Cash Games vs. Tournament Play


Strategic Poker

While today it is possible for a student of the game to play tournament poker exclusively, when I started playing seriously, cash games where the norm and tournaments were much less available. With the tournament poker explosion came a plethora of tournament based literature that was intended to teach cash game players to adjust their strategies to survive the new "fad". Well, tournament poker has passed the test of time so far and it appears that it may just stick around for a while.

In this article I'm going to talk about the differences between proper cash game and tournament poker strategy. I'd like to start by saying that most of what I read about proper tournament strategy seemed somewhat wrong to me back then. And I'll go a step further and say that some of the popular beliefs on the topic are now, and always have been, incorrect. I've spent a lot of time and energy researching the truly great poker theorists' work on the subject. I've also done some pretty solid "work" of my own. After reading so many resources written by reputable sources and disagreeing with so much of it, I went to work creating theories, proofs, and thought experiments that, if I can explain them properly, should help you to get your head around the "truth" of the matter. WARNING: paradigm shift ahead.

In order for there to be a deviation from proper cash game and tournament play, there must be differences in the formats that are significant enough to shift the optimal strategies between the two. So, what differences are there, really, between cash game and tournament play? There really aren't that many, not as many as most people think. I believe that the way that most players, even some professionals, view the main difference between the two formats is "fuzzy logic" at best. Now, I don't mean that it's all garbage, and I don't claim to be a better player than a lot of these guys, but I have really dug deep into this conundrum, and I've also discovered that I'm not alone in my school of thought. I'll just lay out some of the "thought experiments" and some of my arguments, and let you judge for yourself.

Tournament "Truth"

The first "truth" that seems to be held by much of the poker community is that you can afford to "gamble" more in cash games than you can in tournaments. Meaning that you can afford to play more speculative hands and loosen up your starting hand requirements in cash games. The idea seems to stem from the often quoted argument that "if you go bust in a cash game you can just reach back into your pocket and pull out more cash." While I am completely thrilled that many players feel that way, you have to understand how mathematically flawed it is. Many players seem to play tighter at a tournament than they would at a cash game. That is sometimes, but not always the correct strategy. You should never "gamble more" just because you can reach back into your pocket and buy more chips. That doesn't even make sense. You should and have to "gamble" when you have the best of it, and that really doesn't change a lot between cash and tournament play. If you're getting 2 to 1 on your money and you're in a coin flip situation, you take it. Even for all of your chips you take it, even in the first hand of the first round; it's a good bet so you play.

Tournament "Theory"

Another deeply engraved tournament theory stresses the importance of not going bust. Most tournament players seem to emphasize the need to survive as their top priority. While this is a more factually analogous idea than the former, it still has to be weighed in light of the mathematical facts before you can correctly decide how far to take it. I'm going to spend some time now breaking down the true differences between tournament and cash game play. We'll see if we can find the "fundamental root" to the differences. If we can do that then the optimal strategic differences should become apparent.

The ONLY differences between cash game strategy and tournament strategy stem from:

  • 1) Pay out structure
  • 2) Blind structure
  • 3) The size of the buy-in (tournament or cash game) as it relates your total bankroll

Allow me to submit the following as the back bone of my tournament/cash game strategy; we're going to examine a hypothetical poker tournament. We will call this tournament "T.1".

Hypothetical Poker Tournament

Suppose you are playing in a tournament with a buy-in of $1000, and that represented only 5% of your total bankroll. Suppose also that the structure of the tournament is a bit "unusual". Each player starts with a total of $1000 in tournament chips, or T1000. The blinds will begin at 10-20 and will remain at 10-20 for the duration of the game. There are 81 players in this hypothetical tourney seated at 9 tables of with 9 players at each table. Every table will continue playing amongst themselves until one player has all 9000 chips and all the other players at each table are busted. After the final player from each table emerges, those players move to the final table and each of them start the final table with T1000 and the blinds remain 10-20. Play commences until one player has all of the chips in play, and that player receives the entire cash prize. I'd really like you to go over this format in your head. Think about it, and try to determine the optimal strategy for the tournament. How would the perfect strategy in this tournament differ from optimal cash game play? Really think it over before reading on.

Well, the answer is pretty simple. In the hypothetical tournament above, there would be absolutely no reason to deviate from standard cash game play. You will simply make correct EV (mathematically determined estimated value) plays throughout the game. You'll try to get your money in when you have an edge and you'll attempt to keep your money out whenever you'll be taking the worst of it. OK, that seems pretty straight forward I think, but most tournaments have completely different rules. So how should they affect the way we play? I'm going to refer back to that hypothetical tournament in the remainder of this article, and I'm simply going to tweak one variable at a time. In doing this my hope is that you will be able to grasp the fundamental truth of TEV as it differs from standard EV.

next format I'd like you to consider is one in which all of the variables are the same with one exception. In this tournament T.2, in the only difference is the pay out structure. The game will play exactly the same as T.1 accept that once the final table has been established the prize purse will be divided up equally amongst the top three players. First place will receive 1/3 of the purse, second place will receive 1/3 and third place will receive 1/3. What effect will this deviation have on the first portion of the tournament?

How should your strategy shift while you're playing at your original table? Well, it may seem obvious or you may need to think about it for a second. Because the goal in this stage of the event is to capture every chip in play at your table, you should play it exactly as you would play in a cash game or in T.1. It's not until you have made it to the final table that your strategy should change. Once you've reached the final table you'll have to change your strategy due to the, now relevant, payout structure. Not until the final table, will the EV of your plays change. Now the EV decisions need to be measured in TEV (tournament estimated value). Now it is correct to avoid pushing small edges, stay away from the large stacks, and pick on the small ones. In this new format there are many situations that could come up in which folding AA before the flop becomes the correct move. You'd never do that in a cash game! At the final table of T.2 you have to put extra emphasis on survival. That's because the player who wins all the chips is mathematically penalized for winning all of the chips and the two players who survive long enough to take second and third place, although they lost all of their chips, will now be rewarded for losing them later on than other players. That simple fact is the only reason you should put a higher priority on survival in tournament play. If you are playing a winner takes all format that survival concept is meaningless.

Now neither of those examples are very common but they were meant to show a point. In most tournaments you will have a pay out structure that rewards survival, but usually you should still play pretty standard cash game style poker in the early rounds. While the money is still far off in the distance there is little reason to not push your edges, or to go very far out of your way to avoid going broke. The argument "in a tournament you can't afford to gamble as much because you can't just reach back into your pocket and buy more chips" is just not logical thinking. If you play properly, and it causes you to get busted out side of the money, what exactly stops you from reaching into your wallet and buying into another tournament? If you can't afford to do that then you are playing in too large of a buy-in for your bankroll. If you can afford to do that then you should not play overly tight just to avoid the risk of getting busted. There is nothing you can do to eliminate the possibility of losing in any single session of cards, but if you make fewer mistakes than the other players you will come out ahead in the long run. Making a mathematically incorrect play just to avoid the chance of getting busted in a tournament is not the answer. Playing in the correct stakes relative to your bankroll is.

We haven't discussed blind structures yet. I think most players understand that as the blinds get higher and higher you have to loosen you play up accordingly. I think many players underestimate how much they should deviate when it comes to late game play. When the blinds reach a point in which the big blind represents 1/10 of the average stack in play, it's time to get aggressive. You should be raising with a lot of hands, and if you're the small stack you're most likely just going to be sliding in hand after hand. It's important to remember, though, not to play this way in live games. In cash game there is no reason to move all in every time you play a hand just to take the binds. If you are at that point you should re-buy or leave the game, you're just not effective with such a small stack.

Tournament Poker "Myth"

Another myth in tournament poker is that you should be willing to gamble more against the short stacks when they move all-in to try to eliminate players. I see it all the time, and that's exactly the reason I don't mind being the short stack at a tournament. People just love to double you up. I played a tournament recently online where I was down to 7 big blinds at the final table one spot from the money. I'd been playing pretty tight, but I was dealt KK and decided to move all-in. I got called by both of the big stacks, one of them hand pocket two's and the other had QJs, I more than tripled up in that hand and ended up finishing in second place. This sort of thing rarely happens in cash games, why would it? It seems, though, that when a player with a short stack moves all-in at a final table, they will get called down with almost anything. I don't understand that at all. Sure, it's true that you would like to watch the short stacks get eliminated when you're closing in on the money, but you have to realize that it is simply not your job to do it. You should not be willing to take even slightly the worst of it in order to eliminate a player. It just doesn't add up.

Factors Affecting Tournament Strategy

So, again, here are the factors that should have an effect on your tournament strategy:

  • 1) Pay out structure: the higher percentage of the field that gets paid, the tighter you should play and the less you should be willing to push small edges. Also, the more top heavy the tournament is (meaning how much of the money is in the top few spots) the more fundamentally you should play, remember if it was a winner takes all tournament you'd just play normal cash game poker.
  • 2) Blind structure: the higher the blinds the more you will have to loosen your starting hand requirements and the more you'll have to be willing to gamble.
  • 3) The buy in amount: if you are in a tournament that represents a large portion of your bankroll, you will need to play very tight and put a high emphasis on making the money.

When you are nearing the end of a tournament and the blinds have escalated to a dangerous point it is very important to understand the race odds between different hands. If you open for three times the blind with KJs, and a very tight player on a short stack re-raises all-in, you should probably assume you have the worst hand. However, that's no reason to fold. You have to look at the amount of money in the pot compared to how much it would cost you to call and weigh that against your chances of winning a showdown against the types of hands he could have. If your raise was 30,000 and it would cost 60,000 more to call into a pot that now contains 120,000 chips, you're getting 2 to 1. Well, that's probably worth a call. He might have a hand like AQ that you're only about a 3 to2 dog to or a hand like A8s, which you're in even better shape against. If your opponent has a pair lower than jacks you've made a very profitable call. You were getting 2 to 1 on a coin flip. The only time that you're in extremely bad shape is when your opponent has you dominated with AJ, AK, or when he has exactly KK, or AA.

In closing I'd just like to say this; most of what you've heard about tournament strategy is not exactly accurate. In the early rounds of a tournament you should avoid getting all of your money in with a small edge sure, but you should do that in cash games as well. You do want to weigh survival more heavily when there is a pay out structure that rewards survival, but remember, you have to accumulate chips to survive, especially in the face of ever increasing blinds. Loosen up your play as the blinds grow or you'll just get blinded out of the tournament. More over though, if you consistently make correct EV plays, you'll succeed in tournament or cash game poker. Until next time, Good "Luck!"

♣ More tournament strategy from Dead Money: Tournament Poker is Swingy.

♣ Back to the index of articles about online poker tournaments.