In the past twenty years, tournament poker has become hugely popular around the world, not least because it is an ideal way for newcomers to familiarise themselves with the game. First of all, your maximum financial risk is known in advance. For example, if you enter a $10 no-limit hold’em tournament at PokerStars your liability is limited to $11 ($10 buy-in for the prize pool plus a $1 registration fee for the house). Second, the potential reward is always much greater than the entry fee, so everyone has an incentive to try their best. Third, online tournaments typically deal at over twice the rate of their brick and mortar counterparts, so there is a lot more play to them. Finally, tournaments are tremendous fun – over the course of an event your stack of chips can go through wild fluctuations; you can inflict and receive bizarre bad beats on all-in bets etc. Many players love the cut and thrust and adrenaline rush of tournaments, and find cash games something of a grind in comparison.
Online tournaments come in two distinct forms: single-table (often called ‘sit and go’) events, in which typically nine or ten players (eight for seven-card stud) compete against each other, and multiple-table events, which may contain dozens or hundreds of entrants. Nowadays most sites offer both single- and multi-table events, but some specialise in one or the other. And likewise some players prefer single-table events, others multi-table and many play both types.
Sit and Go Tournaments
For a sit and go event there is no pre-determined start time – you simply pay your entry fee, take your seat and wait for the table to fill up with other players before you can start (which may sometimes take quite a while, depending on the time of day and overall site traffic!). Typically, a single-table sit and go tourney will last a maximum of an hour or so and payout on the first three places (50% for the winner, 30% for second and 20% for third), but you should ensure that you check the prize structure before you start play. In addition to the standard single-table events, PokerStars also offers two-table sit and go events with 18 players (16 for stud) and four prizes.
At some sites the sit and go blind structure is such that the blinds rise very rapidly (every ten hands), and players are forced to take risks almost from the outset. Some purists find these games unattractive, reasoning that this turns the tournament into something of a crapshoot. However, there is no doubt that at sites with a relatively more sedate blind structure (such as PokerStars, where there are only nine players, the blinds go up every ten minutes rather than every ten hands, and everyone starts with a fairly large stack of chips) sit and go events can be a lucrative, fast-moving and enjoyable avenue for many players. Indeed, Mike Caro argues that for good players short tournaments may prove more profitable than larger tournaments in the long run, because:
– They provide an excellent opportunity to exploit skill differentials .
– You can play two or more shorter tournaments in the time it would take to reach the final of a single long event, thus reducing the ‘luck’ component .
– You risk proportionately less of your bankroll on each individual event.
To these factors, I would add a fourth:
– Single-table tournaments are great practice for the final tables of multi-table events!
Unlike sit and go tournaments, which start whenever there is a full table, multiple-table events are always scheduled in advance. Usually registration will begin an hour or more before the start of the event and will close either when the first person is eliminated, when all the tables are full or at a designated time after the start. As more and more players are eliminated, the tables are merged until ultimately there is only one table left, at which point the event takes on the characteristics of a single-table event. Typically a multi-table event will last for several hours and offer a much longer prize list than its single-table counterpart; it is very common for every player who reaches the final table to receive a prize if there are around 45 or more entries.
Nowadays most of the major cardrooms offer re-buy tournaments, in addition to the traditional freezeout events. Re-buy tournaments are attractive because in general, the cardroom does not take a cut when you re-buy or add-on (Paradise Poker being a notable exception to this). Furthermore, with more chips in play than a normal event, there is more play to it (although this does mean that it will go on longer!).
Inspired by the example of Chris Moneymaker, who turned a $39 PokerStars satellite into $2.5 million at the World Series of Poker, most sites now offer satellites for the major brick and mortar events. Not just for the WSOP, but also for the World Poker Tour and many other events. These satellites are hugely popular. After all, who can resist the thought that for as little as $1, they could be rubbing shoulders with Doyle Brunson and Gus Hansen, playing for a huge prize at the final table of a nationally televised event!
One advantage of multiple-table online tournaments over their brick and mortar equivalents is that you are usually provided with completely up-to-date information on where you stand in the tournament, how many players are left, and the relative chip positions of all the remaining players. This valuable information can and should be used to help you formulate your strategy for reaching the final table and beyond! At PokerStars you can go to the tournament lobby for the full picture on where you stand at that particular point in time (although information on your current position and the largest and smallest stack can be obtained by clicking the ‘Info’ tab).
Nowadays some sites allow players to do prize-money deals for the top places. These are usually negotiated through the chat boxes and then relayed to the site’s support team. Needless to say, you should check beforehand that the site at which you are playing permits deals, involve the tournament director if at all possible, immediately notify support of the deal that has been struck so that they can transfer the funds, and ensure that you are able to provide back-up evidence (in case someone should renege on the deal) by keeping a copy of the chat. During the first World Championship of Online Poker in July 2002, PokerStars actually provided the facility to pause the tournament (if all the remaining players agreed) so that deals could be discussed.
There have been numerous incidents in multi-table tournaments in which one player has deliberately employed ‘stalling’ tactics (using the maximum allotted time allowed for each decision) with, say, two tables left in order to improve their chances of a higher placing. There are three possible ways in which stalling might benefit a player: first, the players on another table might simply knock each other out, enabling the stalling player to reach the final table; second, a rise in the blinds may occur that will cause someone else to be forced to go all-in before the player who is doing the stalling; and finally, a middle stack might stall to prevent a big stack from running over the table whilst everyone is in a defensive mode, hoping to make the final table. It is conventional for tournaments to go to ‘hand for hand’ just prior to the formation of the final table. This combats the first and third stalling methods but not the second. Although legal, such angle-shooting tactics are not to be recommended and may very well incur the wrath of fellow players if taken to extremes.
Another possible angle that sometimes arises in tournaments is ‘chip-dumping’, whereby one player deliberately loses all their chips to another in order to enhance the latter’s tournament prospects. Tournament action is so fast and furious that chip-dumping is far from easy to detect while you are playing. However, if you suspect that another player is being assisted in this way, then you should protect yourself and the other players in the tournament by notifying support of your suspicions.