Formats & Structures of Poker Tournaments

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 play.

The following are all the main classifications and the aspect of a tournament they relate to.

Single/Multi Table

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 allowed too.


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 more quickly.

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.
  • $10,000 Guarantee.
    • 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.

Blind Structures

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.

Sample Structure

  • Starting Stacks: 1,500 Chips
  • Time Per Level: 10 Minutes
Level Small Blind Big Blind
1 10 20
2 15 30
3 25 50
4 50 100
5 75 150
6 100 200
7 200 400
8 400 800

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.

Sample Structure

  • Starting Stacks: 1,500 Chips
  • Time Per Level: 10 Minutes
Level Small Blind Big Blind Ante
1 10 20 ---
2 15 30 ---
3 20 40 ---
4 30 60 ---
5 50 100 ---
6 75 150 ---
7 100 200 ---
8 100 200 20
9 125 250 25
10 150 300 30

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 getting paid.

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 finish.

Here are a couple of sample payout structures to give you an idea of what they can look like.

Finishing Position Prize Winnings
1st $50
2nd $30
3rd $20
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
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