Back in poker’s Pleistocene age, before television and the internet changed things forever, poker meant cash games. But when poker and television discovered each other, it was love at first sight. They were made for each other. Tournaments provide the viewing audience with winners and losers, heroes and villains, and the same sense of drama found in all sorts of sporting events. But are they right for you?
Tournament poker offers incredibly large prize pools for relatively moderate investments and even small, affordable events offer a nice payday for those skilled and fortunate enough to wind up on the first few rungs of the pay ladder.
They’re also a terrific way to learn a new game. Rather than buying in, losing, and then buying in again, tournaments provide an inexpensive way to learn a new game or build needed skills for your favorite form of poker without having to worry about mounting losses. If you’re fortunate enough to win a small buy-in satellite, you can even find yourself playing a large buy-in tournament on money you won, and as we all know, money won is twice as sweet as money earned.
Tournaments offer glamour and glitz along with potentially big pay days, but since poker is a zero sum game—for every dollar won someone else loses a buck—every big tournament win is offset by lots of losses. And when you get down to cases, the easiest way to make money playing poker is not by winning the occasional tournament; it comes instead from beating the cash games day in and day out. Playing cash games may not be a glamorous, but there’s a lot less bankroll fluctuation.
After all, just one bad beat or miracle hand made by a lucky opponent can knock you out of a tournament, whereas a hand lost is just a hand lost in a cash game—nothing more, nothing less. But if you’re eliminated from a tournament, your day is over.
Cash games are based on exploiting edges over and over again. If you play good, solid poker and keep exploiting those small edges, your winnings will soon reflect the difference in skill between your play and that of your opponents.
A tournament player can go for a year or longer and not win a thing, even if that player is among the very best in the world. The variance inherent in tournament poker is astonishingly high. It’s higher than many of us imagine, and certainly higher than most of us would like to admit. That high variance goes a long way toward explaining why so many tournament players are out of funds for long stretches of time and rely on being staked by others in order to continue competing on the tournament circuit.
Cash games offer a quicker correlation between skill and results. If you are better than your opponents, you’ll know it with some degree of certainty in less time than you would if you were playing tournaments exclusively. If you are better than your cash game adversaries, you will beat them in the long run. As long as it might take to reach that ephemeral point where your results match-up with whatever edge you hold over your adversaries, it takes much, much longer in tournament play. In addition, cash game players are free to promote themselves to bigger games whenever they believe they have the requisite skills and bankroll to beat the opposition at the next level.
Cash games also fit the lifestyle of those time-strapped people among us who might be able to fit a half-hour or even an hour of online poker into their busy lifestyles before dinner or after the baby goes to bed, but not the large blocks of free time required to play in a tournament.
A lot of luck goes into tournament results, and while I enjoy them, if I absolutely had to choose one or the other, I’d prefer to stick with cash games.
Visit Lou Krieger online at www.loukrieger.com, where you can read his blog, and check out all of his books. Write directly to him at email@example.com.