Poker tournaments represent the world’s most popular way to play poker. The World Series of Poker is the world’s most famous poker event, and revolves exclusively around tournament play.
If you’ve never played in a poker tournament, you might wonder if there’s any difference between a regular poker cash game and a tournament. The answer is yes, and let’s take at how poker tournaments work.
How Do Poker Tournaments Work?
All players in a standard poker tournament pay the same entry fee, and start with the same amount of chips. Poker tournament chips have no cash value.
For example, a $100 buy-in poker tournament might assign each player with 10,000 starting chips. Once the tournament starts, you can’t trade in any of those chips for cash.
The object of a poker tournament is to last as long as possible. You’re eliminated when you lose all of your chips, and the tournament plays on until one player has collected all of the chips in play.
Unlike a poker cash game, the blinds (mandatory bets that rotate around the table) increase at regular intervals. The blind level increases force players to make moves in a tournament, or risk having their stacks dwindle because of the rising blinds.
All players but one eventually lose all of their chips in a poker tournament, and that last player standing is crowned the winner.
How Do Payouts Work In a Poker Tournament?
Poker tournaments pay out a certain percentage of players, with all other participants going home without a payout. A typical poker tournament pays anywhere from 10% to 30% of the field.
For example, the 2021 WSOP Online NLH North American Open was a $1,000 buy-in tournament. The tournament drew 756 entries and paid the last 126 surviving players.
Players finishing 100th through 126th got paid $1,384, making a $384 profit on their $1,000 buy-in. The eventual winner of the tournament won $137,570.
The payouts dramatically increase as a poker tournament hits its final stages. Major tournaments like the WSOP Main Event award life-changing money at the top of the payout structure.
2019 WSOP Main Event champion Hossein Ensan won $10,000,000, topping a field of 8,569 players to win the tournament. The top nine finishers in the Main Event all earned at least $1,000,000 in the $10,000 buy-in tournament.
How Many Players Can Play In a Poker Tournament?
A poker tournament can involve as few as three players, but there’s no upper limit on how many players can enter a poker tournament.
Online tournaments, with no limitations on physical space, can sometimes draw tens of thousands of players. PokerStars ran a $1 buy-in tournament in 2013, for example, that drew 225,000 players.