As you evolve in poker, you’ll need to be able to distinguish the differences between a poker tournament – like the WPT Poker Tour and a cash game.

This article will help determine which is best for you in a cash game vs tournament match-up.

Note: Even professional poker players usually specialise in cash games or tournaments. In the great tournament vs cash game debate, it is rare to find someone equally skilled at both.

Take Phil Hellmuth, for example. He is one of the most accomplished tournament players of all time.

Cash Game vs Tournament Poker - Phil Hellmuth
Cash Game vs Tournament Poker - Phil Hellmuth

He has won more World Series of Poker bracelets than any other person in history.

But when it comes to cash games, he is a relatively lousy player—better known as a “fish”!

Cash Game vs Tournament Poker – What’s All the Fuss?

There are three significant differences between a poker cash game vs a tournament.

1. Eliminations

Cash games run indefinitely. Even if you lose all your chips, you can rebuy back into the game. You can play as long as your wallet permits!

Tournaments are an elimination game. While tournaments usually allow you to rebuy in the beginning, after a certain point, you are out if you lose all your chips!

The last person holding the winning poker hand is crowned the winner.

Tournaments have a final endpoint, while cash games are never over. When considering a poker tournament vs a cash game, you should factor in timing.

Poker tournaments typically take several hours!

2. Chips

Cash Game vs Tournament Poker - Chips
Cash Game vs Tournament Poker - Chips

Cash game chips use a simple 1:1 ratio. One dollar gets you one chip, and five dollars equals five one-dollar chips or a singular $5.00 chip.

The amount you have in chips directly correlates to cash.

Tournaments are different. A $100 tournament ticket may be worth 20,000 chips! Tournament chips have no actual cash value – you can’t exchange them for money at the cashier's cage.

The only way to win is by outlasting your opponents.

3. Blinds

Tournaments have increasing blind structures to push people towards elimination. As time goes on, it costs more chips to play. Eventually, it can cost your entire stack to play a single hand!

Cash games have "fixed blinds". The price to play always stays the same. If it costs $3 per hand, it will always remain the same. The blinds are usually small compared to the buy-in amount, so there is little pressure to play a hand.

For example, if you buy into a $1/$3 game, you should start with around $300.

Given the relatively small size of the blinds, you can afford to lose $3.00 without impacting your overall stack.

  • I’m confused.
  • What’s a blind?
  • Does it change in cash game vs tournament poker?

Yes, you came here to learn whether to play a poker cash game vs a tournament. But now you're stumped by the terminology of the small blind and big blind.

Cash Game vs Tournament Poker - Blinds
Cash Game vs Tournament Poker - Blinds

Don’t panic – this is normal! Understanding blinds can be confusing to many new players.

But here’s the good news: When you’re playing at a poker table, “paying the blinds” becomes intuitive. Most people get the hang of it fairly quickly.

That said, we should go into the weeds for your general knowledge.

Cash Game vs Tournament Poker – Betting Blinds?

The poker term “blind” is short for “blind bet”. It’s a bet you must place before seeing your cards. It is mandatory and forced. You do not have a choice.

Poker moves clockwise in a circle. Everyone must pay the blinds once per orbit. This scenario applies to both poker formats, whether it’s a tournament vs a cash game.

There are two blinds: the big blind and small blind.

  • The big blind is usually double the small blind (or close to it). Common examples are $0.10/$0.20 or $5/$10.
  • Tournaments will have larger blind levels since you start with thousands of chips – you’ll see 100/200 or, as the tournament progresses, 5,000/10,000!

Every player must pay the small blind and the big blind each orbit in two consecutive hands.

You do not pay them at the same time.

(Sometimes, tournaments will have an additional ante amount every player must pay. Online, this amount is usually every hand. In live poker, it’s often one “big blind ante”, so the dealer doesn’t have to collect the ante chips from all players. It saves time and effort…. But you will pay a hefty tax when you are in the big blind because of the big blind + the big blind ante! You’ll need to pay double!)

Cash Game vs Tournament Poker - Betting Blinds
Cash Game vs Tournament Poker - Betting Blinds

Again, in cash games, the pressure to play when in the blinds – even the big blind – is minimal. You can usually afford to lose your big blind if you don’t have a good hand, and it won’t cost you much.

But imagine a tournament where the big blind is 25,000 chips!

Let’s say you have only 100,000 chips in your stack. Given the size of this mandatory contribution, you better hope to get a good hand.

The larger investment also makes players much more likely to “defend” their big blind in a poker tournament vs cash game.

You won't want to fold as freely if you’ve already committed a hefty portion of your stack.

At the very least, you’ll get sticky and want to see a poker board.

Adjust Your Tournament vs Cash Game Poker Strategy

The blinds constantly increase throughout a tournament, so you should adjust your strategy accordingly.

Poker tournaments are much more aggressive than cash games.

In deciding between a poker tournament vs cash game, expect tourneys to have a more intense style of gameplay.

  • Players are motivated to “steal the blinds” – if you go all-in and both blinds fold, you win all those chips automatically! For this reason, people will go all-in before the flop as a bluff.

They could shove all their chips in the middle with a bad hand or poker combo, hoping the players in the blinds fold. In cash games, players usually only go all-in if they believe they hold the best cards.

  • Since tournament players face elimination, you can threaten their “tournament life.” Remember: if someone loses all their money in a cash game, they can rebuy. So, players will call bets lighter when curious or doubtful. What’s the worst that could happen? They’ll need to reach back into their wallet.

But if they make the wrong decision in a tournament, they are out of the event entirely. This fact breeds an attitude of caution. One fatal misstep, and they’re dead. For this reason, you can put players to tougher decisions. At critical stages, your bluffs will be vastly more successful in a tournament setting.

Cash Game vs Tournament Poker - Bluffing Strategy
Cash Game vs Tournament Poker - Bluffing Strategy

One of the most tense parts of a tournament is the “bubble.” This spot is a crucial breaking point.

Let’s say the final ten players in a poker tournament earn a cash prize. You really don’t want to finish in 11th place.

Imagine walking away with zero!

If you can tell someone is stressed about the payouts, you can bluff them like crazy. They will be terrified of exiting just outside of the money.

The primary strategic adjustment between formats is your bluff frequency.

In cash games, patience is a virtue. It's best to wait for premium cards and refrain from playing unless you have an excellent hand. This strategy can give you a significant edge over your opponents.

Study preflop raise first in (RFI) charts and stick to them rigorously.

Tournaments are a test of guts.

You'll have to commit with subpar hands to dodge and survive the increasing blinds.

  • You can excel in cash games without executing a single bluff.
  • Tourneys require you to make moves!

How Do You Win Money in a Cash Game vs Tournament?

The final crucial distinction in a poker cash game vs tournament is in getting paid.

Cash Game vs Tournament Poker - Getting Paid
Cash Game vs Tournament Poker - Getting Paid

In cash games, the amount of chips you have in front of you directly equals the dollar value.

Do you have $112 chips? That equates to $112 in dollars, which you can cash out at any time.

In theory, you could only play a single hand and run! There is no requirement for how many or how few hands you play. You can head to the cashier whenever you want.

Tournaments divide the prize pool amongst the top finishers—usually the remaining 10-15% of the field. As so few players qualify in the top percentage, most times, this results in elimination without any payout for you.

BUT the times you win are positively worth it!

First place could be 10x or even 100x your buy-in!

Cash games tend to be more modest – tournaments are go-big or go-bust.

They’re high risk but high reward.

A win in a poker tournament, including one at the 888poker tables, could truly change your life!

Amanda is the author of the book A Girl's Guide to Poker, dedicated to making poker friendly and accessible to everyone. In 2021, she was a World Series of Poker final-tablist where she and her father took third place in the WSOP tag team event.