In cash game poker, you're just playing as many hands as you want back and forth, and the winners and losers are determined by how many chips flow between the players. You can stand up to leave, cashing in your chips linearly for money at any time.
In poker tournaments, however, the rules of the game change somewhat as your aim is to outlast other players in the event. Chips represent your equity in the tournament, and you're competing for a prizepool. You can't leave until you're eliminated or hold all the chips. Players 'cash' for monetary prizes based on their finishing position.
Pro tournament players play high volume with a wide range of events on their calendar.
The way poker tournament rules work is that everyone pays an entry fee to begin with a set amount of chips called the starting stack, and when you run out of chips, you're out of the tournament. To denote the number of chips you have at any given time, instead of using the $ symbol, we use T$ in online poker tournaments so it's clear we're talking about tournament chips instead of actual money.
For example, if everyone begins with 1,500 chips, you would say that this is a starting stack of T$1,500.
In some events, you have late registration which allows you to buy in up to 30 or 60 minutes after the official start of the tournament. In other events, you can rebuy which means that you can purchase another entry into the tournament if you go bust within the first few blind levels. In summary:
- Everyone begins with the same number of chips called the starting stack
- The blinds and antes increase every so often to push the game along
- Play continues until everyone is eliminated except for the tournament winner
- The last players left in the tournament win money from the prize pool
Example Online Tournament Structure on PokerStars
Generally speaking, the prize pool is distributed to the final 10% of players who are left in the event. Live poker tournaments tend to have a more top-heavy distribution of prizes, but online poker tournaments tend to pay out to more people. A portion of the prize pool is also used to pay the rake for the tournament.
For example, suppose there is a tournament with an entry fee of $10+1 and 50 players. Of the $10+1 entry fee, this means that all players are paying out $11 and that $1 of the fee goes to the poker room for the rake with the other $10 going into the prize pool.
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With 50 players putting in $10 each, that means the entire prize pool is worth $500. The payout distribution might be something like the following:
Example Poker Tournament Payout Structure
The player to finish eighth is the highest-ranked person to win nothing - known in poker terms as finishing on the bubble. When it gets down to eight players in this event, it would also be said that the tournament was on the bubble, and playing the bubble well is a critical part of tournament strategy.
There's a critical idea in poker tournament strategy called the independent chip model, or ICM for short. Suppose that in the event described above that all players start with 1,000 tournament chips. When you very first start the tournament, your 1,000 in chips would be worth $10 of the prize pool, and this is a rate of $0.01 per chip. However, if you win first place, you'll have all 50,000 chips, but they will only be worth $200 for a rate of $0.004 per chip. You have to use ICM to account for the fact that each future chip you get in a tournament is worth less than the chips you already have.
Another poker math concept used in tournaments is that the blinds and antes often become very large relative to the size of the stacks. If you divide your stack size by the total cost of playing an entire orbit at the table, then you have what's known as the M-factor. If your M-factor is 20 or higher, than you can usually play like you would in cash games for the most part. However, if your M-factor drops below five, then you have to push all-in or fold pre-flop on any hand you choose to play.
Generally speaking, you're going to use ICM to determine which hands to play in a given poker tournament scenario. However, you're going to use the M-factor to determine how to play those hands.
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