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Should I Play Cash Games or Tournaments?

One of the most frequently asked questions you’ll hear from aspiring poker pros is whether to focus on tournament poker strategy or cash game poker strategy. Which one should you choose?

Well, both are good and viable in today’s poker world. You can pick either one and be profitable with enough work and commitment. 

They are two very different formats, with two different sets of skills required to be profitable and mindsets required to stay sane. No one should know your skill set and situation better than you.

This article is here to help you take a more informed decision. So here are the pros and cons of playing poker tournaments vs cash games.

Pros to Poker Tournaments

Pro #1) When you win, you win big. While you won’t achieve this often, winning first place (or any top 3 finish) will multiply your buy in by a significant amount. If you play high stakes tournaments, It’s possible to win a million dollars in a two to five day session. To do the same in a handful of cash game sessions is nearly impossible.

Some tournaments have the added value of bringing the fame with the fortune. If you are looking to become the next poker celebrity interviewed by mainstream media, then tournaments are pretty much your only chance.

Pro #2) Play against recs, not regs. Tournaments, being a staple of Poker TV shows, attract recreational players more than any other poker format. Recreational players think of poker more as an experience and less as a profitable venture.

Experiences that are out of their daily routine, such as playing a poker tournament against pros, are exciting. The hope and dream of making a big final table is more than enough fuel for the fire.

Pro #3) Play high stakes against really bad players. While you would think that bad players wouldn’t last long in tournaments, the high variance of short stack tournament play means the opposite is often true.

You can potentially find yourself playing against a huge fish deep in a tournament when the relative stakes are huge. Think of it this way:

  • In a $2/$5 cash game with a fish, you’ll always be playing for about the same amount of money.
  • In a $215 tournament table with a fish, you can be playing for tens of thousands of dollars if you’re running deep.

This makes tournaments fun for both recs and regs. The recs get to battle for huge money and chase their poker dreams, while the regs get to battle weaker players than you’d normally expect at such relative stakes.

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Cons to Poker Tournaments

Con #1) Variance, so much variance. As alluded to in some of the upsides listed above, variance in tournaments gets ridiculous. Jason Somerville often describes them as ‘‘lotteries where the best players have more than one ticket.’’ While this description might not be the best PR for the game, it’s hardly inaccurate.

tournaments vs cash games poker strategy

Typical winning tournament and cash game graphs.

While the variance brings a lot of pros, the swings, monetarily and psychologically. are just too much for many people. Live tournament players have losing months regularly, and even losing years if variance has your number. Your wallet will be able to handle it if you practice proper bankroll management, but your self-confidence might not be so lucky.

Con #2) Time consuming. You won’t have any winnings until you survive a few players and enter the money. Even if you do reach the money, you won’t be properly paid for your time until late in the tournament.

If you bust out anywhere outside the money, every second spent playing the tournament was for nothing.

Con #3) Big bankroll requirements. Bankroll requirements to be a successful tournament player are very high compared to cash games. As a tournament player, you will experience devastating downswings and your bankroll would need to be strong enough to handle them.

Liberal estimates would say that you need at least 100 buy-ins to be rolled for tournaments, and some would consider this not nearly enough. Overall, you really need a strong safety net for when you fall, which is an unfortunate inevitability for any tournament player.

Pros to Cash Games

Pro #1) Freedom to choose your lifestyle. While in tournaments you are bound to a tournament registration period, in cash games you can just sit and play as long as you want. Whether you want to pop online for a 30 minute session or grind a 12 hour marathon, you can do it in cash games.

poker tournaments or cash games

“My roommate is grinding Sunday tournaments!”

When people associate the life of a poker player with freedom, they are usually imagining a cash game player. 

The psychological advantage of being able to essentially ‘‘control your own destiny’’ can’t be overvalued. It’s similar to the rush successful small business owners get after each self-issued paycheck.

Pro #2) More room for analytical play. Not having to worry about pay jumps and blind level increases means that you can focus on your deep stack post-flop game and exploiting your opponents.

Pro #3) A lot less swings. You will never see the dreadful downswings tournament players see. As mentioned above, it’s possible for a good tournament player to have a losing year if they run bad enough. A similar run in cash games would be impossible for a good cash game player, so long as that player puts in enough volume.

Pro #4) Smaller bankroll requirements. While it’s debatable if a hundred buy ins would be good enough for tournaments, 40 to 50 buy ins is more than enough for any cash game grind.

upswing lab

Cons to Cash Games

Con #1) Regs, so many regs. Stronger players tend to play more cash because it requires a deeper understanding of the game. The freedom and lower variance cash games offer attract smart people willing to put in a lot of work to achieve their ideal lifestyle.

Con #2) It can feel like a grind. The lack of pay jumps also means that you won’t go from rags to riches in a single session. Of course, some people wouldn’t see this as a con, but even the most dedicated grinders will get tired of the monotony of cash games sometimes. Constantly seeing the same chip colors, same blinds and same regulars can easily wear on a person.

Con #3) You are not going to have any massive paydays. Even the absolute sickest cash game sessions result in “only” a 15-20 buy-in profit, and most good sessions will be more like +2-3 buy-ins at the most. Tournaments are the polar opposite, and you’ll find massive 100+ buy-in paydays at the top of many tournament payout structures.

Con #4) Rake is usually higher. A good cash game poker strategy, particularly in the micro stakes, prepares against the rake as well as the players.

In cash games you will be raked for every pot you win, while in tournaments you will only be raked once for each buy-in.  In cash games, it’s essentially a winner’s tax. In Tournaments, it’s a mere entry fee.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Before deciding which one to play, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What games are available in my area?

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. If you live in a place where you can only play cash games, you should probably focus on cash game poker strategy. If your local poker club offers great tournaments, then maybe focusing on tournaments is for you. 

  • What’s my bankroll?

Tournaments require more of a bankroll commitment than cash games. You could be severely under-rolled for the tournaments available but have just the right amount for a cash game bankroll.

If your bankroll is on the small side, online may be your only option for tournaments. 

  • What’s the rake like?

This is important to look out for live, but more so online, especially at micro stakes. Sometimes you are fighting the rake, not the players, and it will likely win.

If you’re going to be starting at micro stakes, tournaments will probably be your best option. If the rake is going to be big, you may as well only pay it once (and not every pot).

  • How much time do I have to play?

Poker tournaments, even small ones, require a time commitment. If you can’t commit for the entire duration of the tournament, then you should not register in it.  

Some form of patience is required for all successful tournament players. If you prefer freedom over structure, cash games are probably for you.

  • What do I want out of Poker?

The glory of potentially making millions while thousands look at you with envy and admiration will only come with tournaments.

The freedom to go to a Casino (or open an online poker client) and make money whenever you want will only come with cash games.

They’ll both get you paid if you’re a strong player. It’s up to you to decide which one will fulfill your spirit, as well as your wallet.

  • What do I want to play the most?

At the end of the day, we’re playing poker, not chaining ourselves to a soulless job. If you love cash games, then go play cash games. If you love tournaments, then go play tournaments. Your enjoyment of the games you’re playing is a huge psychological factor many aspiring pros take for granted.

If you hate tournaments, then you’ll torture yourself playing them for hours at a time. If you hate cash games, then you will not want to put in the hours necessary to make an hourly. It’s really that simple.

Note: Want 10 quick tips that will help you win at poker? Get this free guide if you want to come out on top.

free poker guide

Note: Are you here just to learn how to play poker...or do you want to know how to win too? Get this free guide with 10 quick poker strategy tips if you want to come out on top.

free poker guide


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About the Author
Jose Aguilar

Jose Aguilar

Latin American Poker and Film blogger. When I'm not playing Stud 8, I'm complaining that not many people play Stud 8.

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