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Comparing Tournaments and Cash Game Strategy

Correctly Adjusting Your Strategy for the Type of Poker Game

A newcomer to poker might assume that the strategy players should use for cash game is the same as for tournaments, though this couldn’t be further from the truth. Each game is very different. Cash game will see the size of the blinds remain the same throughout your time at the table, these blinds are small in relation to the majority of chip stacks. Tournaments see the blinds rise at regular intervals meaning different strategies need to be employed at different stages.

This guide to the strategy differences between cash and tournaments starts by describing the fundamental aims you’ll want to achieve in both games. Then you’ll read how the strategies between both games can be similar in the early stages of a tournament, before the games become very different in the latter stages.

The Different Aims of Cash Games and Tournaments

When sitting down at a cash game, you’ll obviously want to make money and in an ideal world, a great session would see you wipe out the rest of the table and take all their cash. But to be a successful cash player, you don’t need to wipe people out, you simply have to aim to make a profit in the long run. A good cash player won’t put all their chips on the line unless they think they have an edge.

The aim of a tournament player is different. If you look at the payout chart of any tournament, you’ll find it skewed towards the top end, with the real big prizes reserved for the final table and the top prize highly sought after. Your aim in playing a tournament therefore is to win every chip in play across all the tables. To achieve this, players will have to take risks at times and in winning a tournament it would be a huge surprise if you didn’t have to be involved in a series of big pot hands.

Cash Game and Tournament Strategy

When playing a cash game, you’ll usually find small blinds in comparison to your stack, many tables having a maximum buy-on of 100x the big blind. While a successful cash game player will have an armory of different moves to win (including stealing, 3 betting and precise bet sizing), they will only generally go all-in for two reasons. The first is if they think they have an edge at showdown and secondly when they have a pretty good read that the opposing player will fold. Since you can reload at any time, there is no ‘risk of ruin’ (like busting out in a tournament). This means the best strategy is to welcome any edge without regard to how many chips are at risk. In the long-run, the variance will even out – and those repeated small edges are where your profit will come from.

In the early stages of a tournament, the strategy for many players can be similar to a cash game. You have the same large stack size in relation to the blinds. One consideration is that you don’t want to exit the event early. While some players will be happy to take a coin-flip early on to boost their overall chances of winning, a steady accumulation strategy is optimal. As you move through the tournament the blinds become much larger in relation to the stacks and you’ll find many situations you simply won’t find in a cash game.

Strategy Differences as Tournaments Progress

As the tournament progresses the best strategy in a tournament is to loosen up. With a small stack you’ll have no choice but to play aggressively. If you reach a stage where your stack is around the 10 big blind mark, your only option is to push all-in or fold. With a large or medium stack you are in a great position to take advantage of these short-stacked players as you can call them down lighter – your tournament life is not on the line and they are shoving with a wide range. In a cash game players can reload – and simply do not face the same ‘pressure’ that exists when a tournament hand decision could lead to you busting

This chip conservation taking priority over getting an edge becomes obvious at the bubble. Many players will tighten up around the bubble and you can take advantage of this by playing looser and stealing pots. As a short stack yourself on the bubble, you should also be playing looser. Limping into the cash might seem a good idea, but the skewed payouts at the top end mean that you should be aiming for that big win. Play aggressively and try to accumulate as many chips as you can is often the better strategy. When you reach the final table of a tournament, you’ll find it is usually a shove/fold fest, so pick your spots and shove those chips all in. The play in the mid and latter stages of a tournament is not something you would ever see at a cash table.

Comparing Tournaments and Cash Game Strategy - Overview

While there can be some similarities between the two games in early stages of a tournament, the overall strategies needed for both games are very different. Cash games can be so much cagier, where pushing all-in is a rarity, where tournaments, especially in the latter stages, can see players pushing all-in almost every hand.

If you are considering cash game play, then your hand reading and post-flop skills need to be better than for tournament players. You will be playing deep stacked all the time, and small pre-flop mistakes can be amplified. Tournament players need these skills only in the early stages. The more important skills involve knowing when to put pressure on opponents are the game progresses.