Break Into It: How Poker Tournaments Work

Just about every sport or game on the face of the earth has its own tournament in which players compete for the ultimate prize and the winner gets it. Similarly, poker has its own set of tournaments in which the players compete with each other for the big prize.

Poker tournaments have become extraordinarily popular over the past 15 years with major events aired on television or streamed online for the whole world to watch. There’s something mystical in watching the players gamble for the big prize, which is often 6-7 figures and then watching your favorite player win

How many players will there be in a poker tournament?

A tournament may feature as few as two players on a single table (heads-up tournament) or as high as thousands of players playing on hundreds of tables. Although player numbers are generally lower at online poker sites that still allow Americans, there are still numerous daily events with guaranteed prize pools exceeding $10,000-100,000. More details can be found at This Must-Read US Poker Sites Guide Dispels The Myths [2017] with tournament details on every major USA poker website.

As the number of players decreases the number of tables also shrink to one at the end. If you are a beginner then you need to know the nuances and the workings of a tournament. I won’t say that you will win by knowing these facts, but they’re necessary if you’re looking to enter a poker tournament.

It all starts with the tournament buy-in

To enter a tournament player has to pay a fixed buy-in amount and he will be given a particular amount of chips in lieu of that buy-in. the casinos all over the world, as well as online poker rooms, also withhold a small piece of the buy-in, called the rake. This rakes the fee of the casino or the fees to run the tournament.

The tournament chips do not have direct cash value and the chips are the only currency which is used and accepted during the game. Usually, when a player’s chips end the player is eliminated from the game, but some tournaments offer re-buy or buy-back options. In buy-back, the player can again enter the game by paying an additional amount of cash for the chips.

How the prize pool works

The prizes of the tournaments are given from the buy-ins excluding the rake, but some tournaments may include outside funds as well. For example, the fees are given by the spectators or sponsorships obtained for the tournament. The players are ranked in chronological order of when they were eliminated and the prizes are awarded in one of the following two ways:

  1. Fixed: the amount of the payoff for each ranked is fixed before the game by the casino administration. Usually, the prize in this type of tournament is awarded to the last three remaining players of the game.
  2. Proportional: the percentages of the payoffs are fixed usually for last remaining 20% of players in the tournament. This percentage is fixed by the organizers and the casino administration and is non-negotiable. The last three players are given the biggest portion of the prize while the remaining will be given smaller portions.

Tournament Table Formats

Freeze out

This is the most common format in which players are placed on multiple tables. When a player gets eliminated, the table shrinks. The players are also moved between the tables to keep constant numbers of players. At the end, all the remaining players play at one table only; this table is known as “the final table”.

Re-buy tournaments

In such tournaments, the players can re-buy into the game by paying additional cash and avoiding elimination for a specific period of time. After this time the tournament continues like a typical freeze out tournament.

Shootout tournaments

In this tournament the game is divided into the rounds. A particular number of players play at the table until only one player remains. All the remaining players at all the table then proceed to the second round and later in the final round in the same way.

Tournament Betting Formats

There are three types of betting format in the poker tournaments.

  • Structured betting: also known as fixed limit betting, in this format the bets and raised are limited to specific amounts which, increase with time, throughout the tournament.
  • Semi-structured betting: in this betting format the player cannot raise the bet less than the bet placed by the last player. Spread limit is a semi-structured format in which the players can raise the bet in a specified range of amount.
  • Unstructured betting: this is also known as a no-limit betting format. The players are free to bet as much amount as they want. The blinds and the antes are fixed. his is the most common format in Texas Hold’em tournaments.