Should You Play Tournaments or Cash Games?

Players of Texas Hold’em poker during a big private game. AFP PHOTO STEPHAN AGOSTINI

There comes a time in every young poker player’s life when they ask themselves that very important question: Should I play tournaments or cash games? The answer is simple: Yes. Yes you should.

Both kinds of poker are well worth playing, especially if you want to learn and master the Beautiful Game. With that in mind, there are some differences between these two formats that could make one better than the other – for your particular needs, in the moment.

This goes beyond the idea that tournaments are more fun to play than cash poker; that depends on what you happen to find fun. Let’s take a more practical look at these two formats and see how you can use their differences to your advantage.


First of all, whatever your own idea of fun may be, tournaments do attract far more “recreational” players than cash games. Your expected return in these games will naturally be higher on average, and higher still in a tournament like the Main Event of the World Series of Poker, which is saturated by said players.

From a learning perspective, tournaments give you the opportunity to work with a wider range of scenarios than cash games – different stack sizes being the most important. Players in cash games generally buy in with the standard 100 big blinds, and most reload when they go below that amount. In tournaments, you might start with 100 bigs, but eventually, you’ll be whittled down to 50, 30, 20, maybe even a fraction of a big blind.

Each of these stack sizes requires a different approach, as do larger sizes like 150 and 200 bigs in a deepstack tournament. The more you learn about these approaches and work on them, the better poker player you’ll become. And yes, those skills will cross over into cash games as well, where you’ll encounter the occasional “ratholer” with 20-30 bigs.

Cash Games

As great as tournaments are, they require a lot of commitment from you. It can take several hours or even days to finish a tournament, and you have to pay that buy-in (and that entry fee) upfront to compete. Cash games are much easier to schedule; you get to play exactly as many hands as you want, at the stakes you want, of a much wider variety of games than just No-Limit Hold’em. That freedom is priceless.

Cash games are also considerably lower-variance than tournaments, meaning you won’t go through the same rollercoaster ride of upswings and downswings. That doesn’t mean cash poker will provide you a steady stream of income – no matter what some people might say – but it does make it less likely that you’ll drain your bankroll through sheer bad luck.

Oh Yeah, Sit-And-Gos There’s a third poker format that tends to get overlooked these days, combining the best elements of cash games and tournaments. Sit-and-gos (SNGs) are short tournaments that start as soon as the required number of players have signed up, whether it’s 180, nine, or just two. These are easier to fit into your schedule than standard multi-table tournaments (MTTs), and they provide lower variance, too.

SNGs are a great way to build a bankroll while learning the fundamental skills of poker. Now that you know the key differences among these formats, remember that all forms of poker are pretty much the same game – it’s just a matter of framing.

Nick Wealthall, poker commentator and one-time member of the Cambridge Footlights Revue (alongside Robert Webb, from Mitchell and Webb), has preached the concept that “There Is No Tournament.” Abe Limon, the semi-famous Los Angeles gambler and poker savant, has referred to cash games as being part of the “Infinite Stacks” tournament series. These ways of thinking will help you embrace all three formats, which will give you maximum flexibility, and increase your earning potential in the process.