Should I Play Poker Tournaments or Poker Cash Games?

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A sea of poker at WSOP.

One of the biggest differences between poker tournaments and poker 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're 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 Poker Tournaments Have Worse Players

The attraction of having a set maximum loss makes tournaments attractive to weaker players.

poker tournaments

These are 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.

How Does Your Bankroll Change?

Playing poker 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.

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A top-notch tournament player can expect to win somewhere in the neighborhood of one out of every 40 tournaments (s)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.

The Value of a Single Chip

The most important difference between cash game and tourney play is the value of a single chip. Cash game play, and theory, allows you to be very liberal with your chips.

poker chip value

A lot of the concepts of a cash game are formulated under the assumption that you have the option and means to refill and reload your stack. Take implied odds as an example:

In a cash game, it can be greatly profitable to put money into a pot playing a hand with a very low probability of winning. If you have a 15% chance at winning the hand, but are likely to receive hundreds of times your investment back when it hits, then it can be the right move to play it.

The majority of the time you are going to miss and lose the pot. In a tournament, not having the ability to refill your stack makes this play a poor decision. Every chip represents your tournament life. The fewer chips you have, the less chance you have of survival.

Playing Styles

To be successful in tournaments you need to be considerably more conservative with your chips than you may be in a cash game.

Don't get me wrong and think I'm preaching a weak-tight style.

The constant pressures of raising blinds make a weak-tight style a guaranteed way to get blinded away to tournament death. The classic style of being tight-aggressive is still king in the majority of tournaments.

To put it into perspective, if you were able to steal the blinds once every orbit, and never play another hand, you would be guaranteed to make it to heads-up.

As you can see from that example, the concept of losing less vs. winning more is even more valuable in a tourney than in cash games.

Coin Flips

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You should almost never go looking for a coin flip in a cash game. The whole reason we play online poker, and not online roulette, is to allow ourselves to put in our money when the odds are in our favor.

Cash games continue for an indefinite time period. You can always find a better spot to put your money in than a coin flip. The only times I will condone taking coin flips is when you are using them as a tool to manipulate table image.

If the other players on the table believe you're willing to take a coin flip at any time, they will be less likely to try and make large moves against you pre-flop.

In a tournament, you will be forced to take multiple coin flips on your road to the final table. The "standard" style of play in a tournament is to adjust your aggression and hand requirements along with the ratio of your stack to the total sum of the blinds.

In this scenario, you can afford to be super-tight in the early stages of a tourney and hope for large hands to find you. If those hands don't find you, you'll eventually be forced to find a hand to push pre-flop with.

As many other players will be in the same boat, you'll commonly find someone willing to make a call.

A few top tourney players like to play "backwards." Michael Mizrachi's style is to try and take coin flips in the early stages of a tourney. If he loses the flip, he finishes the same as he would have if he lost the flip in the later stages.

If he wins the flip, he can get himself into a situation where he will have enough chips to not be in "push or fold" mode at the same time as most of the field. If you can afford to be tight when the majority of the field is playing "push or fold," you can wait for the right spots to pick off players and pick up stacks.

poker tournament bubble

There is no right way to play a tournament. Professionals have proved the "standard" or "backward" styles can both be greatly successful.

Related Reading:

Bubble Play

The final difference between the two types of games is playing on the bubble. The bubble of a tournament is when you have one person (or a small few in a very large tournament) left to bust before the remaining players make the money.

In a tournament large enough for the majority of the field to fear getting knocked out before the money, the dynamics of the tournament change completely when entering the bubble and again when the bubble bursts.

It is common for the majority of the field to completely "rock up" on the bubble. Almost no player will be willing to take a coin flip during the bubble, unless they will face elimination as a result of not taking the flip.

For this reason, this is where the seasoned pros will seriously pad their own chip stacks. If none of the players on your table are willing to call any large bets, you should be able to pick up multiple blinds every orbit until the bubble bursts.

In the end, the most important thing to remember is that poker is supposed to be fun. It's a game, and you should have a good time playing it. As a beginner, you may find yourself having much more fun in tournaments than in cash games.

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