Poker Tournaments Explained

Tournaments are one of the two main formats of poker, the other one being cash games. Although both of these formats share the same fundamental rules, the actual way in which they’re played is very different. Perhaps the most significant change can be found in the way in which you win and lose money.

Each format has its own advantages and disadvantages, and each requires a slightly different skill set. Whether you choose to play tournaments, cash games, or both is entirely up to you; there’s no right or wrong decision. Many of the top players specialize in one or the other, while many of them are proficient in both.

If you’re new to poker, then it’s a good idea to first understand at least the basics of the two formats, then you can try them both to see how you perform in each one. You can then make a more informed decision about whether you want to focus on one or the other.

On this page we’ve explained the basics of tournaments and have provided details on the different types. You can find more information on cash games on the following page – Poker Cash Games.

The Basics

The basic principle of poker tournaments is pretty simple. Any player wishing to enter a tournament has to pay an entry fee, also known as the buy in. This is usually expressed as something like $10 + $1, which would mean that each player has to pay a total of $11 to enter. $10 would go into the prize pool and $1 would go to the house as their recompense for hosting.

In exchange for their entry fee, each player is given an equal number of chips (called the starting stack). Once play starts, players are eliminated as and when they lose all their chips. The player to win all the chips, i.e. the last player remaining, is the winner. The prize pool is then distributed based on what you finished.

The winner gets the biggest share of the prize pool, usually somewhere between 30% and 50%. Second place gets the next biggest share, then third place, and so on. The number of places paid out depends on the exact rules of the tournament and the number of entrants. Generally speaking, the more entrants there are the more places get paid out.

A key rule to remember in tournaments is that the blind levels increase at certain intervals, usually something like every 15 or 20 minutes but it can be longer or shorter. They might start at 25/50, for example, then move to 50/100, then 75/150, then 100/200 and so on. The rate of increase tends to escalate as time goes on so that players will be forced to make moves and not just sit and wait for premium hands. This not only makes tournaments more interesting, but it also ensures that they don’t go on forever.

That’s pretty much how tournament poker works in a nutshell. Things get a little more complicated, though, as there are different types of tournaments and a few different ways in which they can be categorized. We will now go on to cover these in some detail below.

Single Table & Multi Table

One of the main ways to categorize poker tournaments is whether they are a single table or multi table tournament. The distinction between the two is as simple as it sounds – those that are single table take place on one table only while those that are multi table take place over two or more tables.

Basically, the only difference is that multi table tournaments have the larger fields. When there’s a particularly large field involved, the number of tables can run into the hundreds. As players are eliminated the number of tables is reduced and the players are moved around to ensure that there’s roughly the same amount of players at each table.

When there are only a few players left, play is moved to one single table which is also referred to as the final table. It then continues at this table until its conclusion.

Shorthanded & Full Table

Another of the main ways to categorize tournaments is on how many players are seated at each table. Shorthanded, often referred to as six-max, means there will be six players at each table. Full table means there will be nine or ten. There are no other differences between these two types and they can both apply to either single table or multi table tournaments.

Sit and Go & Scheduled

The third main classification for tournaments is based on how and when they start. A sit and go (often abbreviated to SNG) begins as soon as the required number of entrants have all bought in, while a scheduled tournament will start at a fixed time following a registration period.

At most online poker sites you’ll find a huge number of different SNGS open at any one time, at stakes to suit all players. If there’s plenty of traffic on the site, then they’ll fill up quickly so you should always be able to find a game. Similarly, the top sites all have a great range of scheduled events at different buy in levels.

It should be noted that the three main categories of poker tournaments we have mentioned so far are all interchangeable. For example, you could see a single table, shorthanded SNG or a multi table, full table SNG.

Other Tournament Types

The following is a list of other types of tournaments that we have not gone over yet. It’s important to understand all these types in addition to the main ways tournaments are categorized, so that you know what you’re looking at when it comes to choosing which ones to enter. For this reason, we’ve explained more about each type.

  • Freezeout
  • Rebuy
  • Turbo
  • Guaranteed
  • Satellite
  • Bounty/Knockout


The term freezeout can be applied to any tournament where players are eliminated as soon as they lose all their chips. Most tournaments fall into this category.


A rebuy is different from a freezeout in that players get the chance to buy in again once they have lost all of their chips. They have to pay again and will receive another starting stack. The exact terms will vary, but typically players are able to rebuy as many times as they want for a fixed period, like in the opening hour.


The term turbo is used when the blinds increase at a faster rate than normal. Some poker sites also have “Super Turbos”, where the blinds go up incredibly quickly.


This term is used when the prize pool is guaranteed to be a certain amount regardless of how many people enter. Most poker sites regularly run guarantees as they tend to attract so many players that the prize pool is covered by the entry fees anyway. When the fees don’t cover the size of the guaranteed prize pool the poker site has to provide the additional funds. This amount is known as the overlay.


In a satellite there’s no money to be won (or if there is it’s typically a consolation), but you can win an entry into another, higher value tournament. Satellites are popular with many players and they represent a great way to play in tournaments that are outside of your usual bankroll.


In a bounty or knockout tournament, some of the prize pool goes towards paying players a bonus for eliminating other players. Sometimes there’ll be a bonus for every player eliminated while sometimes the bonus will only be paid for specific playersthat get eliminated.