You’ve been bitten by the poker bug. You’ve seen the World Series of Poker on TV. You’re just learning the game; maybe dabbled online. Now, you want to give live tournament play a try, but you’re intimidated. You may feel your skills aren’t good enough, or you might think that you have to spend a lot of money to buy into the World Series or another big tournament. You can set those fears aside. There’s a tournament for every skill level and every bank account in nearly every legal card room in the country.

Getting Started

To enter a tournament you’re going to have to pay an upfront fee called a buy-in. That’s a set amount of money that will go to cover the prize pool for a particular tournament, as well as to cover the casino’s cost of running the tournament.

The prize pool for a tournament is determined by the number of players who buy-in; the more players, the higher the prize pool. Generally, the top 10% of finishers in the tournament receive a cut of the pool, also known as “cashing”, or “making the cash”, with the highest amount going to the top finisher.

Usually, the top finisher can expect to take home about 20% of the pool. So, let’s say 50 players register for a tournament and each pay a $30 buy-in. For the sake of simplification, the pool would be $1500. The top five finishers in the tournament would each receive a cut of the pool, with $300 going to the first place finisher.


Where depends on how much you want to spend on a buy-in. Every poker room in the United States runs daily tournaments; some even run multiple tournaments throughout the day. The buy-in for each tournament can be different. You can find buy-ins that range from $1000 a player all the way down to $10 a player.

Sometimes re-buys and add-ons are offered. A re-buy allows you to buy your way back into a tournament if you get knocked out in the early rounds. Add-ons allow you to purchase extra chips. You should take advantage of both opportunities, especially if you’re a beginner.

You can call different poker rooms for more information, or go to their websites for listings of tournament schedules, buy-ins, options, and games offered. Some tournaments can attract hundreds of players, while others may only attract a few dozen.

Why Lower Is Better

A general rule of thumb is that tournaments with lower buy-ins attract less experienced players. For the most part, that’s true. So, if you’re just starting out, a tournament with a lower buy-in may match you against players of similar skill level, allowing you to stay in the game longer. That’s good news, because the longer you play, the more your skills will improve.

If possible, find a tournament that features “deep stacks”. In “deep stack” tournaments you start with more chips, so your chances are better of staying alive longer. Also, a lower buy-in limits your loss if you are knocked out before making the cash. Chances are you’re going to play in a number of tournaments before you cash. Consider it paying for lessons.

What Can I Expect?

You can expect to play No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em. That’s the game that’s dealt in most daily casino tournaments, these days. However, you can also find some card rooms that feature Omaha, 7 Card Stud, and mixed game tournaments, as well.

Let’s take you through the process. You arrive at the card room of your choice. Make your inquiry about tournaments at the front desk of the poker room. Once you find out when and how much, you’ll probably be directed to the cashier’s cage in the poker room, or to another cashier where you’ll pay your buy-in. You should receive a receipt, often a slip of paper or a card with a table and seat assignment on it.

Go to that table and hand your paper or card to the dealer. Take your assigned seat. You may already have chips in front of you, or the dealer may slide them to you. Count them. If the starting stack for your tournament is 3000, then you should have 3000 in chips in front of you. Just make sure that the number of chips you have is the correct starting amount for the tournament you’ve entered.

Play will take place in rounds. Each round lasts a set amount of time, usually 20 minutes or half an hour. Blinds are set for each round, and go up every time the round advances. In Texas Hold ‘Em, blinds are the initial two bets made at the start of poker hands. In later rounds antes may also come into play. Each player remaining in the game will be required to ante up a set amount before the start of a hand.

Rounds continue to be played until only one player remains. Often, the final few players left in a tournament will decide to “chop the pot”. That means they’ve decided to split the money remaining in the prize pool. However, you’re under no obligation to “chop the pot”.

Go For It!

The only way to improve your poker game is to play. Tournaments are different than cash games, so if you want to improve your tournament skills, you have to play in tournaments. Play enough and you could one day be ready for the World Series of Poker and other big tournaments. There are tournaments out there to prepare you for just that, and the process doesn’t have to be expensive or intimidating.