Poker tournament structures

Two aces being held as hole cards by a player in a poker game.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.

Freeze-out tournaments

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.

Shootout tournaments

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.

See also


Irregularities and how to handle them in your card games

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.

Dealer errors

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.

Exposed cards

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).

Boxed cards

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.

Incorrect decks

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.

Dropped cards

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.

Any dropped cards should be inspected for damage prior to being returned to play. It’s easy for cards on the floor to get stepped on and bent!


Glossary now available!

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.


Standard casino chip values

Standard casino chip values

This chip color scheme is used in many U.S. casinos, for both poker and blackjack. We recommend using it in your home games too, so that players familiar with the standard casino chip values instantly understand your chip breakdown. (If your games don’t get big enough to need $100 chips, don’t fret—just make the white chips 1¢ each, and the black chips instantly become $1 chips.)

You can print this image as a reference sheet for players that have never played with standard chip values, or for those who are having trouble remembering them.


More chip counting exercises

If our first batch of chip counting exercises was no problem, here’s five more to test your chip-counting skills! Are you good enough at counting chips to quickly calculate 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:

  • Yellow—50¢
  • White—$1
  • Red—$5
  • Green—$25
  • Black—$100
  • Purple—$500

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!









  1. 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. 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. 3 × 500 = 1500, 11 × 100 = 1100, 20 × 25 = 500, 19 × 5 = 95, 21 × 1 = 21. 1500 + 1100 + 500 + 95 + 21 = 3216.
  4. 4 × 100 = 400, 3 × 25 = 75, 16 × 5 = 80, 2 × 50¢ = 1. 400 + 75 + 80 + 1 = 556.
  5. 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.

Chip counting exercises

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:

  • Yellow—50¢
  • White—$1
  • Red—$5
  • Green—$25
  • Black—$100
  • Purple—$500




  1. 8 × 100 = 800, 8 × 25 = 200, 6 × 5 = 30, 3 × 1 = 3. 800 + 200 + 30 + 3 = 1033.
  2. 2 × 500 = 1000, 6 × 100 = 600, 1 × 25 = 25, 4 × 5 = 20. 1000 + 600 + 25 + 20 = 1645.
  3. 3 × 100 = 300, 2 × 5 = 10, 2 × 1 = 2, 3 × 50¢ = 1.50. 300 + 10 + 2 + 1.50 = 313.50.
  4. 5 × 25 = 125, 3 × 5 = 15, 9 × 1 = 9. 25 + 15 + 9 = 149.
  5. 13 × 100 = 1300, 5 × 25 = 125, 4 × 5 = 20, 1 × 1 = 1. 1300 + 125 + 20 + 1 = 1446.

See also


How to shuffle the casino way

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

The wash

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.

Diagram for performing a riffle shuffleNext, 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!

See also


Why two decks of cards?

Denexa 100% Plastic Playing Cards, in box

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.

The next time you spread a game, try keeping both decks of cards moving around the table if you don’t already. You’ll be happy with how much faster the game moves!


Don’t splash the pot!

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.


Incorrect and imperfect decks

Most card games rely on the fact that the exact composition of the deck is known, but the identity of any individual card may or may not be, depending on the role it is currently fulfilling in the game. Therefore, keeping the composition of the deck correct and cards indistinguishable from the back is vital to ensuring game balance and fairness to all players. Decks of cards which do not fulfill these requirements can be categorized as either incorrect or imperfect.

An incorrect deck is one with an incorrect composition for the game required. That is, if the game requires a standard 52-card deck, the deck must consist of ace through king in each of the four suits. Other games, such as Pinochle, require a different composition, which the deck must match to be considered correct. Incorrect decks are those which are either missing one or more card, or have somehow had extra cards included, usually because they were mixed in with cards from another, similar deck. Missing cards most frequently happen because they were accidentally left in the box or somehow found their way outside of the play area (e.g. by being dropped on the floor). In most games, when an incorrect deck is found to be in use, the deal is void. Collect all of the cards, correct the deck, if possible, and redeal. Any game play prior to the hand where the deck was found to be incorrect stands, however. If the deck cannot be corrected, because the missing cards have become lost, a new deck should be substituted.

An imperfect deck is a little more troublesome. That’s because imperfect decks include all other problems with a deck of cards that cannot be fixed by simply adding or removing cards. These include anything that makes the deck identifiable, such as printing defects or damage. If this is discovered in the middle of a hand, the hand continues, but for the sake of fairness, all players should be informed as to what the identifiable card is. After the hand ends, the deck is replaced.

You can avoid incorrect and imperfect decks being put into play by verifying the cards before game play starts. You can also guard against the cards becoming incorrect during game play by simply counting them to ensure the correct number is there between hands. If you use multiple decks of cards, ensure they have contrasting back designs (never use two blue decks, use one red and one blue).



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