
Total prize pool is $380.
Top three players each win a tournament entry.
Fourth place wins remaining cash ($50).
Bounty, or knockout, tournaments are ones where a percentage
of the prize pool is allocated towards paying players a prize
for eliminating other players. These tournaments award prizes
for every player that’s eliminated, while others only award
prizes for knocking out specific players such as resident pros.
Example of a Knockout
$10 + $1 entry fee.
75% of the prize pool is distributed to the highest finishers.
25% of the prize pool is for bounties.
All players have a bounty on their head.
Players are awarded $2.50 for every player they eliminate.
We referred to blind structures earlier and these are an
important part of any poker tournament. The blind structure,
which can also be referred to simply as the tournament
structure, stipulates the blind levels used and the length of
time that each blind level lasts. It’ll also stipulate how many
chips each player starts with.
These things have a big impact on how long a tournament will
last, and they also affect the strategy involved to some extent.
A structure where the blind levels increase steeply and quickly,
for example, will take less time than where the levels increase
more gently and at a slower rate. With the former, a good
strategy would be to act aggressively and try to win chips
early, whereas with the latter, a good strategy would be to be
act patiently and wait for good opportunities.
The following illustrates a typical structure that could be
used for a single table sit and go tournament.
Starting Stacks: 1,500 Chips
Time Per Level: 10 Minutes
The following structure illustrates a typical structure that
could be used for a larger multi table tournament. There would
be more levels than we’ve shown here but this gives you a better
idea of how they progress.
Starting Stacks: 1,500 Chips
Time Per Level: 10 Minutes
The payout structure of a tournament is also very important,
as it determines how many players win money and how much money
each player wins. Technically a payout structure can be whatever
the tournament host wants it to be, but there are some general
rules that they tend to follow.
A payout structure is usually based primarily on the number
of total entrants. A large tournament with lots of entrants will
pay out more to players than a small tournament will. You’ll
typically see just two or three players getting paid in an STT
for example, while a big MTT could see a hundred or more players
The exact size of each prize is then based on a percentage of
the prize pool. In a small tournament this will be something
simple like 50% to the winner, 30% to second place and 20% to
third place. It gets a little more complicated in larger
tournaments with more people to pay but the basic principle is
the same. First place gets the biggest percentage; the
percentages get smaller the earlier in the game the players
Here are a couple of sample payout structures to give you an
idea of what they can look like.
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