Cash or Tournaments? Choosing Your Poker Format

While both cash games and tournaments follow standard No Limit Hold’em rules, there’s a big difference between the two formats. The Tip Top Fox explains the basics behind each game type

There are two types of ways to play poker – cash games and tournaments. Players just starting out in poker often make the mistake of approaching cash games and tournaments in the same way.

While both utilise standard No Limit Hold’em rules, there are subtle differences in the way cash games and tournaments play.

This usually results in the beginner making some simple mistakes that can hurt their poker game in the long run. All that can be avoided, however, by understanding the fundamental differences between the way cash games and tournaments play out.


There are two types of tournaments to choose from: Sit and Go (SNGs) and scheduled Multi Table Tournaments (MTTs).

SNG tournaments have a cap on the maximum number of entrants – this can be anything from two players upwards. The tournament starts when that number of players has been reached. 

MTTs have a specific start time and will begin regardless of the number of entrants.

In tournaments, every player at the table buys in for the same amount of cash, and all receive the same number of chips to play with. The blinds increase at periodic intervals (depending on the structure). The tournament ends when one person has won all of the chips in play.

In most tournaments, you can only lose your initial buy-in. This makes tournaments a great way to learn how to play with minimal risk.

MTT Tournament variations


Freezouts are the most common type of poker tournament. Players are all given the same amount of chips at the beginning of the tournament and play until only one player remains. 


Rebuys are tournaments where players can ‘rebuy’ more chips for an allotted period of time. In most rebuy tournaments the rebuy amount is the same as the initial buy-in, and the chips awarded equal to the starting stack.

For example, a $5 rebuy tournament has a starting stack of 1,500 and awards 1,500 chips for a $5 rebuy. 

Therefore if a player loses all their chips they can rebuy and continue to play as long as the rebuy period is not over. Most rebuy tournaments will also have a chip limit that players must be under to be able to rebuy – this is usually equivalent to the starting stack.

Don’t Forget the Add-on:

Once the rebuy time period is over all remaining players will be given the opportunity to make one final rebuy called an ‘add-on’. An add-on can be performed no matter what amount of chips a player has. 

Once the rebuy period is over, players have had the opportunity to claim their add-on. From this point, the tournament plays out like a freezeout until only one player remains.

It is not unusual for rebuy tournaments to follow different structures where more chips are awarded for add-ons than rebuys. Make sure you are aware of the tournament structure before you register so you can play accordingly.


These are tournaments where the prize pool awards entrance tickets to a larger tournament. The prize pool is dependent on the value of the buy-in and the value of the tickets won.

For example, a satellite tournament pays out $100+8 tickets and costs $10+1 to buy-in. For every 10.8 players, one $108 prize is added to the pool, and the tournament starts with 50 players – $500 total buy-ins. The top four finishers are paid $108 tickets and fifth place is paid the remaining $62.

Satellite tournaments can vary greatly and the prizes can range from simple online tickets to entry in the $10,000 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event.


These are tournaments which are free to enter and either offer a small cash prize, or a ticket to another tournament. 

Guaranteed tournaments (GTD):

Guaranteed tournaments are MTTs that guarantee a prize pool amount. This guarantee stands even if the number of buy-ins from the registered players is less than the guarantee when the tournament starts. This can result in an overlay, where fewer players than the guarantee covers buy-in, resulting in extra money for the winners.

Deepstack (DS):

These are tournaments where players start with more chips than usual. In most cases, this is double the standard starting stacks for similar tournaments.

Shorthanded (SH):

These tournaments are aggressive and run with less players than a standard SNG or MTT. Shorthanded tournaments usually run six-handed, although some online poker sites run five-handed tournaments.


It is not unusual for a tournament to be a combination of the variations mentioned. For example, a ‘$10k Guaranteed (GTD) Short-handed Deepstack’ would be six-handed, players would receive a double starting stack and would have a $10k guaranteed prize pool.

Tournament speed:

The length of time a tournament will last is defined by the starting stack and the speed at which the levels increase.

A deep-stacked tournament with long levels will always be longer than a tournament with a fast level structure and fewer chips.


Most tournaments also incorporate antes once a certain blind level has been reached. The ante is a small compulsory bet (around 10% of the big blind) which is paid by all players at the table in addition to the small and big blind. The players in the blinds also have to post antes. 


Turbo tournaments are tournaments with fast structures, designed to finish extremely quickly. The blind levels are normally no more than five minutes.

Big Blind Ante:

These have become increasingly popular over the last few years, and have replaced many of the ante-style tournaments. This is where the player in the big blind pays both the value of the big blind, and the antes for the whole table once per orbit, speeding up the whole ante process.

Tournament Considerations

Time to complete:

If you are not prepared to sit and play for several hours you should not enter large (non-turbo) MTTs. Tournaments with several hundred runners will take hours to complete (well over four) so be prepared to go the distance.

Stack vs Blinds:

It is extremely important in tournaments to consider your own stack and opponents’ stacks in relation to the current blind level. The most common method is to count the stacks in terms of the ‘number of big blinds’.

A stack of 30BB+ is considered a big stack; around 20BB is average; a stack of 10BB or less is considered the ‘short-stack’.

You should take into consideration the size of your opponent’s chip stack when playing a hand against them. If you are not prepared to call a short-stacked player’s all-in shove then it is often incorrect to raise them unless you are a deep stack and are willing to fold after a minimum opening raise. 

In the same way, it is important to consider an opponent’s stack – in relation to your own – when playing a pot against them. Is your tournament life at risk? 

Key Things to Consider

Average stack:

The average stack displayed is the number of chips divided by the number of players remaining in a tournament. 

The Bubble:

The bubble is the last position which does not get paid in a tournament. When the bubble is reached, MTTs will play out on a hand-for-hand basis across all tables until the bubble has burst. 

Approaching the bubble in tournaments makes some players tighten up and play few hands, while other players – usually the big stacks – play more aggressively to exploit the situation. A short-stacked player often will not call without a premium hand if they can simply hang on a few more hands to reach the payout. This makes it easier for players with deeper stacks to exploit them by betting more chips than they have. The short stack is then forced to fold most hands as they are playing for their tournament life and the big stack scoops the pot.

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Cash Games

Cash games (also known as ring games) are poker games where players sit with real money, i.e. the player chooses the amount they wish to sit down with. 

Chips are worth cash, and the value of each chip remains constant. That means a $1 chip is always worth $1, no matter whether it is in your stack, in the pot, or in your opponent’s stack.

There are limits as to how much or how little a player can buy into the game for. These are indicated by the game’s maximum and minimum ‘buy-in’ amount. In general, when playing online the minimum buy-in is 35 big blinds and the maximum is 100 big blinds. So in a $0.50 – $1 game, the minimum buy-in is $35 and the maximum is $100. 

There are tables with higher buy-in limits of 200 big blinds or more, meaning the game plays with deeper stacks. The deeper the stacks, the trickier a player’s post-flop decisions can become. While it is often correct in a tournament to move all-in pre-flop for 20 big blinds with ace-king, when you are 100 big blinds or more deep in a cash game this is almost always a sub-optimal play.

Once a hand begins, players can only use the chips already in front of them when betting. You cannot buy more chips whilst a hand is in play. Additional chips may be purchased for use at the start of the next hand. The purchase of additional chips is not allowed if the player already has a stack of chips equal to or exceeding, the maximum buy-in allowance.

Game Types

The number of players at a cash game table varies from two up to ten:

  • ‘Heads Up’ – a game for just two players
  • ‘Six-Max’ – this is a short-handed game for six players or less
  • ‘Full-Ring’ – These games play nine or ten-handed, usually the max at a poker table

Patience Pays Off

The object of a cash game is to win your opponent’s chips. However, unlike tournaments, players wanting to play a cash game can join a table already in play – as long as there is a seat available. Unlike tournaments where you are locked in for the duration, in a cash game, a player can leave at any time. When leaving, a player cashes out for the value of the chips they have in their stack.

In a tournament, the blinds – forced bets players in the small and big blind positions have to post – increase at timed intervals to force the action. This encourages people to play aggressively and contest pots, rather than sit back and wait for good hands.

In a cash game, however, the blinds remain static. So if you were playing in a $1/$2 ring game the small blind will always be $1 and the big blind $2.

Patience pays off in a cash game. Players are not forced to contest pots every orbit and have time to wait for good starting hands. That doesn’t mean there’s no bluffing though – good players take advantage of position and play a wide variety of hands.

With the blinds remaining static, the implied odds – the amount of money a player can win in any given hand – increase the deeper an opponent’s stack. Certain hands like small pocket pairs and suited connectors increase in value in a cash game. While it can be hard to get value out of hands like this in a tournament (depending on the blind level), in a cash game they can often win big pots from overpairs or top pair, top kicker hands.

Hopefully, this article helps you approach cash games and tournaments differently. While they may look the same, they are both different animals.

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For a more in depth look at how to approach cash games try reading some of our other articles:

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