5 Steps to Picking the Perfect Poker Tournament

I wrote this post for a simple reason – I got sick of teaching my friends how to pick a good online poker tournament, so I wrote something I could copy and paste as an email response.

The goal of this page is to help you find the right kind of online poker tournament for you to enter, based on a few different factors. When we say “perfect” tournament, we mean the tourney that’s the most fun and potentially the most profitable that you can afford or have a shot at winning with your skill level.

How to Pick a Poker Tournament
Determining which tournament to play means first figuring out a few things about you and the kind of tournaments you want to play. I think there are basically three kinds of online poker players. Regardless of the specifics of your poker game, you’re probably one of these three broad categories:

The Amateur
This is anyone who plays primarily for fun. Being an amateur doesn’t mean you lose a lot or are a bad player – it means your purpose is more casual. The Amateur probably doesn’t have a tournament bankroll or worry about bankroll management. Amateurs look for tournaments that offer a low fixed buy-in, are exciting to play, and give them a shot at a decent cash prize.

The Cash Game Expert
Players who make a significant amount of money playing ring games of online poker fall under this category. This person might play an occasional tournament, but mostly as a break in the routine. A Cash Game Expert will play a tourney if it gives him a decent shot at a huge cash prize, or if he finds value in the low skill set of a particular tournament’s player field.

The Tournament Junkie
Some of these players are professionals, others are amateurs, but they all have one thing in common. They complete regularly in online poker tournaments. Tournaments make up the majority of their poker play. They keep a tournament bankroll separate from their regular cash game bankroll. In short, tourneys are their wheelhouse.

Five Steps to Picking the Perfect Poker Tournament
Follow these five steps and you’ll have at least one perfect option for your particular style of poker play.

Step One: Figure out what field size you’re interested in.
Do you want to play against dozens of other players, or thousands of them? The name of the game in a tournament is for good players to take money from less-skilled players. That means good players have a higher expectation when they’re playing against fish. That means (generally speaking) a skilled player enjoys a much higher ROI in large tournament fields.

Why would anyone play anything but a massive tournament, if smaller tournaments mean more skilled opponents? Smaller fields mean less variance. Playing against large fields means that you’re more likely to lose every tournament you enter than when you enter tourneys with smaller fields. You earn more consistent winnings if you can compete consistently against smaller (and more skilled) fields of competitors. It’s tournament poker’s most annoying Catch-22.

Step Two: Determine your ideal buy-in.
Amateur players that don’t worry too much about their bankroll should pick a tourney based on the amount they’re comfortable losing in proportion to their skill level. In other words, if you enter a small pool tourney featuring players who are mostly better than you, you should be prepared to lose the entire buy-in. At that point, the tournament’s 100% fun, exactly what amateurs are in it for. All players can follow this rule, since the key to it is that you’re choosing tourneys based on both your skill level and your financial comfort level. It means you won’t be distracted worrying about money, even when it’s down to you vs. the final table.

Step Three: Decide how difficult of a field you want to compete against.
We established in Step Two that it is generally tougher to win tournaments with larger buy-ins, because those tournaments include mostly highly-skilled players. However, this rule has a huge exception.

Tourneys that get a lot of publicity but also happen to have a large buy-in tend to feature people who are playing for the prestige. The best example is the World Series of Poker, where plenty of total amateurs that have no business competing in poker’s biggest event cough up ten grand so they can play in the same tournament as the big boys. Of course, not all examples are this extreme. You’ll often find people playing way out of their league at hefty buy-in online tournaments. It’s all about doing your research.

Step Four: Find your ideal blind structure.
A tourney’s “blind structure” is the number of chips you start with relative to the tourney’s blinds. This structure also lets you know how quickly those blinds increase over time. Amateur players in it mostly for fun and excitement should look for events where they start with a large number of chips and the blinds move up very slowly. This will get them the most bang for their buck. This shallow structure reduces the impact of player skill, at least for a few rounds.

Skilled players need to consider what the strongest part of their poker game is, then pick a structure that matches their abilities. I’d suggest that ring game players choose deep stack tourneys so that the tournament looks and acts like the games they know and love. If you’re used to playing in tournaments, you might like the thrill of the shallow stack setup, and you might be the type of player who makes their best moves in tight game situations.

Step Five: Shop for the best prize structure.
This one is really all about personal preference.

I suggest that you concern yourself mainly with the cut taken by the house. Small stakes online tournaments tend to pay the house 10%. If you’re playing in a tournament with a buy-in above $100, you’ll pay slightly less of a cut to the house. Be careful about entering the super-tiny pool low stakes tournaments online with a rake of 20% or more. When you’re playing with a shallow structure and a huge rake, you’re basically playing the toughest possible online tournament format.

Conclusion
In case you haven’t gotten the point by now – you need to tailor your online poker tourney choice to the specifics of your poker game. It starts with an honest assessment of your abilities and your likes and dislikes when it comes to online poker. If you combine that accurate look at your poker skill with a logical choice of poker tournament, you’ll be giving yourself the best chance of being a tournament winner.

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