After you’ve chosen the poker tournament structure you want to run, the next step is to select the buy-in. You’ll also want to decide how many chips, and in what denominations, to issue to starting players. Both of these will dictate how many chips you need to have on hand for the tournament. Handling the buy-in process itself can also be a source of stress for new tournament directors.
Fortunately, addressing these concerns is fairly straightforward. A little thought and planning here greatly increases the chances of your tournament being a success.
How much is the buy-in?
The most important question to your players is probably how much the initial buy-in will cost them. Some players are happy to potentially lose a lot of money to participate in the excitement of a big tournament. Others would be just fine buying in for $0 and playing for bragging rights. Set the buy-in too high, and some players won’t be able to afford to join in. Set it too low, and some players might feel that the several hours the tournament will take won’t be worth their time.
The simplest thing to do is to ask the people you want to invite how much they’d like to spend. If you can find a sweet spot that attracts the most players to your tournament, you’re golden. Otherwise, you may need to split your guest list into two, and run a separate tournament later for the folks that aren’t interested in the first one.
Starting stack sizes
One of the things that dictates the length of your tournament is the proportion between the starting stack size and the blinds level. The larger the blinds are in proportion to the starting stack, the faster players will bust out of the tournament.
Tournament starting stack sizes are often expressed with a “T” followed by the amount of chips given at the beginning. This “T” (for “tournament”) represents a fictitious currency that the chips are denominated in, which has no relation to the real-life currency the buy-ins and payouts take place in. Thus, a T100 tournament issues 100 units worth of chips to its starting players, and a T1,000 tournament issues ten times as much. Both of these tournaments could have a $5 buy-in, or $25, or whatever the tournament director decides.
Again, starting stack sizes’ relation to the blind levels dictate the length of the tournament. A T100 tournament should theoretically play exactly the same as a T1,000 tournament with blinds set at ten times those of the T100 tournament. Of course, some players may be susceptible to a psychological difference—a T1,000 tournament might feel like a “bigger deal”, and a T5,000 or T10,000 tourney might feel even bigger than that! Larger starting stack sizes can also give you more flexibility in customizing your blind sizes. The one drawback to a bigger starting stack is that you may need more chips to cover all of your players.
Starting stack chip breakdowns
Naturally, the most important thing to keep in mind when determining your starting chip stack is that the denominations issued are compatible with the blinds schedule. If the first round of blinds is T20-T40, and the smallest chip you issue is a T25, your tournament is not off to a great start.
A good starting point in coming up with a starting stack is to follow the ratio 1:2:3:4, where for every chip you have of the highest denomination, there is two of the next-highest denomination, and so on. Using more than three or four chip colors is generally not very effective; it is more expensive, and you’ll need to do more chip color-ups throughout the tournament.
Just like the tournament size, there’s a psychological aspect to choosing a chip breakdown. You could theoretically run a T1,000 tournament by simply giving everyone 40 T25 chips. But 40 chips may not feel like very much to some players, leading them to play much more tightly than they otherwise would, lengthening the tournament. Instead, you can use some T5 chips to give each player a hoard of chips to start with. If you start each player with 28 × T25 and 60 × T5, for instance, they now start with 88 chips. Despite both adding up to T1000, the second stack starts them with more than double what they would have with just T25 chips.
With the starting stack sizes decided, it’s simple to determine how many chips you need. Just multiply the number of chips of each denomination in each stack by how many players you expect to have. It’s probably a good idea to have enough extra chips for a few extra players. That way, you’ll be covered if something unforeseen happens and you need them.
If you plan to allow rebuys, be sure to account for those in your inventory as well. It’s generally fine to simply issue a few large-denomination chips (like ten T100 chips or two T500 chips for a T1000 rebuy). When a player has to rebuy, all of their low-denomination chips have ended up with the other players. A rebuying player can simply break their large chips down by making change from those players or the pot. This keeps a rebuy from flooding the table with low-value chips.
Now that you know how many chips to buy, it’s time to actually get your hands on some. It’s a good idea to choose chips of a unique style from an online vendor. If you go with one of the sets of chips readily available at your local big-box store, like the ubiquitous dice chips, you run the risk of one of your players owning the same chip set. Unscrupulous players may notice this and sneak in chips from home to give themselves an advantage. If you plan to host regular poker tournaments, it may be worthwhile to invest in a customized chip set. You can have the chips printed with a unique logo or text inlay. This can be expensive—expect to pay $1 or more per chip. However, it neutralizes any threat of foreign chips, and lends a much more professional image to your game.
What chip colors should you choose? The standard ones, of course! Any players that have participated in a casino poker game will instantly understand your chip values. That way, those players can be the ones to explain the chips to the newbies. That saves you from having to run from table to table to remind everyone, no, the purple chips are actually T20 in this tournament… Besides, if any of your new players later go on to play in casino poker games, they’ll appreciate not having to learn new chip colors.
Chip colors are not as standardized above the 500 level. You may need to improvise a bit if you need chips valued that high. Chips valued 1,000 are often orange and 5,000 chips are often grey. You may also be able to get away with repurposing yellow and white chips for higher values if necessary; there’s not much call for a T½ or T1 chip in a T10,000 tournament.
Blue chips have no standard value, but are often readily available. They are often seen as $1, $2, or $10 chips in casinos. You can use them for any of these values, or for higher denominations.
Nothing will ruin a poker tournament more than, when it’s time to pay the winners out, having nothing to pay them with because it’s been stolen. It’s also important to remember that chips represent a monetary value, just like cash does. So be sure to treat them like cash. A busy tournament director is going to be running from table to table, settling rules disputes, settling seating arrangements, managing color-ups, ensuring the blinds schedule is being followed, and more. You simply aren’t going to be able to devote your attention to keeping an eye on the prize pool and extra chips. Both cash and chips need to be secured at all times.
Before players arrive, set up some kind of way to secure your cash and chips. A simple option is to use a basic cash box. For your chips, you may need something like a locking briefcase or a larger lockbox. If you use a birdcage-style chip carrier, it can be secured by placing a large-hasp padlock onto the handle, so the cover can’t be removed. If possible, the best option is to place cash and chips into a safe or locking drawer in a large piece of furniture like a dresser or desk. After all, while someone could theoretically slip your cash box out of the room for later enjoyment, it’s a lot more obvious if someone tries to steal a chest of drawers.
Collecting the buy-ins
There are a couple of preparations to make before the day of the tournament arrives in order to ensure the buy-in process goes smoothly. You will greatly speed things up the day of the tournament if you’ve already portioned your chips into pre-made starting stacks. Putting each starting stack into a rack looks quite professional. You can hand the whole rack to the player as they pay for the buy-in. However, depending on the size of the tournament, it may get expensive to have enough chip racks on hand. Fortunately, there’s a number of alternatives; you can use plastic zipper bags, Tupperware-style bowls, or small boxes. Another interesting option is to put the chips in foam can koozies. Not only does this keep the chips contained, it gives the player something to keep their drink cold with.
Before the tournament, be sure to go to the bank and get change. Some players may arrive at the tournament having just hit the ATM and needing change back from their buy-in. You will also probably be dividing the prize pool between a number of players, so be prepared for the possibility of having to pay out odd amounts. Of course, whatever change you don’t use can be brought back to the bank afterward, so don’t skimp out.
Everything’s set up and the players are starting to arrive. What now? Have each player come up one by one to a cashier station set up in a convenient location. As they give you their buy-in cash, return any change necessary. Before you give them their chips, splash them out and have the player agree that the correct amount is there. This will eliminate any accusations of shortages later. (Having a chip count board as part of your cashier station makes this process smoother.) Send the player to their designated seat and you’re good to go!
Some poker players find the pace of a typical cash game to be too slow-paced for their liking. Hand after hand is played, money changes hands back and forth. A group of players equally matched in skill may end a night of play more or less where they started out.
Players that want a more exciting night of poker may prefer to stage a poker tournament instead of a typical cash game. In a poker tournament, either you win big—usually only the top three or four players win anything—or you go home with nothing.
However, not all poker tournaments are the same. There are a couple different ways to structure a poker tournament, meaning it’s important to choose the type that fits your game best. As a tournament director, it’s also important to run a tournament you feel comfortable hosting. In this post, we explore the most common poker tournament structures, as well as some optional additions that players may enjoy.
Which game to play?
The first decision to be made when setting up a poker tournament is, of course, what kind of poker you’ll be playing. The simple answer to this question is to spread whatever your players want to play. The vast majority of poker tournaments, however, are Texas hold’em games, with Omaha making up most of the rest. Mixed games are also popular, where a different game is played each hand, cycling through a list.
Tournament poker is almost universally no-limit (see “Betting in poker“). Limit poker is simply too drawn-out for a tournament setting. No-limit poker allows a player to go all in, risking all of their tournament chips on one pot. That allows them to build up a big chip stack in a hurry, at the risk of busting out of the tournament entirely. A limit tournament would go on and on as the weaker players’ chip stacks are slowly whittled down.
A freeze-out tournament is the type most people think of when they hear the words “poker tournament”, because it’s the type most frequently used in professional settings like casino poker rooms and the WSOP. It’s also the simplest type of tournament.
How it works is that each player is issued a set of chips when they buy in to the tournament. These are all of the chips they’ll ever have. Once a player runs out of chips, that’s it—they’re out of the tournament for good. If the tournament is big enough to have multiple tables of players, as players drop out, tables are combined from time to time. This ensures that each game has a sufficient number of players.
Simple, but not always the best for home games
Freeze-out tournaments are simple to run, making them a good fit for an inexperienced tournament director, but they can be problematic in social situations. What do the eliminated players do? It’s a bit gauche to ask them to leave, but they can’t participate in the tournament anymore. They can watch the rest of the tournament from the sidelines, but not everyone finds this fun, and some players may get nervous with spectators watching them.
One way to handle this is to hold several short tournaments (perhaps one to two hours each) in quick succession. This means that eliminated players won’t have long to wait before they’re back in the game. It also allows players to “get revenge” on the players that busted them out in an earlier tournament.
Another option is to set up a cash game, or another non-poker game, alongside the tournament. Those who busted out can play in this game while they wait for the tournament to end. If you choose to do this, though, be sure to use chips and cards of a different design than those being used for the tournament. Otherwise, players may be tempted to smuggle tournament chips to the cash game and redeem them for real money.
A shootout tournament is a tournament structure for large numbers of players. In a shootout tournament, each table is played down to a single remaining player. After a winner has been determined for each table, they all play against each other in a final table.
While this structure is useful for managing a large tournament because the tournament director does not have to worry about rebalancing the tables, it does have some drawbacks for the players. All of the problems of a freeze-out tournament are there, of course. A table winner may also find themselves with a large chunk of time to kill while they’re waiting for the other tables to be resolved.
Rebuys and add-ons
One way to make a tournament more fun for the players is to allow rebuys. When a player runs out of chips, they can pay into the tournament pool to receive another stack of chips. They then continue playing with their replenished funds. Rebuys benefit all of the players in the tournament. The less-skilled players get to keep playing even when they’ve busted out. Meanwhile, the better players get to enjoy a larger prize pool every time a player rebuys.
Some tournaments offer add-ons, which is similar to a rebuy, except that the player has not busted out. In some tournaments, an add-on can be purchased with the initial buy-in. This gives the player a bigger starting stack. Players can also purchase an add-on between hands, when they feel low on chips.
Allowing rebuys and add-ons does require a bit more thought and attention from the tournament director. The director has to determine what the amounts of the rebuys and/or add-ons will be. A cutoff on rebuys and also needs to be established, so as to ensure that the tournament doesn’t go on forever. The director will, of course, also have to collect the money from the players and add it to the prize pool. This could potentially divert their attention from other aspects of managing the tournament.
Therefore, it may be a good idea for an inexperienced tournament director to leave out rebuys and add-ons. Later, when they become more experienced and comfortable with their role, they can be added in.
In any card game, mistakes sometimes happen in dealing or the course of play. Cards get dropped, decks sometimes have the wrong number of cards, and hands sometimes get discarded by accident. All mistakes like this are, as a general group, called irregularities.
As the host, it’s your job to decide how to handle any irregularities that occur in your game. It’s important, especially in games like poker with money involved, to know how to handle them in a fair and consistent way. Ruling one way in one situation and a different way when it happens again engenders distrust from your players. That means some of them may not come back the next time you host a game. If you stick to the same rules, your players will play confident in the knowledge that they will be treated fairly in such a situation.
The resolutions recommended here are based on Bob Ciaffone’s “Robert’s Rules of Poker”, the governing document of modern poker. If your players have played in a casino poker game, they’ll appreciate having the situation resolved the same way it would be in the casino. Even if you’re not playing poker, these general rules will be helpful in a wide range of situations.
Any time that irregularities cause a hand to be abandoned and re-dealt, it is called a misdeal. When a misdeal occurs, the dealer gathers up the entire deck, including the players’ hands. The same dealer then shuffles and deals a new hand.
In most cases, a misdeal can only be declared at the beginning of a hand. After two players have acted on their hands, the opportunity to declare a misdeal ends. Regardless of what may have happened on the deal, the hand is played as usual from that point.
Any of the following errors will result in a misdeal:
- Dealing the first card to the wrong position.
- Not dealing a hand to a player who is in the game.
- Dealing a hand to someone who isn’t in the game (or an empty seat).
- Dealing cards in the wrong order.
- Giving a player too many or too few cards, unless the players missing cards would simply get the next card(s) of the deck if the proper sequence were followed.
If the dealer accidentally exposes the first or second card of the deal, this causes a misdeal. Should the dealer expose a card after this, and the game is one where the entire deck is not dealt out, the dealer completes the deal as usual, then replaces the exposed card with the top card of the stub. The exposed card is then placed in the discard pile, or as the bottom card of the stub, if the game doesn’t use a discard pile. (If the game starts each hand with one card in the discard pile, the exposed card will count as that card. In Texas Hold’em and Omaha, the exposed card is usually placed on top of the deck and is used as the first burn card.) In games that deal out the whole deck, or if the dealer exposes a second card, it causes a misdeal.
Players never have the option to accept an exposed card. Doing so is unfair to the players that did not have their cards exposed. It also encourages collusion between the dealer and the player.
If a player flashes one of their own cards after the deal is completed, they do not get a replacement. The card is still live. The player assumes all consequences of the other players’ knowledge of their card.
If a player intentionally shows cards to another active player, these cards must be shown to the entire table. This is to prevent that player from having an advantage. If the player shows cards to a player who is not currently in the game or to someone who isn’t playing, those cards must be shown to the other players at the end of the hand (or identified when they would be shown otherwise).
A card that is turned opposite to the rest of the deck (i.e. it is face up when the rest of the deck is face down) is called a boxed card. If only one boxed card is found, it should simply be set aside. Boxed cards that get mistakenly dealt in error should be replaced at the end of the deal as if it were an exposed card. If the game requires that the entire deck be dealt, or a second boxed card is found, it causes a misdeal.
Incorrect and imperfect decks
We’ve discussed these before in “Incorrect and imperfect decks“, but here’s a refresher. Decks with damaged cards or cards identifiable from the back are called imperfect decks. Decks that have the wrong cards for the game being played are called incorrect decks. Every player has an obligation to point out that the deck has something wrong with it if it comes to their attention.
After the hand ends, the deck should be corrected, if possible. If not, a new deck should be substituted. Imperfect decks should always be replaced at the end of the hand.
If a card with a contrasting back design is discovered in the deck, the hand is void. The only exception is if the foreign card is found in the stub after dealing is complete, and is not part of the stock or any other place where it could potentially be put in play.
If a too many copies of a card (i.e. with the same rank and suit) are found in the deck, the deal is void. The scores are reset to what they were at the beginning of the hand, or any money placed in the pot is refunded.
In most cases, the deck having too few cards is not cause for concern. The deal is simply finished out as usual. However, if the game requires all cards to be present (because they are all dealt out initially or because every card is used at some point), when the number of cards is discovered to be inadequate, the hand is void, as if it had a foreign card or too many cards.
Extra cards (and jokers)
If a player discovers a joker or other card that simply doesn’t belong in the deck (like, say, a 2 in Pinochle), it is treated the same as if it were a boxed card. That is, the player should call attention to it and set it aside. The dealer should give the player a replacement card after the other cards have been dealt.
If the dealer accidentally slides a card off the table, it should be treated the same as an exposed card. If a player drops their own card on the floor, the card is still live. In either case, the card should be recovered as quickly as possible.
We’ve just posted an invaluable resource to our website—a glossary of card terms! This list has 139 terms from card games such as poker, Pinochle, Hearts, Canasta, and more, including casino jargon. Check it out and let us know what you think! We’re adding a link to it in the sidebar, too, so it’s always just a click away when you’re reading our blog.
You can click the images to zoom in. Each stack shown contains the same number of chips as the stack splashed next to it. The chips use the standard denominations:
This time, we’re including some exercises using a chip rack. Each row of chips shown in the rack represents a full tube of 20 chips. Don’t forget to include these in your total!
- 6 × 500 = 3000, 11 × 100 = 1100, 16 × 25 = 400, 60 × 5 = 300, 25 × 1 = 25, 3 × 50¢ = 1.50. 3000 + 1100 + 400 + 300 + 25 + 1.50 = 4826.50.
- 2 × 500 = 1000, 28 × 100 = 2800, 26 × 25 = 650, 84 × 5 = 420, 32 × 1 = 32, 9 × 50¢ = 4.50. 1000 + 2800 + 650 + 420 + 32 + 4.50 = 4906.50.
- 3 × 500 = 1500, 11 × 100 = 1100, 20 × 25 = 500, 19 × 5 = 95, 21 × 1 = 21. 1500 + 1100 + 500 + 95 + 21 = 3216.
- 4 × 100 = 400, 3 × 25 = 75, 16 × 5 = 80, 2 × 50¢ = 1. 400 + 75 + 80 + 1 = 556.
- 5 × 500 = 2500, 12 × 100 = 1200, 15 × 25 = 375, 46 × 5 = 230, 17 × 1 = 17, 7 × 50¢ = 3.50. 2500 + 1200 + 375 + 230 + 17 + 3.50 = 4325.50.
So you know the basics of how to count chips...but now you just need practice! Here are five chip counting problems to solve. How quickly can you get the correct totals?
You can click the images to zoom in. Each stack shown contains the same number of chips as the stack splashed next to it. The chips use the standard denominations:
- 8 × 100 = 800, 8 × 25 = 200, 6 × 5 = 30, 3 × 1 = 3. 800 + 200 + 30 + 3 = 1033.
- 2 × 500 = 1000, 6 × 100 = 600, 1 × 25 = 25, 4 × 5 = 20. 1000 + 600 + 25 + 20 = 1645.
- 3 × 100 = 300, 2 × 5 = 10, 2 × 1 = 2, 3 × 50¢ = 1.50. 300 + 10 + 2 + 1.50 = 313.50.
- 5 × 25 = 125, 3 × 5 = 15, 9 × 1 = 9. 25 + 15 + 9 = 149.
- 13 × 100 = 1300, 5 × 25 = 125, 4 × 5 = 20, 1 × 1 = 1. 1300 + 125 + 20 + 1 = 1446.
Shuffling is one of those things that people often learn at a young age, when they first start playing card games. Usually, though, whenever your parents taught you how to shuffle cards, they didn’t teach you the way that the casinos use. And that’s a bad thing—most players shuffle cards in a way that threatens game integrity, by exposing cards while they shuffle or not adequately randomizing the cards. If you host regular card game nights—especially poker nights—learning to shuffle correctly is a valuable skill that will ensure that your games go smoothly.
How to shuffle
The standard casino shuffle consists of the following procedure:
- A wash (for the first hand of the game)
- Three riffle shuffles
- A strip shuffle
- One more riffle shuffle
- The cut
A wash or scramble is typically only used in a casino at the beginning of a game, when the deck of cards is still in the order it was packaged in. In a home game, you should, at the very least, perform a wash at the beginning of the game or whenever the cards have been recently verified. You should consider performing a wash more frequently when playing a game like Crazy Eights that tends to result in the cards ending up in some sort of identifiable pattern. In a game with quick hands and frequent shuffling, like poker, you should skip the wash for most shuffles to avoid bogging down the game.
The riffle shuffle
The riffle shuffle is the element of shuffling that most people are familiar with, and forms the bulk of the actual shuffling procedure. Yet it’s the element of shuffling that most people get wrong. Many people shuffle too dramatically, with exaggerated movements that unnecessarily expose cards.
The number one key to avoiding the exposure of cards is to keep the cards low to the table. The cards should never be more than an inch or so off the table. The intuitive method by which someone squares up, say, a pile of papers is to lift it off the table and tap its edges against the table. Keep yourself from falling into this habit when dealing with cards. It shows off the bottom of the pack to anyone who cares to look, and many of the other cards sticking out at odd angles will expose their indices. Develop the habit of squaring up the pack with your fingers without picking it up off the table.
The riffle shuffle begins by splitting the pack into two. Hold the bottom half of the pack in landscape orientation (long edge parallel to the edge of the table closest to you), keeping it flat against the table and secure with one hand. Then slide the top half of the pack off with your other hand, keeping it close to the other half of the pack, and pulling it in the direction of the long edges of the pack, until you have two half-decks sitting side by side next to each other.
Next, orient the two half-decks in an inverted V (the point of the V pointing away from you). Move the decks toward one another, keeping them square with your index fingers on the short edges of the deck opposite you, your thumbs on the long edges of the deck inside the V, and your other fingers on the long edges of the deck on the outside of the V. Then, perform the actual riffle by arching the corners of the cards closest to one another, bending them between your index fingers, which are moved to rest on top of the deck in the corners of the cards, and your thumbs, which remain in the same position. Gradually release the pressure from your thumbs, which will cause the cards to begin falling off the bottom of the deck, pressed past your thumbs by your index fingers. If the two packs are close enough, their corners should interleave. With practice, the cards will naturally alternate between the two packs, thoroughly intermixing the two packs.
Now, complete the shuffle by rotating the two interleaved packs so that they are parallel to one another (but still intermixed). Push the two packs together until you can square them up into one shuffled pack. Do not perform the “bridge” maneuver, where the entire pack is arched to push the two halves together, as this can unwittingly expose cards.
Perform three riffle shuffles in this manner.
The strip shuffle
The strip shuffle is, on its own, not a very powerful shuffling technique. In combination with the riffle shuffle, however, it helps to further randomize the deck by rearranging blocks of the deck, helping to break up runs of cards that remained together through the three riffles.
The strip shuffle is, essentially, the beginning of a riffle shuffle. Hold the pack in landscape orientation, then pull the top fifth or so of the deck off the top, keeping it close to the remainder of the deck, and set it down next to the pack. Then do the same with the next fifth of the deck, placing it on top of what was the top fifth, and so on, until the entire deck has been gone through in this way.
After completing the strip shuffle, do one more riffle shuffle, and then you’re ready for the cut. After that, it’s time to deal!
- How to shuffle multiple decks of cards
- HowToShuffle.com, a site with more in-depth shuffling information and videos
Many sets of higher-end playing cards, including Denexa 100% Plastic Playing Cards, include two decks of cards—a red deck and a blue deck. But most card games require the use of only one 52-card deck. So why offer two decks?
The answer is simple—it makes your game more efficient! While you are using one deck to deal a hand, the next player to deal can be shuffling the other deck. That way, when the hand concludes, the next hand can be dealt immediately, without having to wait for a shuffle. The backs of the cards are in contrasting colors in case cards from the two decks get intermingled; it is obvious when a deck is incorrect.
When playing poker and other betting games that use similar betting mechanics, it’s very important to follow proper etiquette. In games where money is on the line, etiquette is often not just there to be polite, but to help smooth the game and keep everyone on the same page.
One piece of poker etiquette that can trip up new players is where to put their bet. Novice players often assume that they should add their bet directly to the pot, simply adding it to the pile of chips. This is called splashing the pot and is considered poor form. The reason for why this is frowned upon is simple—when all the chips are amassed in one giant pool, it’s impossible to determine who has contributed and how much. That makes it difficult to determine who has called which raises and who still owes money to remain in the game.
The game flows much better if everyone avoids splashing the pot. Instead, simply place your bet in front of you. In casinos, the table will often have a betting line printed on the felt around the center of the table; anything placed inside the line is considered a bet. If no betting line is present, simply place your bet far enough in front of you that it is distinct from your other chips. When all bets have been settled and the betting round has concluded, it is the dealer’s responsibility to collect each player’s bet and combine them with the pot, thereby clearing the table for the start of the next round of betting (or the showdown).
If you notice players splashing the pot in your home game, you might consider explaining to them why it’s a bad idea. You’ll be glad you did the next time you have a complicated betting round with two or three players raising.