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.
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.
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.
Poker tournament buy-ins and the chips you need to run the game
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!
Poker tournament structures
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.