Poker Tournament Rules and Characteristics

Poker Tournament Rules and Characteristics

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In this article we are explaining the specific rules for poker tournaments, which apply in addition to the standard Texas Hold’em rules. Furthermore, we will discuss the characteristics and variants of poker tournaments.

Rules for SNG and MTT Tournaments Texas Hold’em Poker

Tournaments are fundamentally different from cash games by the fact that you use chips to play and not cash. If a player has no chips left, he drops out of the tournament and receives – according to his position – a certain amount of money. Another important difference to the cash games are the constantly increasing small and big blinds as the tournament progresses. These increases are defined by the tournament structure.

Just before the next jump in prize money (on the bubble), hands are usually played ”hand for hand “. This means that at all tables one round will be played and the next one will not start until all tables have completed the current round. This rule was introduced to ensure that individual players with very few chips cannot delay the game to fold themselves into the money.

If two players drop out of a tournament at the same time, then the player who had more chips before the past betting round is placed in the higher rank. Example: There are 8 players left in the game. Two players are all-in, Player A with 500 chips and KK, Player B with 800 chips and QQ. Player C with 10,000 chips and AA calls these two all-ins. The board shows A-K-7-5-2. Player C wins the whole pot and player A and B are eliminated from the tournament. Player A has trips (three kings) and player B has a pair of queens. However, this doesn’t matter. At the beginning of the round B had more chips than A and is therefore placed seventh, while the player with the set of kings is placed eighth.

Characteristics and Types of Poker Tournaments

There are ten basic characteristics of Texas Hold’em poker tournaments. As these can all be altered, there are basically an unlimited number of different poker tournaments that can be developed.

  1. Payout structure (Standard, DoN, Satellite, WTA)
  2. Texas Hold’em poker game (NL, PL, FL)
  3. Fees (for a fee, freerolls)
  4. Prize pool (guaranteed, depending on the number of players)
  5. Number of tables / participants (SNG, MTT)
  6. Number of players per table (full ring (9 / 10 players) and shorthanded (5 / 6 player))
  7. Number of chips at the beginning (default (1500 chips), deep-stacked (3000 chips)
  8. Purchases of chips (freeze-out, rebuy, add-on)
  9. Tournament structure (blinds and ante)
  10. Duration of the blind levels (long (regular), short (turbo))

An standard Sit and Go tournament for example is one with a payout structure of 50% / 30% 20%, No Limit Texas Hold’em, for a buy-in of $20 + $2 rake, with 10 participants at the table, a prize pool of $200, 1,500 starting chips, freeze-out (ie without the possibility to rebuy chips), with blinds starting at 10/20, which will double at each blind level, with an ante from blind level 7 on and in which the blind levels increase every three minutes (turbo).

Now let’s discuss these ten characteristics of poker tournaments in more detail.

1) Payout Structure (Standard, DoN, Satellite, WTA)

The payment structure is determined before the start of a tournament and shows for each finishing position the proportion of the total prize money that will be awarded. In Sit and Go’s (SNG, STT) the first place usually gets 50%, second place 30% and third place 20% of the prize pool. In standard multi-table tournaments (MTT) about 10% of the players receive money, while 90% of the players get nothing. The bulk of the prize money will be distributed to the players making it to the final table. Typically about 25% of the prize pool goes to the players who are eliminated before the final table, and 75% of the prize pool goes to the players who reach the final table. Of this amount, approximately 25% will go to the places ten to four, while half of the prize money will go to the best three players (eg 25% / 15% / 10%).

In mid-2008, a new variant of the payout structure has been established for SNG poker tournaments: in a “Double or Nothing” (DoN), sometimes also called “Double Up”, half of the players doubles their buy-in while the other half goes empty-handed. In a 10-handed Double or Nothing it doesn’t matter how many chips a player has. As soon as there are only five players left, each player is awarded double the buy-in he has paid and the tournament is terminated.

An additional variation are Satellite or Qualifier tournaments. Here, poker players do not compete for prize money but for tickets for tournaments at a higher buy-in. Depending on the prize pool one or more players will receive such a ticket. If the amount of the prize pool is higher than the value of the tickets, one or more players will also win a small amount of money. Qualifiers can also be played in so-called steps. This is used when the buy-in is very small compared to the value of the tournament entry ticket that can be won. Many poker rooms offer step qualifiers with a very expensive tickets like one for the main event of the WSOP as the main prize. In a first step for example, with a buy-in of $20, 25 players compete for a ticket to a $500 tournament. 35 players will then play in that follow-up tournament for a buy-in of $500, and the winner will win the entry fee plus travelling expenses for the participation at the WSOP.

In a Winner Takes It All (WTA) tournament – as the name says it – the winner gets the entire prize pool. WTA tournaments are usually played for tickets for tournaments with higher buy-ins.

2) Texas Hold’em Poker Game (NL, PL, FL)

About 95% of today’s poker tournaments are played in the variant “No Limit”. Most poker rooms also occasionally offer tournaments with Pot-Limit or Fixed Limit betting rules.

3) Fees (for a Fee, Freerolls)

Participation in tournaments is usually not free, the poker room will charge a buy-in from the players. That fee consists of a proportion that goes to the prize pool, and a proportion that goes as the rake to the poker site as the organizer of the tournament. For the buy-in, a separate presentation has been established for these two factors. For example, a tournament costs $22 in total to participate. The buy-in is displayed as “$20+2”. This means that of the total costs of $22, $20 are put into the prize pool and that the poker site will receive $2 rake for organizing the tournament.

In a freeroll tournament, real money can be won but the participation at the tournament is completely free. Freerolls are used by many online poker sites for marketing purposes. These include: to make players familiar with the rules of tournaments, in order to persuade them to participate in tournaments for a buy-in and as a reward for good and loyal players. Freerolls that are open to all players typically involve a huge number of opponents who compete for only a very small prize pool. A freeroll with $300 cash prize and 3,000 participants represents a value of $0.10 per poker player, and the winner – and to win a freeroll he will need plenty of luck – can expect a prize money of maybe $60-120. It is by far more interesting to participate in VIP freerolls. To get a ticket, you must have earned a certain number of player points. In a VIP freeroll, the value of a ticket is often $10 or more. On the following website you can find an up-to-date list with poker freerolls.

4) Prize Pool (Guaranteed or Depending on the Number of Players)

The size of the prize pool is directly related to the number of participants. If 150 players participate in a $50+4 MTT tournament, the prize pool is $7,500. In a guaranteed tournament, the poker room guarantees a minimum size of the prize pool. This is interesting for the players, because they already know at tournament registration how much money they can win at least if they win the tournament. For the poker site, guaranteed tournaments are a good marketing tool. But they have the risk that not enough players will register and that they must pay the difference themselves in order to reach the promised prize pool. This difference between the guaranteed prize pool and paid entry fees (excluding rake) is referred to as overlay. A last-minute participation in tournaments where it is obvious that the poker site will have to pay an overlay is absolutely worthwhile, since the prize money per player will be higher than the costs for participation in the poker tournament.

5) Number of Tables / Participants (SNG, MTT)

Sit and Go Tournament (SNG) – often referred to as Single Table Tournament (STT) – is played at one single table. The number of participants is limited because of practical reasons to usually nine or ten players. The SNG does not start at a certain time. It starts when all seats are occupied. There are also multi-table SNG’s, for example, with five tables, each with nine players. Such SNG’s start as soon as 45 players have registered and seated down for the tournament – hence the name “Sit and Go”.

Multi Table Tournaments (MTT) has often hundreds and sometimes even thousands of players. MTT’s are scheduled to start at a specific time. The number of participants can be unlimited or can be limited to a maximum number of players, for example 4,000.

6) Number of Players per Table (Full Ring and Shorthanded

Most tournaments are full ring, that is, with nine or ten players seated at each table. The number of players per table is reduced only when very few players are left. In a tournament with nine players per table, in which only 28 players are left, the players are split to four tables with seven players each. In a tournament with ten players per table, 28 players will be divided to two tables with 9 players each and one table with 10 players. The poker room is constantly monitoring the number of players per table. Each time a player gets eliminated, the number of players per table will be checked and players will be relocated from one table to another if necessary, in order to achieve a roughly equal number of players sitting at each table.

In short-handed tournaments, the number of players per table is limited to five or six players per the table. In these tournaments, poker players play a higher percentage of starting hands, because the probability is lower that the other players have good hands, and because the players are more often sitting in the small blind or big blind (e.g. every third time instead of one time in five).

7) Number of Chips at the Beginning (Default, Deep-Stacked)

A poker tournament can start with any number of chips. It makes sense that the players start with 50 (better 100) big blinds in the first blind level, so that they can play “real” play poker in the beginning. The more chips the players in relation to the blinds have, the longer a tournament will last and the greater the advantage of good players is (because luck plays a less important role than skill).

Standard tournaments start with 10/20 blinds and 1,500 chips per player. In deepstacked tournaments, players start with significantly more chips, e.g with twice as many, that is 3,000 chips.

8 ) Purchase of Chips (Freeze-Out, Rebuy, Add-On)

The majority of tournaments are played as freeze-outs: If a player has lost all his chips, he is eliminated from the tournament. In contrast, in rebuy and add-on tournaments it is possible to buy another stack of chips for a predefined amount of money.

Rebuys are often limited to the first hour of a tournament and only possible if a player has less chips than the original starting stack. In some tournaments players get more chips with the rebuy than their starting stack was, for the same amount of money. So rather than getting another 1,500 chips in a $10 +1 tournament, a player will get 2,000 chips for $10. In such tournaments it makes sense to instantly rebuy at the beginning of the tournament.

After the end of the rebuy period, it is usually possible to buy one ”add-on”. This option is open to all players regardless of their chip stack. The fewer chips a player has and the more chips are awarded in relation to the starting stack, the more likely such an add-on makes economical sense. In practice, it is fair to say that an add-on makes sense for almost all players, except if they were able to build up a huge stack (> 5-10x average stack) or if they play a tournament which is far above their bankroll management limitations.

9) Tournament Structure (Blinds and Ante)

The tournament structure defines the amount of chips per blinds per level, and whether ante is paid. The duration of each blind level is also part of the tournament structure and will be discussed in the next section.

A typical structure for an online tournament poker SNG looks something like this:

Level Small Blind Big Blind Ante
1 10 20
2 15 30
3 25 50
4 50 100
5 75 150
6 100 200
7 150 300
8 150 300 30
9 200 400 40
10 300 600 60
11 400 800 80
12 500 1000 100
13 600 1200 120
14 800 1600 160
15 1000 2000 200

10) Duration of the Blind Levels (Regular and Turbo)

The duration of the blind levels has a strong influence on how long a poker tournament will last. Similar to a large chip stack at the start of a tournament, long blind levels favour good players. In online poker tournaments, regular tournaments have blind levels 8 to 30 minutes and turbo tournaments have blind increases every 3 to 6 minutes.

Summary Specific Poker Tournament Rules

In this article,

  • we have discussed the specific poker rules that, compared to cash games, apply additionally to poker tournaments (elimination if no chips left, increasing blinds, hand for hand game, rule when two players are eliminated simultaneously) and
  • we have explained the ten different characteristics and types of poker tournaments in great detail.

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