Tournaments Introduction

“To know oneself, one should assert oneself.” – Albert Camus

Playing in a poker tournament is much different than playing in a live (cash) game. If you’re a bridge player, it’s like the difference between rubber bridge and matchpoints. When you’re playing in an Omaha tournament you’re playing tournament poker, not a cash game. There is no way that I can cover everything about an Omaha tournament in one article – this is a subject that could be a separate series of lessons!

Structure of Tournaments. In a typical tournament you will pay for a buy-in (which goes to the prize pool) and an entry fee (the fee the casino/cardroom gets for running the tournament). Typical buy-ins are $50 + $10 (the second number is the house fee), $100 + $20, and $200 + $25. Normally everyone starts with the same amount of chips: usually between T500 and T1000 for a low buy-in tournament.

In some tournaments there are re-buys and add-ons. A re-buy allows you to buy more tournament chips if your stack size (the amount of chips you have) goes below a certain amount (usually your starting stack size) during the first hour or so of the tournament. An add-on allows you to buy more tournament chips, and add-ons are usually done at the first break in the tournament. Add-ons are usually not dependent on your stack size.

The opening blinds/limits in a tournament are usually small relative to your stack size; a typical starting structure is blinds of T10/T15 with limits of T15/T30. The blinds and limits increase every so often (usually every 20 to 30 minutes in low buy-in tournaments; each set of blinds and limits is called a level); if they didn’t increase the tournament might never end!

The prize money for a tournament is mostly in the top three places. A typical tournament will pay 40% (of the prize pool) for first place, 22% for second and 15% for third. Most tournaments will pay the final table (9 players) if the tournament has less than 100 entrants and the final two tables if there are 100 or more entrants (larger tournaments will pay even more places). Because of the top-heavy nature of the distribution of prizes, many tournaments are ended by a deal reached among the participants. (Dealing in a tournament is a subject beyond the scope of this lesson.)

Many casinos and cardrooms have low buy-in daily tournaments. The rest of this article looks at play and strategy in a typical no rebuy tournament.

General Strategy Considerations

There is no one right way to play a tournament. There are successful tournament players who play loose from the opening gun; other very good players make a rock look loose early on. The style that I usually play is relatively tight early but usually aggressive.

When the tournament begins, you will have the same amount of chips as everyone else at your table. In the first few orbits observe the other players and look to see how each of them plays. You should be able to determine if they are tight, loose, aggressive or passive. Early on I play an Omaha tournament like a ring (cash) game. I throw away marginal hands unless I have position. If I have a very strong hand, such as AA25, I will likely come in to the pot with a raise. My goal is to increase my stack size during every level of the tournament.

Stack Size Consideration. The key point in any tournament, be it Omaha or hold’em, is a comparison of your stack size to both the average stack size and the blinds.

About an hour to two hours into the tournament the tournament director will post the number of entrants, the number of rebuys, and the prize pool for the tournament. If there are no rebuys, the number of chips in play is the number of entrants times the entry fee. If there were 100 entrants and each of you started with T500, then there is T50000 in play. If you have T2000 and there are 50 people left in the tournament, then the average stack size is:

Avg. Stack Size = (Total Chips in Play) / (# Players Left)
= (50000) / (50) = 1000

Thus, your stack size is double the average – you are above the curve.

Equally important is the comparison of your stack to the blinds. Assume you have T2000 and the blinds are T100/T200. Do you have a lot of chips relative to the blinds? The rule that I use is that if I have more than 10 times the blinds I’m in good shape but if I have less than 5 times the blinds I’m in trouble. I add the blinds (here, 100+200=300) and divide my stack size by the blinds (2000/300=6.67).

Play Based on Stack Size

As the tournament goes on, the blinds (and limits) keep rising, forcing players to play more hands. Every so often you’ll play a tournament and get great cards – cards so good that you can play the tournament like a ring game. Most of the time, however, you will have to play some marginal hands. If I am the first player into a pot and I have a marginal hand – say A678 – I will come in for a raise. My goal is to either (1) win the pot with my raise or (2) limit the field to increase my chance of winning the pot. Just picking up the blinds can change your stack size from a danger level to satisfactory. I’d rather take a chance before my stack is so small that I have no room to maneuver than when I’m forced to go all-in.

The Luck Factor

All gambling involves luck. Tournaments have a very large luck factor. Take a typical tournament with 200 entrants. The average player, by definition, has a 1 in 200 chance of winning. Assume that I have double that chance of winning – I’m still going to win only 1 in 100 times! When I play a tournament I know that most of the time I will not come home a winner.


You must be willing to steal the blinds to have a good chance of winning the tournament. From the button or near the button and everyone has folded, you may decide to raise with a marginal (or even a sub-marginal) hand. The goal is to pick up the blinds. From the stealer’s point of view, everything is great if the blinds fold. But what happens if they call or re-raise? You will usually have the correct odds to call the re-raise. Then you must play poker on the flop and read your opponent for your tournament life. You have to be willing to bet with nothing if you believe that your opponent has nothing and will likely fold. Remember, though, that you can’t bluff a calling station. A steal is a form of a bluff so don’t steal from calling stations.

Short-handed Play

If you’re lucky enough to make the final table you will be playing short-handed. To win a tournament you must outlast everyone else so eventually you may gets heads-up against one opponent for first place. As the field gets smaller marginal hands are no longer marginal but become solid hands. Heads-up hands that are good for Omaha high only become excellent hands. These include marginal high only hands as a pair can win the pot.

A good method of practicing short-handed play is to play a satellite tournament or a one-table tournament (many online sites offer one table tournaments). Buy-ins for these mini-tournaments can be very inexpensive (as low as $6) allowing you to practice short-handed play.

There’s never enough room to write everything that’s needed. I could write pages about playing in an Omaha tournament, but space prohibits me from doing so. The quiz (below) covers some specific hands and situations. One of the best ways of learning how to play in a tournament is to do so. One good thing about a tournament is that in a no-rebuy tournament, the most you can loose is the amount you paid to enter the tournament.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of lessons as much as I have in writing them. My next series of lessons will cover seven-card stud.