Poker Formats: Tournaments vs. Cash Games

Poker is one of the world’s most beloved card and casino games. It’s also one of the longest-lived, having arrived in America in the 1800s. The game’s popularity seems to remain the same. It’s gone from a pastime of criminals and card sharks to a well-respected competitive sport.

One of the biggest reasons for poker’s popularity is its variety which allows it to appeal to just about anybody. There are countless ways to play poker, from the tried-and-tested Texas Holdem to methodical, draw-focused Omaha. Some poker variants don’t even use community cards, like Seven Card Stud, and others use different card rankings, like Razz.

This wide selection of variants means everyone can find a form of poker they enjoy. It also keeps the game fresh for veterans. As soon as they get bored of a particular format, there’s another one readily available.

Outside of poker variants, there are even different game formats, like cash games and tournaments. Newer players often need help choosing between the two. This poker guide will help you decide by explaining each and its pros and cons.

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What are cash games?

Cash games are the most common way to play poker, present everywhere, from home games with the family to high-stakes battles in exclusive casino card rooms. They’re very straightforward; players pay a fee known as a buy-in and receive a starting number of chips equivalent to how much they spent. Depending on the game’s stakes, there are minimum and maximum limits to buy-ins. Everyone sits at a table, and hands are played continuously. Players can enter and exit to exchange chips for real money anytime between games.

Cash game pros

Cash games are the most popular way to play because they are uncomplicated, allowing players to sit down and play however long they want. They are easy to set up and perfect for casual play among friends or family. For competitive players, they are incredibly consistent. The blinds are fixed, and there are no drastic changes throughout a cash game, making them the best format to earn consistently. Finally, cash games are flexible and require little commitment since you can leave whenever you want.

Cash game cons

Cash games do have a bunch of drawbacks. Being the mode of choice for experienced players looking to make money, they attract tougher competition on average. Their static nature can also make them feel monotonous and grindy over time, potentially leading to burnout. It is further compounded by cash games’ lack of serious bankroll swings. Even a day-long winning streak means little in the long run for your bankroll. While this also means downswings aren’t as bad, you need serious mental fortitude to withstand the monotony of cash games.

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What are tournaments?

Tournaments are drastically different compared to cash games. The most common kind of tournament, a multi-table tournament (MTT), is a massive event with hundreds or thousands of players. The players pay a fixed buy-in and are seated across multiple tables, everyone receiving the same amount of chips. They play as blinds steadily increase throughout the tournaments. When you lose all your chips, you’re out for good (most of the time). Players duke it out until only one holds all the chips, then the prize pool is given based on where you finished in the tournament. The lion’s share goes to the winner; most players receive nothing. Most MTTs are freezeouts, which means players can only buy in once. Other formats like rebuys allow players to buy back within a specific window initially.

Tournament pros

Tournaments have a lot of benefits that make them the preferred format for competitive poker, especially televised events. The elimination format makes them incredibly exciting for players and spectators alike. It keeps people on their toes. The potential of unexpected eliminations and miracle runs makes tournaments perfect for pro poker. They also have the most significant rewards in poker. Winners take a sizable chunk of the prize pool, making million-dollar payouts commonplace among top tournaments. Finally, these games often have more accessible competition since many beginners play them after seeing pros on TV.

Tournament cons

Tournaments come with their fair share of disadvantages. The most obvious one is their inconsistency. With most tournament entrants not receiving anything, making a stable living from tournaments can take a lot of work. Even the best players aren’t immune to rough streaks and downswings. Poker pro Jason Somerville once described tournaments as “lotteries where the best players get multiple tickets.”

While the enormous payouts can make up for this, tournament variance can put a lot of stress on you mentally. You must know you won’t always win something and manage your bankroll accordingly. Tournament bankroll requirements are usually higher because of this. Tournaments are also scheduled events, making them far worse than cash games in terms of flexibility. You need to clear out a large chunk of your schedule since you don’t know how long you’ll be playing. Whether you will get eliminated in the early stages or make it to the final table, you must allot the same amount of time.

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Which should you choose?

After knowing all this information, you can choose between the two leading poker formats. Both are readily available with online poker, so it can help to try them for a bit. If you’re a beginner, try playing micro-stakes cash games first since they require only a minor monetary commitment. You can learn the game without worrying about your bankroll since micro-stakes games have blinds as low as $0.01/$0.02.