How Do Poker Tournaments Work?


Poker has many different game types, but will generally only come in two formats, poker tournaments and ring games. Out of the two, poker tournaments are far more popular and offer some of the most prestigious poker games in the world.


A poker tournament is a game format where players compete to win a share of a prize pool. Everything is predetermined beforehand, including the blinds, stack sizes, time limit and the number of players that can sign up. Regardless of the venue, most poker tournaments will follow the same basic ruleset. However, it’s always worth checking the rules before signing up, just in case there are extra house rules or stipulations.


Poker tournaments will always have some form of blinds or ante to ensure there is a prize on offer in each hand, even if everybody folds. The big blind generally starts as the minimum bet, and the small blind is half the big blind. Blinds increase in value based on a timer, or when players are eliminated. level to ensure players aren’t unfairly eliminated by the Blinds will typically double in value when they increase. In some tournaments, the blinds will be capped at a certain rapidly increasing forced bet.

The player to the left of the dealer is the small blind, and the next person in sequence is the big blind. There are usually only two blinds, but some games can have three or more. An ante is a different type of forced bet which forces all players to put a set amount into the pot before the game starts. Performing a similar purpose to blinds, they can be used in conjunction with, or instead of blinds.


First Level: Small Blind—25. Big Blind—50

Second Level: Small Blind—50. Big Blind—100

Third Level: Small Blind—100. Big Blind—200

Fourth Level: Small Blind—200. Big Blind—400


Before you can participate in a tournament, you have to pay the buy-in, a set fee to play. The buy-in can vary, depending on the venue and level of the event, a game at the local casino might only cost a few hundred dollars, while the main event of the World Series of Poker costs ten thousand dollars. Online poker tournaments offer by far the cheapest options, with some games only costing a few dollars or less to buy in. Each player gets the same number of chips as a starting stack, as a general rule of thumb, starting stacks will be the equivalent of between 50 and 100 big blinds.


Poker buttons are a variety of plastic discs used to mark the status of players, such as:

Dealer—Typically a white disc, the dealer button or buck is a marker used to indicate who the dealer is. At the start of the game, each player gets a card, whoever has the highest ranked, becomes the first dealer. If you are on the button, it means you are currently the dealer. Each player gets a chance to be the dealer, but in a casino or online, it’s a purely ceremonial position, there will be a dedicated dealer at each table.

No Player—Shows when there is a free spot at a poker table, usually because they have been eliminated from the tournament.

All In—Used to indicate when a player has bet all their chips.

Reserved—Mostly used in tournaments where registration is required to indicate when a seat is being saved for a specific person.

Missed Blind—Marks the spot of a player who has missed their turn to pay a blind because they were away from the table.


Poker tournaments will come in two types of table structures:

Single Table—A small tournament with only one table running.

Multi-Table—A large tournament with multiple tables, which can be anywhere from a two to several hundred. When a table has lost more than half its players, they are redistributed among other tables, filling empty spots.


Poker tournament seating is randomly decided, either through lots, drawing cards or some other means. Players can request to be moved, but ultimately it’s up to the game director to decide if they will allow it.


Poker tournaments have three main betting structures, but will only use one for the duration of the game.

Fixed-Limit—Bets and raises are restricted to a specific predetermined amount.

Pot-Limit—Bets and raises are restricted to the current size of the pot.

No-Limit—There is no limit or restrictions on bets or raises.


Depending on how many players are involved, tournaments can take many hours until a winner is crowned. Some of the larger tournaments are played over a few days, or weeks. There are also tournament formats that are specifically geared to take an hour or less.


In some cases, if the game is expected to take a few days, breaks are scheduled to allow players the chance to sleep, eat and refresh themselves. Otherwise, it’s generally allowed for players to have a short break at a time of their choosing, provided they aren’t in a hand, one of the blinds and don’t take more than a few minutes to return.


The size of the tournament, and how many players buy-in dictates the payout structure. If there are only a few players, it’s usually winner-takes-all. The winner will always receive the highest percentage of the prize pool, and then it steadily decreases for each position underneath. If there is an option for players to buy back in, the prize pool can increase, along with the number of paying positions. The individual poker tournament rules will have the number of paid positions, and what percentage of the prize pool each spot receives.


Under 10 players

1st Place Payout Percentage—100%

2nd Place Payout Percentage—0 %

3rd Place Payout Percentage—0%

Under 50 players

1st Place Payout Percentage—50%

2nd Place Payout Percentage—30%

3rd Place Payout Percentage—10%

4th Place Payout Percentage—6%

5th Place Payout Percentage—4%


Depending on the poker variant being played, the tournament gameplay will vary. The only constant between all the games will be the blinds and betting structure. When the cards are dealt, the player to the left of the big blind is first, they can bet, fold, raise or call the big blind. At the end of the round, buttons move to the left and the next player in sequence. The big blind becomes the small blind, and the small becomes the dealer. Once somebody loses all their chips, they are eliminated from the tournament. In some cases, there are options to buy back in for another starting stack. The game continues until only one person is left with chips.


PRE-FLOP BETTING ROUND—After the blinds and dealer chip moves, cards are dealt and there is a first round of betting.

THE FLOP—One card is placed face down, burned, then three cards are placed face up in the middle and can be used by all the players still in the hand to make the best five card combination.

POST-FLOP BETTING ROUND—The first betting round after the flop.

THE TURN—One more card is burned, and another is placed in the middle.

BETTING ROUND—The second last betting round.

THE RIVER—Another card is burned, and one last card is placed in the middle.

BETTING ROUND—If there are still people in the hand, a final betting round occurs.

END OF ROUND—The end of the round, if there are any players still in the hand, this results in a showdown. After somebody wins the pot, the whole sequence begins again.


Poker tournaments come in a wider variety of formats to suit many different styles and players, and new ones are being created all the time, but most online and live tournaments will be one of these.

STANDARD—A poker tournament with no extra rules or stipulations, the prize pool will be created from the buy-ins. The last player with chips is the winner.

REBUY—A tournament that offers the chance to rebuy for a set period of time, or a certain number of times. A rebuy will cost the same as the initial buy-in, and players receive the same amount of chips. Unless expressly stated, the rebuy can be used at any time, even if you haven't lost all your chips yet. The prize pool isn't announced until all rebuys have expired.

SATELLITE—In a satellite tournament, the only prize on offer is a spot in a more prestigious game with a larger prize pool. Generally, the buy-in will be relatively small, just enough to cover the cost of the ticket into the next game. Sometimes satellites operate as a series with multiple levels. Placing in a paid position in one tournament buys you a spot in the next level, with the ultimate prize being a ticket in a massive tournament, such as the World Series of Poker.

FREEZEOUT—Similar to a standard tournament, a freezeout poker tournament doesn't offer any extra rebuys or chances to buy back in, once your chips are gone, that's it, you are eliminated.

GUARANTEE—A tournament that guarantees a set prize pool before the game starts, regardless of how many players end up participating.

TURBO—In most tournaments, the blinds will go up at regular intervals, which can range from 30 mins to over an hour. In a turbo tournament, the blinds go up every few minutes, forcing play to speed up. Most turbo games will be done in less than an hour.

DEEP STACK—A tournament that offers a larger than average starting stack. A standard stack will be between 50 and 100 big blinds; a deep stack can be the equivalent of a few hundred big blinds.

SIT’N’GO—Online Sit’n’Go tournaments have six to ten players and can last anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour or two. The buy-in is a fixed rate, and everyone receives the same amount of chips. The game can begin as soon as the table has four or more players.

BOUNTY—Every player has a bounty on their head. If you eliminate a player from the tournament, you receive a predetermined bonus as a bounty. The more people you eliminate, the more you accumulate in bounties.


Most of the time, a live and online poker tournament have similar rulesets, but there are a few gameplay mechanics that set the two apart.


In a live poker tournament, the game only goes as fast as the dealer and players; it's limited by the human element. An online tournament is completely automated, and cards can be dealt in seconds. The speed of the game is also much faster; possible because there is less pressure when the game isn't live, hands will generally be resolved in less than a minute.


There can be some big hands in live tournaments, especially in the high-stakes games, but for some strange reason, people like to go to war online. Online poker tournaments are known for having massive bets and very aggressive players. Whether it’s something about the online format or just the ease with which you can go all in, online poker tournament players seem to be much more aggressive than their live counterparts.


It's a lot harder to get a read on someone when you can't see their face, but it’s also a lot easier to bluff. In some instances, what works in a live poker game, doesn't transfer to an online environment and vice versa.


For some reason, online tournaments seem to have more high ranked hands than live. Maybe it has something to do with the random number generator, or the other electronics governing the game, but there always seem to be a higher frequency of full houses or higher. Live poker tournaments in comparison can get very dull, with a significant number of hands where the best hand is a pair or lower.


Online poker is a haven for new players or those who are too intimidated to try and play at a live casino yet. There are fewer new people at live poker tournaments nowadays, with so many online poker options, and the ability to play anytime and from any location, a lot of players prefer to exclusively play online.


An online environment offers a wide variety of stakes, from games that only cost a few dollars, to eye watering high stakes matches that aren't for the faint of heart. There are also more tournament options, regardless of what game type you want to play, odds are, you will find it online.


Poker tournaments and cash games are very similar in terms of gameplay, all the hand rankings and standard poker rules still apply, but there are a few key differences that set them apart.


In a cash game, the chips represent a real-world money value; if you buy-in for $1000, you get $1000 worth of chips. In a tournament, a set entry fee is paid, and regardless of the chip value, the entry fee is the only money that can be lost. If you buy into a tournament for $100 and are given $2 million in chips, the real-world cost is still only $100.


In a cash game, whatever chips you win, that’s your prize, if you win $5000 worth of chips in a pot, that’s the real-world money value of the pot. In a tournament, players compete for a portion of the prize pool made up of all the entry fees. Before a tournament, the venue will announce which finishing spots will receive money. First place is always guaranteed money and will receive the largest portion of the prize pool.


Cash games are always self-contained to one table; the number of seats at the table is the maximum number of players in the game. In a tournament, there are usually multiple tables; in some cases, there can be hundreds.


In a cash game, players can leave whenever they choose. There are certain rules around etiquette, such as not going during a hand, or when you are the big or small bind, but these are more like guidelines than actual rules, unless otherwise stated by the venue holding the game. In a tournament, you are there for the duration, once you buy in, you must stay to win.


Binds in a cash game stay the same throughout, in a tournament, they will very rarely last at the same level for long. Most of the time, the blinds in a tournament increase at timed intervals.


Depending on the size of your bankroll, nothing is stopping you from buying into a cash game indefinitely, no matter how many times you lose all your chips, there is no limit on the number of buy-ins. Tournaments will have a set limit on how many times you can buy in. Once you lose all your chips, and there are no more rebuys, you are out.


Live and online poker tournaments have a vast pool of events and series to choose from, and most of the larger ones pay out substantial sums to winners. Many tournaments are operated all over the world, but there are four in particular that are considered more prestigious to win, many of the big-name pros have racked up wins at one, or all of these tournaments.

WORLD SERIES OF POKER (WSOP)—Arguably the most prominent poker series in the world, the World Series of Poker boasts nearly 100 events a year with money and a bracelet going to each winner. The main event happens once a year in Las Vegas, and since 1972, it has been a $10,000 no-limit Texas Hold‘em tournament.

WORLD POKER TOUR (WPT)—Similar to the World Series of Poker, the World Poker Tour operates a series of tournaments that are televised. Buy-ins can range from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands. Winners receive a bracelet and are awarded a membership in the WPT Champions Club.

AUSTRALIAN POKER CHAMPIONSHIPS (AUSSIE MILLIONS)—A relatively small event held in Australia consisting of a series of poker tournaments at the Crown Casino, in Melbourne. The main event has the distinct honor of having one of the biggest poker prize pools in the southern hemisphere, reaching in excess of $7 million.

EUROPEAN POKER TOUR (EPT)—Started by John Duthie, winner of the inaugural Poker Million tournament, the EPT, is a series of poker tournaments held at different venues throughout Europe. Operating in a similar style to its other counterparts, the EPT awards a bracelet and a large prize pool to winners.



Build a big stack early to take the pressure off the rising blinds and allow you time to pick your spots. Target players who like to be in a lot of hands but fold when the betting gets too high. Poker tournaments aren't always about getting the highest-ranked hand; a good player can win by picking off the weaker players.


Wait until you are first or last to act and make a big bet to scare everyone else out of the pot. A bet four times the current pot size should be enough to scare all but the boldest away and net you some easy chips. Don't overcommit though, if someone calls, or raises, have a set number of chips you're willing to lose.


Being predictable in poker is a sure-fire way to ensure you lose your entire stack. Mix up your playstyle every few hands to avoid your opponent’s getting a read on you. Be aggressive, fold, call, re-raise, the more unpredictable you are, the harder it will be for other players to read you.


Playing position is always a good strategy. A general rule of thumb for early position is to aggressively play strong pairs, jacks or higher. In the middle position, hand choices can be more flexible, pockets are still a viable option. Late position is always the best spot to play, you have the final say on how big the pot will be pre-flop, and can see what everyone else does first, providing crucial information that can help you make well-informed decisions.

This is a reference article to how poker tournaments work in general. It is for information and entertainment only. It is not related to, nor a reflection of, Global Poker, its products, content, or its games.