Tournament vs. Cash Play Part 1

Gaming arena
A sea of people at the WSOP Main Event

This is part one of two articles exploring the differences between playing tournaments and cash games, at more than just chip face value.

One of the biggest differences between tournaments and cash games is your investment versus your return.

Bad beats aside, every player is guaranteed a significant amount of playing time in a well-structured tournament. The large ratio of starting chips to blinds allows every player to start as a deep stack.

The only monetary investment made in a tournament is the original buy-in. Bad beats aside, you are guaranteed to see a large number of hands for the price of entry.

In a cash game, with each chip being worth face value, the same investment can't guarantee you nearly as many hands.

Why Tournaments Have Worse Players

The attraction of having a set maximum loss makes tournaments attractive to weaker players, who are not comfortable with the amount of money they may lose playing a cash game, or casual players who don't want to invest a large sum of money into a bankroll.

This is one of the reasons a tournament will have an average lower quality of players overall than most cash games.

For a $100 buy-in to a large tournament, the winner stands to make upward of $8,000, depending on the size of the field and the payout structure.

Any player can have a spectacular day where everything works out for them. On one of these days, a player stands to win 80 times the original investment.

In a cash game, you'd be lucky if the same type of day made you 20 times your original investment. The allure of making big money is attractive to gamblers. More importantly, it's attractive to players who know their skill level is lower than that of many other players in the room.

wsop 2007 Negreanu
Negreanu is one of the few players who is world class in both tournament and cash play.

How Does Your Bankroll Change?

As a professional player, you must always be playing inside your bankroll. Playing tournaments requires a much larger bankroll than playing cash games.

In the short term, cash games are much more likely to yield a positive result for a professional than a tournament. But the amount of money made will always be far less than the winner's share of a tournament with an equal buy-in amount.

A top-notch tournament player can expect to win somewhere in the neighborhood of one out of every 40 tournaments he enters. (The larger the fields in the tournaments, the worse this ratio will become.)

Ignoring all cashes that aren't wins, the player may stand to lose 39 buy-ins before they win. They will make good money in the long run but will have to suck up significant losses on the way.

Cash game play will have its own swings, and periods of loss, but they should never be on a scale as large as this. If you are losing 39 consecutive buy-ins at a cash game then you are clearly making some huge mistakes at the table.

Are Cash Game Players Better?

I don't want to be misread, and have people think I'm saying tournament players are less skilled than cash game players. What I am saying is that with an initial buy-in of a similar amount, you will find a larger ratio of weak players to strong ones in tournaments than in cash games.

Although there will be more weak players in tournaments, you will also sit with more great players then you would at a cash game. With the availability of satellites regular Joes can afford to get seats into major tournament events.

Everyone in a tourney buys in for the same amount and is seated randomly. Such an arrangement will see weaker players seated next to, and playing against, some of the world's best. The same Joe who won a satellite would never have been able to afford to sit at the pro's regular high-limit cash game.

In cash games, you're generally seated with a group of players who all have similar levels of skill and experience. Players who exceed the norm for that limit, and dominate it, move up to a higher limit.

Part two of this article will explore the final few elements that differ between the two types of games.

More strategy articles from Sean Lind:

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