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.

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