A poker tournament is a tournament at which the winners are decided by playing poker, usually a particular style of poker.
Contrast this to a ring game, where the game is ongoing with no formal structure to determine a single winner in a certain length of time.
Entry fees and prizes
In a typical tournament, a player pays a fixed entry fee (called a buy-in) and receives, in return, a certain quantity of in-game currency, called play money, invariably represented in the form of poker chips. Typically, the amount of play money given each player is an integer multiple of the buy-in. Only this in-game “play” money can be used in the game, real money cannot. Additionally, real and play money cannot be interchanged at any time. Some tournaments, however, offer the option of a re-buy or buy-back; this gives players the option of purchasing more chips. In some cases, re-buys are conditional (for example, offered only to players low on or out of chips) but in others they are unconditional, or offered to all players. When a player has no chips remaining (and has exhausted or declined all re-buy options, if any are available) he or she is eliminated from the tournament.
In most tournaments, the number of players at each table is kept even by moving players, either by switching one player or (as the field shrinks) taking an entire table out of play and distributing its players amongst the remaining tables. A few tournaments, called shoot-outs, do not do this; instead, the last player (sometimes the last two or more players) at a table moves on to a second or third round, akin to a single-elimination tournament found in other games.
The prizes for winning are usually derived from the entry fees, though outside funds may be entered as well. For example, some invitational tournaments do not have entry fees and fund their prize pools with sponsorship revenue and/or gate receipts from spectators. (These tournaments are referred to as freerolls.) Play continues, in most tournaments, until all but one player is eliminated, though in some tournament situations, especially informal ones, players have the option of ending by consensus.
Players are ranked in reverse chronological order — the last person in the game earns 1st place, the second-to-last earns 2nd, and so on. This ranking of players by elimination is unique amongst games, and also precludes the possibility of a tie for first place, since one player alone must have all the chips to end the tournament. (Ties are possible for all other places, though they are rare since the sole tiebreaker is the number of chips one has at the start of the hand in which one is eliminated.)
Sometimes tournaments end by mutual consensus of the remaining players. For example, in a ten-person, $5 game, there may be two players remaining with $29 and $21, respectively, worth of chips. Rather than risk losing their winning, as one of them would if the game were continued, these two players may be allowed to split the prize proportional to their in-game currency (or however they agree).
Prizes are awarded to the winning players in one of three ways:
- Fixed: Each placing corresponds to a certain payoff. For example, a ten-person, $20 buy-in tournament might award $100 to the first-place player, $60 for second-place, $40 for third, and nothing for lower places.
- Proportional: Payouts are determined according to a percentage-based scale. The percentages are determined based upon the number of participants and will increase payout positions as participation increases. As a rule, roughly one player in ten will ‘cash’, or make a high enough place to earn money. These scales are very top-heavy, with the top three players usually winning more than the rest of the paid players combined.
Tournaments can be open or invitational. The World Series of Poker, whose final event (a $10,000 buy-in no limit Texas Hold ‘Em tournament) is considered the most prestigious of all poker tournaments, is open.
Multi-table tournaments are involve players playing simultaneously at dozens or even hundreds of tables. Satellite tournaments to high-profile, expensive poker tournaments are the means of entering a major event without posting a significant sum of cash. These have significantly smaller buy-ins, usually on the order of one-tenth to one-fiftieth the main tournament’s buy-in, and can be held at various venues across the country and, more recently, on the Internet. Top players in this event, in lieu of a cash prize, are awarded seats to the main tourney, with the number of places dependent on participation. Chris Moneymaker, who won the 2003 World Series of Poker, was able to afford his seat at this event by winning an Internet tournament with a $39 buy-in. Greg Raymer, 2004 World Series of Poker champion, acquired his seat via a $165 Internet tournament.
Betting, in tournaments, can take one of three forms:
- In a structured (fixed limit) betting system, bets and raises are restricted to specific amounts, though these amounts typically increase throughout the tournament. For example, for a seven-card stud tournament with the stakes at 10/20, raises would be $10 in the first three rounds of betting, and $20 in the latter rounds.
- Semi-structured betting provides ranges for allowed raises. Usually, in this format, one may not raise less than a previous player has raised. For example, if one player raises $20, it would be illegal for another player to raise an additional $5. Pot limit is a semi-structured format in which raises cannot exceed the current size of the pot.
- Unstructured betting, usually called no limit. While blinds, antes, or bring-ins are fixed, players are free to bet as much as they wish, even early in a round of betting. To bet all of one’s chips (risking one’s tournament life, in the event of losing the hand) is to go all-in. In no-limit tournaments, players will sometimes take this risk even early in the betting; for example, in some no-limit Texas Hold ‘Em tournaments, it is not uncommon for players to bet “all-in” before the flop.
The betting structure is one of the most defining elements of the game; even if other aspects are equivalent, a fixed-limit version and its no-limit counterpart are considered to be very different games, because the strategies and play styles are very different. For instance, it is much easier to bluff in a no-limit game, which allows aggressive betting, than in a fixed-limit game. No-limit games also vary widely according to the proclivities of the players; an informal, emergent, betting structure is developed by the players’ personal strategies and personalities.
The stakes of each round, as well as blinds, bring-ins, and antes as appropriate per game, typically escalate according either to the time elapsed or the number of hands played.
Types of poker
While some tournaments offer a mix of games, like H.O.R.S.E. events which combine Hold’em, Omaha, Razz, Stud and Stud Eight or Better and Dealer’s Choice events, at which one may choose from a similar menu of games, most tournaments feature one form of stud or community card poker, such as seven-card stud, seven card high-low stud, Omaha Hold ’em or Texas Hold ’em. Both Omaha and Texas Hold’em tournaments are commonly offered in fixed-limit, pot limit, and no limit forms.
Informal tournaments can be organized by a group of friends; for example, most colleges feature poker tournaments. Casinos and online gaming sites often offer daily tournaments.
However, these are not the only venues. Poker cruises offer tournaments at sea. The 2005 World Series of Poker primarily took place in the conference hall of the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas.
The two largest and most well-known tournaments are the World Poker Tour championship event and the World Series of Poker, both held in Las Vegas, Nevada. The World Series has traditionally been featured on ESPN.
The 2005 World Series of Poker was the first held outside of Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, though the final few days of the main event were held in the legendary Benny’s Bullpen. Future tournaments will be held at one of the Harrah’s Entertainment properties; 2005 saw the Rio as primary venue.
Arguably the most publicised European tournament is the Poker Million, which began in 2000 on Sky Sports, following on from the success of the Late Night Poker television show.
In addition to these events, there are other major tournaments throughout the year. The World Poker Tour broadcasts a series of open tournaments throughout the U.S. and Caribbean with buy-ins from $5,000 to $15,000, as well as a European event with a €10,000 buy-in. Some of these events are stand alone tournaments like the Caribbean Poker Adventure, but most are held in conjunction with a tournament series being held at the host casino, like the Commerce Casino’s LA Poker Classic, the Reno Hilton’s World Poker Challenge and the Bicycle Casino’s Legends of Poker.
Atlantic City hosts The United States Poker Championship at the Trump Taj Mahal casino. The Plaza casino in Las Vegas hosts the Ultimate Poker Challenge, a series of regular tournaments that culminates in a $10,000 buy-in event.