Designing a poker tournament blinds schedule

After choosing a poker tournament structure, setting up the blinds schedule is the most meaningful decision a would-be tournament director has to make. The blinds schedule is one of many factors that will determine how long the tournament lasts. It can also affect the luck/skill balance required to be crowned the tournament’s champion.

If you’ve never played a poker tournament before, you might be wondering what a blinds schedule even is. When a poker tournament begins, the tournament director starts a clock. At a regularly scheduled interval, the value of the blinds go up. That’s all there is to it. The purpose of this is to make it necessary to actually win pots fairly regularly to stay in the game. Otherwise, a tournament could go on for an eternity with players trading chips back and forth, winning enough to cover the blinds, but never enough to bust each other out. Escalating the blinds as the night goes on forces a confrontation eventually, when a player simply cannot afford to bide their time any longer.

In this post, we’ll discuss a few simple methods for making a basic blinds schedule. For something that’s so critical to a tournament’s success, it doesn’t have to be complicated!

More of an art than a science

The first key point to remember when creating a blinds schedule is that every group of players is different. What works well for one group may not work for another. If you host an aggressive group of players, the tournament will go much faster than it would for a more laid-back group that plays very tightly. How long players take to act on their hands will also influence the speed of the tournament. Once you have your first blinds schedule created, you can use your experience from your first tournament to make adjustments for your second time hosting.

Another thing to keep in mind is that, though poker is a game of skill, it is still based on a randomness generator in the form of a deck of cards. No amount of adjustment will ever be able to totally account for the plain variance that the cards will produce. If the cards feel like causing a bunch of big-money pots that become bad-beat stories, you’re going to have a quick tournament. If everyone is card dead, the tournament is going to drag. That is something nobody has control over, so don’t sweat it.

The first and the last blind

The first step to designing a blinds schedule is to calculate the first blind level and the projected last blind level. This ending level is when the tournament should theoretically end. Remember, though, you cannot guarantee when a tournament is going to end. This is just for planning purposes.

For the sake of simplicity, it’s easiest to set the blinds by taking into account only the big blind. The small blind is usually set at half the amount of the big blind.

The first blind level is easy to set. In most tournaments, the big blind will be 1–2% of the starting stack. The higher you set this level, the shorter the tournament will be. For example, in a T1000 tournament (a tournament where a player starts with 1,000 tournament chips), the first blind level will usually be T5-T10 (1%) or T10-T20 (2%).

Next, you need to determine the projected last blind level. A good rule of thumb is that it should be 5% of the chips in play. To determine this, multiply the number of players by the starting chip stack and take 5% of the total. So for a T1000 tournament with fifteen players, there will be T15,000 in circulation, meaning the the final big blind level should be around T750 or so.

Tournaments with rebuys and add-ons

If you plan to offer rebuys and add-ons, these need to be accounted for in your blinds schedule. To do this, you will have to estimate how many rebuys or add-ons you will sell and add these into your total amount of chips in circulation.

Using the previous example of a fifteen-player T1000 tournament, if you offer rebuys and estimate that three players will rebuy (a total of T3,000 in rebuys), then T18,000 will be in play, and the last big blind level should be around T900.

Note that this is a place where past experience will guide you. If you offer rebuys at all, you will not know for sure how many people will want to take you up on the offer. You could have some big pots early on that bust out many players, and they’re raring to get back in the thick of it and they all rebuy. Or the players that bust out may opt to cut their losses and go home. All you can do is make an educated guess based on previous tournaments.

Timing and intermediate levels

Now that you have your start and end points, you just need to find the parts in-between. This is what will ultimately determine the length of your tournament, and also the skill level needed to win it.

The first thing to account for is your time budget for the tournament. By talking to your players, you should have a good idea for how long they would want to be stuck with you playing poker. Most home tournaments last for four to six hours, so this is a realistic goal to shoot for.

Next, you’ll need to decide how often the blinds should increase. This can be anywhere between fifteen minutes and an hour. The more frequently the blinds increase, the more frenzied the pace of the tournament. However, a slow schedule can make the tournament feel like it’s going much slower than it actually is. The 20 to 30 minute range seems to be a happy medium for most players.

Now, take your time budget and divide it by the blind interval. This is how many blind levels you need. Now you can set each blind level. Each blind level should be no more than double the preceding one. Keep the progression as even as possible. A sudden spike in the blinds places undue weight on the hands after them, thereby increasing the role of luck in the tournament.

Adjustments

After you have created your blinds schedule, you’ll need to make some adjustments to it. Check to make sure that each blinds level is compatible with the chips that will be available. For example, you don’t want to have a blinds level of 600-1200 if the smallest chip available is a T500.

You should also avoid making blind levels that will require chips that are very small relative to the size of the blinds. A blind of, say, 2250 would be a bad idea, for example, since it would require using two T25 chips to post blinds. Having to deal with T25 chips when thousands of chips are being won or lost each hand is just a nuisance. Making them unnecessary allows you to color them up and remove them from circulation.

You should also add three to five more blinds levels after the “final” level. This gives you some wiggle room just in case the tournament runs longer than forecast.

Breaks

You can also use your blinds schedule to designate when breaks will occur. How many breaks, how long they should last, and when they should be, will depend on the particulars of your tournament. For an evening tournament, for example, you may want to schedule a thirty-minute dinner break midway through. On the other hand, a tournament that starts later may expect players to eat before the tournament starts, and only have fifteen-minute breaks for players to stretch their legs. Shorter tournaments might not need breaks at all.

Whatever you decide, be sure to clearly mark the breaks on the blind schedule, between blind levels. Be sure everyone is clear on how long each break is. The tournament should resume promptly after the break ends. It’s not fair to the players if some tables start on time and others wait for straggling players. Be clear what will happen if a player does not return on time (e.g. they will still be required to post blinds in their absence without getting the chance to play their hand).

Ending the tournament

Your tournament should end organically about the same time that you had planned on when you created your blinds schedule. However, keep in mind that any number of things can occur that cause your tournament to end early or late.

If it looks like a tournament is going to run late, you can adjust the blinds schedule while the tournament is in progress. Raising the blinds should help bring the tournament to an end quicker. However, this opens you up to accusations that you only edited the schedule to benefit so-and-so who was chip leader when you made the change. It’s best to avoid doing this if at all possible.

Another thing you can do to hasten the end of a tournament is to add antes at a certain level. At this point, each player will be required to post an ante on each hand, in addition to the big blind and small blind being posted as normal. This is only really useful if there are still several players on each table. In heads-up play, it is functionally the same as increasing the blinds.

If all else fails, you can set a time that the tournament will end, no matter if people are still playing or not. This is particularly useful if there’s some external restriction on how long the tournament can go, like the venue’s closing time, the host’s bedtime, etc. The best way to do this is to choose the time before the tournament and include it in the schedule. If that’s not possible, be sure to give ample warning before the appointed time arrives so players can adjust their play strategies accordingly. When the time ends, the player with the most chips takes first place, the player holding the second-most chips takes second, and so on.

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Pay Me

Pay Me is a form of Contract Rummy for two to eight players. Much like in Three Thirteen Rummy, the number of cards dealt changes on every hand, and so do the wild cards!

Object of Pay Me

The object of Pay Me is to be the first player to form their entire hand into melds.

Setup

To play Pay Me, you’ll need a few decks of Denexa 100% Plastic Playing Cards with jokers included. The number of decks you’ll need depends on the number of players you have. One deck is just fine for two players; to play with three or four you’ll have to shuffle two decks with the same back design and color together. For five to eight players, add a third deck. You’ll also want something to keep score with, like pencil and paper.

The number of cards dealt changes on each hand. Deal each player three cards for the first hand of the game. Deal four cards on the second hand. Continue on in this fashion, with the hand size increasing by one on each hand. For the eleventh and final hand, each player will receive thirteen cards.

After the cards have been dealt, place the deck stub in the center of the table. This stack of cards becomes the stock. Turn the top card of the stock face up. This card, the upcard, will be the first card of the discard pile.

Game play

Play of the hand

Play starts with the player to the dealer’s left. Game play follows the usual Rummy pattern. A player starts their turn by drawing one card, either the top card of the discard pile (which is face up and known to the player) or the top card of the stock (which is unknown). The player then discards a card, ending their turn.

Pay Me, like all other rummy games, revolves around forming one’s hand into special combinations called melds. There are two types of melds: sets and runs (also known as sequences). A set is three or four cards of the same rank and different suits. Suits cannot be duplicated in a meld; a player can, however, have two separate melds of the same rank. A run consists of three or more consecutively-ranked cards of the same suit. When a player forms a meld, they keep it in their hand, rather than laying it on the table as in some other rummy games.

Wild cards

One unique feature of Pay Me is its use of wild cards. Jokers and 2s are always wild. In addition, the rank that corresponds to the number of cards dealt is wild, too. For example, on the first hand, when three cards are dealt, 3s are wild. On the next hand 4s are wild, and so on. On the ninth hand (consisting of eleven cards) jacks are wild, followed by queens on the tenth hand, and kings on the eleventh and final hand.

Wild cards can substitute for a card of any rank, or can be used as a card of its natural rank (except for jokers, of course). However, there are some restrictions on the use of wild cards in melds. No more than half of a meld can be wild cards. Additionally, in runs, two consecutive cards cannot be wild cards.

Going out

When a player has formed their entire hand into melds, they may go out by declaring “Pay me!” If they have a discard they would like to make, they can do so, but are not required to discard if the card can be melded. Each player then gets one final turn, during which they cannot draw from the discard; they must draw from the stock only. When the turn reaches the player who called “Pay me”, the hand ends.

Each player lays their hand face-up on the table, separated into melds. If a player has cards in their deadwood (unmatched cards) that can be used to extend melds held by the player that went out, they may lay off those cards on those melds. A player cannot lay off on melds belonging to any players other than the one that went out. A player also may not substitute cards they hold for wild cards in other players’ hands.

After laying off any cards they can, each player adds up the value of their deadwood as follows:

  • Wild cards—15 points each
  • Kings through 8s—10 points each
  • 7s through aces—5 points each

Each player’s deadwood total is then added to their score.

Game play continues until eleven hands have been played. The player with the lowest score at that point wins the game.

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