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Cash Games vs Tournaments? Breaking Down The Difference

Home » Darren’s Den » Cash Games vs Tournaments? Breaking Down The Difference

Cash Games vs Tournaments? Breaking Down The Difference

Darren Elias shares the differences between cash games and tournaments, and which you should play.

Cash games or tournaments? It’s a question as old as time to poker players. Which game format do we gravitate towards and why? What are the pros and cons of each? Is one easier than the other? Which one is right for you? I’ll do my best to break down these ideas as we look at some of the differences between cash games and tournaments in poker. 

Should You Play Poker Tournaments or Cash Games?

I’ve played a great deal of cash games and tournaments in my 20 years of poker experience. While I’m mostly considered a tournament player at this point in my career, cash games were a huge part of my come-up in the game of poker and helped build my bankroll as I began to play higher stakes. Some of the first poker games I ever played in high school and college were .10/.25 no-limit cash games! They’re a far cry from the high-stakes cash games I’ve played in recent memory, but everyone has to get their start somewhere. 

As far as similarities go, both tournaments and cash games offer the player an opportunity to compete and play whichever game type they’d like at whatever stakes they’d like to play. Higher stakes games in both formats tend to draw tougher competition. The average skill level of a player in a $25/$50 cash game or $10,000 tournament will almost always be higher than that of a $1/$2 cash game or $300 tournament. Game selecting and finding the appropriate level in either format where you can win is an important skill. In my eyes, the likeness of cash games and tournaments ends about here. 

What is the Difference Between a Tournament and a Cash Game?

Noting the differences between the two formats is a more interesting endeavor. The first immediate stark difference is going to be the freedom in schedule and time played with cash games versus tournaments. Cash game players are offered the choice to come and go as freely as they please, while tournaments run on a set schedule and typically require a 10-12 hour day of play. Theoretically, a cash game player could play one hand, rack up his chips, and leave. This flexibility in schedule appeals to a lot of players, especially ones with more non-poker commitments. Some players also don’t enjoy playing the long hours of tournament poker, with many tournaments requiring multiple days in a row of 12+ hour play. 

From a strategic standpoint, cash games and tournaments are also quite different. The key concept here is depth. While mostly irrelevant in limit games, in games like Pot Limit Omaha or No Limit Hold ‘Em depth is usually measured in big blinds (BBs), and refers to how many BBs a player contains in his or her stack. Cash games are played at a much deeper depth than tournaments.  A typical cash game stack is usually over 100BB and can oftentimes be 500BB or 1000BB deep. This requires a different approach strategically and translates to a more post-flop centric game. Barring huge coolers or extreme circumstances, cash games don’t see the frequent pre-flop all-ins that tournament play does. Tournament players dabbling in cash games often struggle with these super deep stacks and complex turn and river decisions. 

On the other side of that coin, tournament play is frequently played at shallow depths, especially deep in the tournament when the decisions really matter. A studied tournament player knows all the subtleties of play with depths from 10BB-50BB. Mastering these depths, including preflop play and post-flop bet sizing, is the biggest challenge for a cash game player attempting to cross the aisle into the tournament world. 

The Psychology of a Poker Cash Game vs Tournament

The last major difference between cash games and tournaments is psychological. If we were to break down a winning player’s results in cash games and tournaments, the way those winnings were composed would look vastly different. A cash game player’s winning results would be much steadier than a tournament player’s, where the cash game player may win around 60-70% of the time. The cash game player wouldn’t have the huge scores where he or she is winning 100 buy-ins in a single session, but a higher percentage of winning sessions. On the other hand, tournament players lose about 80% of the tournaments they play. The only way to compensate for such a high loss rate is to win many multiples of the buy-in when they do win. These are much different experiences from a psychological and lifestyle perspective. 

There’s also the philosophical element of competing in a tournament versus a cash game. Poker tournaments are long arduous events where your outcome is unsure and constantly in flux. When you win a poker tournament, that is a complete and utter victory. You could not have performed better. You outlasted every player and are the only winner. There may be a trophy, ring, or bracelet awarded to you. 

Some players enjoy this pursuit of glory and the emotional swings associated with tournaments. Players won’t find these same highs and lows in a cash game. There are no winners’ photos in cash games. There are no trophies or rankings. Cash game players are usually quite content taking their winnings and going out the backdoor without any fanfare.

Darren Elias has won many poker tournaments during his professional career.

So which is right for you? Are you someone who enjoys chasing that giant score? Do you mind the grind of tournament schedules? Or do you prefer the freedom and steadiness of cash games? Do you have your 20BB ranges down pat? Or prefer the intricacies of 1000BB river play? All of these questions should go into your considerations of which format to play. Everybody is different and has different factors that affect which games they play.  Luckily in the end, you can always play both! Register at BetMGM Poker now to try your luck at both game types.