Cash Games & Tournaments

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 between.

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 and $200.

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.

Finishing Position

Prize Winnings

1st $50
2nd $30
3rd $20

The following illustrates what the payouts might look like for a $50 buy in multi-table tournament with 100 entrants.

Finishing Position

Prize Winnings

1st $1,500
2nd $950
3rd $700
4th $500
5th $350
6th $300
7th $250
8th $200
9th $150
10th $100

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 preference.

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 do.

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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