Finding the right online poker tournament

It seems that, nowadays, everyone and their dog is playing online poker tournaments. If you so desired, you could play non-stop, seven days per week, every day of the year. Whether you’ve just started out on your poker quest or you’re a tournament veteran, have a modest or a massive bankroll, prefer a traditional slow-paced freezeout or a super-turbo rebuy with a monster add-on, there’s something for everyone.

But before we can even think about decisions such as whether or not to raise that QJ suited pre-flop on the Button, the first question is how we first decide which tournaments are best to play. Like a child in a sweet shop, we’re spoilt for choice, with a number of important factors to take into consideration.

Our YPD Guide to Online tournaments is packed with advice that will help even experienced players cut a path through the jungle to make choices that best suit them. With numbers taking part from around the globe that can be measured by the million, there are all sorts of criteria. For some it might be practical concerns such as blind structure that take priority, others could be influenced mainly by the fun factor while, not surprisingly, money is always going to be an attraction.

Let’s start at the very beginning, with a fundamental subject that we all – from beginner to expert – must respect…

Online Tournament Bankroll Management

First, even the best players in the world can’t ‘expect’ or rely on any kind of guarantee when they register for a tournament that they’ll get in the prize money. That’s just the nature of tournament poker. Consequently, the buy-in (and any subsequent rebuys and add-ons) should be seen as the cost to play, which we must be prepared to part with. For recreational players, bankroll management can be relatively easy to maintain in that the object is to be able to afford to play whichever tournaments from which we plan to derive the most entertainment. Such players tend to set aside a usually modest amount for poker – just as one would spend money on any hobby or sport – and are able to top it up when the well runs dry.

Having said that, if we have any kind of poker ambition it’s prudent to adhere to some kind of sensible bankroll strategy, committing no more than a certain percentage for each buy-in. As extreme as it might seem, a sound approach would be to put this figure at 1% but apply some good old-fashioned practical commonsense in order to have a level of flexibility. For example, the chance of success in a tournament with a field of 100 is greater than when battling away against 1,000 (see below), so this would afford us some leeway.

Meanwhile, such a bankroll strategy doesn’t limit us to having only 1% of our bankroll at a time. Tournaments are separate entities that are independent of each other, so those players comfortable multi-tabling don’t have to wait until Tournament #1 is over before starting Tournament #2 on their planned list – purists might point out that playing more than one simultaneously means committing more than the limit at the same time, but apart from some players simply wanting to raise the fun factor, there are also Rakeback and other bonus considerations, too.

Another interesting option that some might frown on but is totally acceptable is taking the occasional shot at a bigger game. As long as we keep any deviations from the recommended limit within reason, it can be very useful developmentally to try out a playing environment that puts us against stronger opposition than we’re used to.

Player fields: does size matter?

It’s not unusual to see online poker rooms – on a daily basis – host numerous tournaments that each attract thousands of runners. Low buy-in events with high prize funds easily end up with 5-figure fields, for example. However, the bigger the field, the more the route to victory is paved with banana skins, and it takes a great deal of luck – being the recipient of good fortune while simultaneously avoiding costly losses and bad beats – to emerge at the top once the smoke has cleared.

We also need to take into account that big tournaments take a long time to finish, so before committing ourselves we should be prepared to perhaps be ‘busy’ for several hours (and still not win anything), with tournaments typically starting at 9pm and still running the following morning at breakfast time.

A more realistic prospect in terms of trying to actually boost our bankroll – and more practical in terms of time! – is to concentrate on tournaments with smaller fields. First, there are far fewer players to compete with and, although the proportion of more skilled players might be higher compared with massive fields full of less experienced, less skilled hopefuls drawn to big rewards, the potential rewards are greater thanks to variance being much less of a factor.

Blind Structure

The relationship between stack size and the Blinds is significant in terms of how the dynamics of a tournament pan out due to the rate at which the Blinds increase over time. Not surprisingly, different players prefer different Blind Structures and, as usual, it can boil down to taste and practicality.

New and inexperienced players and those with a limited bankroll, for instance, might be well advised to play in tournaments with structures that feature large starting stacks and slow(er) blinds (anything from 8-12 minutes is standard). This not only gives good value for the buy-in, but the slow structure also allows much more flexibility, thus requiring less skill – at least during the earlier stages.

However, it makes sense to try out different structures in order to see which feels most comfortable and which might best play to our strengths. Furthermore, it helps to factor in which formats best suit us (see below), while it might also be worth checking out if there are certain blind structure/format combinations that work better than others.

Tournament Formats

Freezeout

The traditional Freezeout format sees everyone pay their buy-in for a one-shot starting stack – once the chips have gone, there are no second chances in the form of rebuys. Consequently, this simplicity at least leaves players knowing from the offset that there’ll be no more money spent on the tournament.

The nature of Freezeouts is such that strategies are going to be influenced by there being no re-entries allowed. For many, this can be too limiting and restrictive, with too much at stake, while others, on the other hand, actually like that exact aspect.

A characteristic of this format in terms of the prize money is that, unlike Rebuy tournaments that see players keep re-entering after losing their chips, thus continually boosting the prize pool, Freezeouts have a more finite payout. Essentially, this could be considered the poker purist’s format, although, with the game constantly evolving, and the modern player perhaps looking for more excitement, trends might well lead to this no longer being the case.

Turbo

The Turbo format is a great advert for online poker, encompassing key ingredients that draw so many to the game. First, the quicker structure tends to make for shorter tournaments, which allows those players with limited time to still enjoy the tournament experience. And an exhilarating experience it can be! With less room to maneouvre there’ll be more chances taken, which, in turn, prompts more critical decisions and risks. As the pressure increases, we see more skirmishes, more stacks put on the line, and we can fit more of these rollercoaster rides into our ‘free’ time.

However, life is such that fun often comes with a price. With fewer hands to play until the Blinds increase, there are fewer opportunities generally. Those players who avoid situations in which they could bust are at the same time missing out on winning big pots, and the resulting average stack size tends not to offer much flexibility. Short stacks in particular can easily feel stifled, with post-flop options severely restricted to the point that the game can easily be reduced to a pre-flop all-in or fold theme.

Strong players, then, often opt for Turbo tournaments with a view to exploiting the mistakes made by less experienced opponents who struggle with the increasingly testing conditions of the format. Newer players, in contrast, might prefer a slower pace that affords them the opportunity to adopt a TAG (tight and aggressive) strategy.

Rebuy/Add-on

As the name suggests, these tournaments allow players to buy in again in the event of losing all their chips. Sometimes it’s possible to keep rebuying over and over, while others will cap the rebuy allocation (which might limit the fun, but it also limits the damage a tilty session could do to a bankroll!). A facility that many find useful is the ability to ‘double’ rebuy in order to have a bigger stack which adds flexibility and can help advance up the pecking order quicker in a bid to engineer a more dominant position. For example, if the standard starting stack is 5,000 chips and for double the cost we can have a 10,000 stack, then winning an early all-in encounter against someone who has done the same gives us 20,000 and, suddenly, we have four times the average. This sounds perfect but, of course, we need to factor in being on the losing side of such a hand and finding ourselves with nothing but having invested extra. Such considerations, including how many times we’re prepared to buy in, need to be sorted out in advance and put into perspective generally if we want to focus on tournaments.

Then comes the add-on, about which we need to make an important distinction: this comes at the end of the designated rebuy period and gives players the option to buy additional chips, but at a lower ‘cost’ than the original buy-in/rebuys. Most players take the add-on to avoid finding themselves being leapfrogged by a host of opponents still in contention for the prizes that are now increasingly within our grasp. With add-ons varying in size – and thus significance – this can be an important part of determining tournament selection, especially in conjunction with deciding when specifically to register (see below).

Clearly, in terms of bankroll management, factoring in buy-ins, rebuys and then the add-on is confusing at best if we want to at least make an effort to adhere to a prudent plan. A $5 buy-in Freezeout will cost exactly $5, whereas a $5 buy-in R+A tournament with a couple of rebuys and the add-on will eat into our bankroll for four times that investment! There is a plus, however, in terms of rake, as many R+As charge a fee only for the initial buy-in, with subsequent rebuys and add-on being rake-free.

Meanwhile, these tournaments tend to feature less skilled opposition than a Freezeout as they attract greater numbers of those recreational players looking for more of a fun ride than ‘old-fashioned’ formats. A solid, practical approach can be rewarded with a growing stack without necessarily having to do anything  too special, other than picking off the gamblers and loose players who are happy to keep rebuying.

Note that it’s quite possible to play R+A tournaments without necessarily rebuying (or even taking the add-on), thus getting the best of both worlds, given the ever expanding prize pool as players continually rebuy.

To conclude, as well as being convenient time-wise and a source of online poker entertainment, R+A tournaments can be very rewarding. If the (potential) costs are within a sensible bankroll management plan, then by all means give them a go. However, with other formats to choose from, inexperienced players might do better to continue their learning progress in tournaments that don’t leave them open to spending too much money for just one opportunity.

Knockout/Bounty

Not so long ago, Knockout tournaments didn’t even exist. As far as winning a bounty for eliminating a player is concerned, there were special tournaments that featured bounties on the heads of ‘guest’ players, but actual Bounty tournaments are a relatively new thing.

And it’s safe to say that this format has taken online poker, which was already a global success story, to another level. The notion that we can have a rollercoaster ride and be eliminated early – literally hours before anyone will actually make the prizes – yet still make money because we managed to eliminate players, is the beauty of the Knockout format.

We should note that despite the simple concept, there isn’t just one type of Knockout/Bounty tournament. Originally, players would be awarded a fixed Bounty – from a designated portion of the prize pool – for each player they eliminate. With this format, racking up a few bounties in the early stages is indeed a success but, as we go deeper into a tournament, the reward becomes much less of an incentive compared with getting into the prizes.

‘Fixed’ Bounty games still exist, but to jazz proceedings up a bit the concept was tweaked somewhat and so-called Bounty Builders came along. As the name suggests, a bounty can increase in value, and this is achieved by not awarding the entire bounty amount. Instead, only part of the bounty goes to the ‘winner’ and the rest is added to that player’s own bounty. As players continue to knock out successive opponents their bounty increases accordingly and, and this has the effect, during the course of a tournament, of creating some potentially very big bounties. This, in turn, can create a unique dynamic that’s specific to such ‘progressive’ bounties, with the reward for eliminating a player who’s built up a massive bounty sometimes greater than the current prize level.
It’s also important – as well as our own considerations in Bounties – to remember that the price on our head will be a factor in determining how our opponents play against us. As our bounty grows to an increasingly substantial amount, so will the incentive for others to take a chance. And this is a key characteristic of Bounty tournaments – bounties (even at the beginning) significantly change the decision-making criteria and tend to justify taking risks that we wouldn’t normally contemplate.

Overall, Knockout tournaments are exciting and, of course, offer additional rewards that can be potentially considerable. It’s certainly necessary to put some thought into this format in advance in order to better cope with the fundamental adjustments we need to make. Many opponents, drawn to something different and the prospect of picking up extra money, will fail to adapt, which makes Bounties even more attractive for anyone looking to find an edge.

When to register: is it important to be involved from the beginning?

It’s an age-old online poker question: When is the best time to start a tournament? As usual, there isn’t a definitive answer, not least because different formats have different dynamics. With some, there are advantages in sitting down right at the start, as well as disadvantages in not doing so (note that these two are not the same). Others might have structures or features that mean it doesn’t make a great deal of difference at which phase we enter. And, not surprisingly, there are arguments that some formats present us with a viable strategy that is actually based on entering late.

Mostly, online poker tournaments have late registration periods that can be anything from minutes to several hours, depending on the Blind Structure, (expected) field size and so on. Accordingly, we can register in advance and be dealt in for the very first hand or, alternatively, can join the action at the last possible moment, literally hours after the tournament started.

The early bird catches the worm

Before turning to those situations in which some players make a point of entering late, we should note that it of course makes sense generally to enter tournaments at the beginning (or early). First, we’re paying money to play, so we might as well avail ourselves of all potential opportunities that might come our way. This isn’t possible if we’re missing out on actually playing. Even if during the first few blind levels we don’t manage to win loads of chips, there will have been things to learn and practice, as well as chances to observe other players at the table.

It’s a poker fact that the vast majority of players don’t know how best to play with deep stacks, and this makes them particularly vulnerable from the moment the very first hand is dealt. With this in mind, it can pay to turn up early enough in order to exploit their mistakes.

Never register late for Knockout tournaments!

Despite so many players not heeding this advice, it should be one of online poker’s golden rules. Perhaps it’s because Knockout tournaments are the (relative) new kid on the block that players have yet to get to grips with the format, but a fundamental aspect is that the portion of the prize pool that is put aside for bounties starts to dwindle from the first hand onwards. With each elimination, prize money reduces, and the longer we delay our entry, the more potential rewards we miss out on. Whatever logic there might be to register late for specific formats, the only logic here is miss none of the action.

Incidentally, GGPoker introduced an incentive to register early in the shape of an insurance against being eliminated on the bubble. Simply registering before play starts is enough to be eligible for this money back offer in the event of just missing the prizes. That’s worth knowing if we anyway intend to enter the fray early.

Late Registration

While it’s true that registering late for a tournament means missing out on whatever chances (and with them, potentially positive outcomes) might have come our way, there are arguments in support of a delay.

From a practical standpoint, it simply saves time – if there’s a finite number of hours that we set aside for poker, then throwing our hat into the ring at the end of the late registration period frees up a chunk of time. We could use that couple of hours or so, for example, to late register for other tournaments, do something else entirely or even make sure that we feel fresh and ready for action, in contrast to most of our opponents who have been slogging away.

In R+A tournaments, for instance, late registration is an element around which a popular strategy is based. One advantage of this approach is that by joining as late as possible, for the cost of the buy-in and add-on we have entered the arena at the business end of the tournament, with the field now capped, the prizes in sight and a workable stack. Had we made an early start, we might well have rebought a couple of times and still been eliminated, or it might have cost much more just to end up being in a similar position.

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About the Author

AngusD

AngusD switched from pro chess to poker two decades ago and has been professionally involved in the game on numerous levels since the very beginning of online poker, including playing as a poker ambassador both online and at major festivals around the globe. He has written much about the game over the years, and brings to YPD a wealth of experience in all aspects of the poker industry. Meanwhile, his many years on the pro chess circuit (he’s an International Master and prolific author) afford him an interesting perspective on the psychology of poker.

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The last changes of the page “YPD Guide to Online Poker Tournaments” was made by AngusD on June 11, 2021