Poker Tournament Rules
Tournaments are the most popular way to play poker around the world.
The "poker boom" of the 2000s ignited with ESPN's expanded coverage of the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event. Chris Moneymaker's historic run to the WSOP Main Event championship, along with the $2.5 million payday that came along with that, pushed the popularity of poker tournaments to unprecedented heights.
Let's take a look at how tournaments are played, and how they differ from traditional poker cash games.
(Note: This is an introductory article for poker tournaments. If you're looking for the full list of tournament rules, procedures, and addendum, view the official TDA rules here.)
Poker Tournament Overview
In a poker tournament, all players buy-in for the same amount and receive the same amount of starting chips. These chips have no cash value, and the object of the game is to avoid losing all of your chips.
Play goes on until one player has collected all of the chips in play, and that player wins the tournament and the first-place prize. A predetermined percentage of the field wins money, doing so by surviving long enough to make it into the payout structure.
For example, the 2019 World Series of Poker Main Event featured a $10,000 buy-in. A total of 8,569 players entered the event, and after fees taken out for the house, the total prize pool came out to $80,548,000.
The 8,569 players then competed for a share of the $80,548,000 prize pool. The payout structure dictated that 15 percent of the field would get paid, which means 1,286 players cashed in the tournament.
All players started with 60,000 chips. Players were eliminated from the tournament when they lost all of those chips, and therefore lost their $10,000 buy-in.
The payout structure began when 1,286 players remained. Players who finished in 1,063rd-1,286th places cashed for $15,000, and the payouts increased as the tournament advanced to later stages.
Hossein Ensan finished as the last player standing, taking home the WSOP Main Event championship and a $10,000,000 payday. Ensan had 515,000,000 chips in front of him by tournament's end (8,569 players x 60,000 starting chips).
Starting a Tournament
Poker tournaments begin at a designated start time, and most tournaments also have a late registration period. After registering, players are seated at random.
Tournament rules dictate how many players can be seated at the same table. This number is generally anywhere from 6-10 players per table.
The host casino uses tournament seating protocols to make sure the number of players at each table stays relatively even throughout the tournament. Because of this, players in multi-table tournaments might change tables several times. New tables come together as more players register, and tables break as the tournament winds down.
Tournament Blind Structure
The blinds increase at regular intervals in a poker tournament. This differs from cash games, where the small and big blind amounts in a particular game stay the same.
Let's once again look at the 2019 WSOP Main Event for an example of how a tournament blind structure works.
Players started with 60,000 chips, and the blinds and antes at 100/200/200 for Level 1 of the tournament. Each level lasted 120 minutes, after which the blinds would increase. For more on how blinds and antes work, click on the "Button, Blinds, and Antes" tab above.
Level 2 saw the blinds and antes go up to 200/300/300, Level 3 increased to 200/400/400, and so on. By the end of the 10-day tournament, the structure advanced to Level 43, with the blinds at 2,000,000/4,000,000.
The WSOP Main Event is an extremely long tournament, however. Standard levels for a live tournament generally go from 30-60 minutes. Online tournaments usually have shorter levels, as play is faster online.
Most tournaments offer a late-registration period, in which players can buy-in and receive the starting stack even after the tournament has started.
In the 2019 WSOP Main Event, for instance, late registration lasted until the beginning of Level 6.
Rebuys, Add-ons, and Re-entry
A rebuy tournament allows players to buy more chips and reload their stack when it falls under a certain threshold. A $100 rebuy tournament with 10,000 starting chips, for example, might allow for a $100 rebuy.
This rebuy could be applied any time the stack is 10,000 or lower, and adds 10,000 more chips for another $100. The rebuy period for a given tournament generally only lasts through the first few levels.
Add-ons allow all players in a rebuy tournament to add a certain amount of chips after the rebuy period has ended.
Re-entry tournaments operate similarly to rebuys, but instead of reloading, players can re-enter the tournament as if they're a new player. Re-entry can only be purchased by a player after they're eliminated. Instead of simply reloading and staying at the same table, the re-entering player is seated at random with the starting stack amount.
The final few hands before the payout structure is reached is known as the "money bubble", and the bubble bursts when the final non-paid player is eliminated.
Many tournaments use a system known as "hand-for-hand" play when the tournament is in the money bubble stage. Each table deals and plays exactly one hand, then pauses play until every other table in the room ha dealt exactly one hand.
Hand-for-hand play prevents players from stalling (aka tanking) in an effort to outlast other players and advance up the payout structure. Hand-for-hand can also be used for any situation where the next elimination results in a significant pay jump.