Perhaps we are at a crossroads in our poker career. We realise that it is realistic to make money playing cash games, but it is also possible to win big in the tournament scene. Many of us choose to specialize in just one of the two disciplines while others decide to continue playing both formats. What factors do we need to take into consideration if we are deciding which of the two fields we would like to specialize in?
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But hold on a second, what exactly are the fundamental differences between the two?
- We can sit down and leave whenever we like.
- We can rebuy chips whenever we like.
- Blind levels are static.
- Must sit down during registration.
- Must play until we are out of chips.
- Rebuys not permitted except in the case of rebuy tournaments.
- Blind levels increase at set intervals.
The slight difference in structure has a wide impact on the style of the games and even the best poker game strategy to be used. The following pointers should help you to decide which poker format suits you best.
If we are short on time, there is no question that we are better off playing cash games. Cash games allow us to sit down whenever we want and play as many or as few hands as we like before leaving. This is especially the case when we consider the invention of “Snap” format cash games where we can instantly sit down at the stakes we would like to play. In the past playing for less than 5 minutes would have been impractical because it might have actually taken us longer than this to get on tables in the first place.
If we contrast this to tournaments, we often need a large amount of spare time just in case we make a deep run. Some of the larger field MTT's can take over 8 hours. So, despite the fact that we may often bust out of the tournament within the first few hours or so, we need to make sure that the entire 8+ hours is free before we even register. This is naturally not a problem for professional players, but for those of us who have a day job, it's just not that practical.
It's useful to keep in mind that not all MTT's are large field events. We also have the option to play tournaments in “Sit-n-Go” format. These smaller field tournaments still require a time commitment, but it's usually going to be something much more manageable such as hour or so. The downside is that the payouts will be nothing compared to the payouts of a larger field MTT.
There is a reason why many professional players choose cash games over tournaments. The variance in tournaments is a lot bigger than in cash games. Naturally, we can limit the variance a little by playing smaller field events, but generally playing MTTs for a living means we really need to get ourselves ready to embrace some variance.
In extreme cases, a cash game professional who plays decent volume might not make a profit for over a month just as a result of a bad run, i.e. variance. For an MTT professional, it gets much tougher. An MTT pro can literally go for over 6 months without seeing any return on investment. And we are talking about an online MTT specialist who plays a decent volume of tournaments. When we start analysing professional players who are touring the live circuit, we can see that there are professionals who might literally go for years just getting unlucky enough to not rake in that big win.
However, there is arguably more prestige and excitement surrounding tournaments. We could be up 10 buy-ins in a cash game, and there is a decent chance no one would really care that much. Taking down a big field MTT is generally considered a much more noteworthy achievement. It's also pretty exciting to reach the final table of a large field event, considerably more so than just playing a standard cash game all day. If you like excitement and prestige, maybe tournaments are for you. If you are more concerned about grinding out a consistent variance-reduced profit, then cash games are the best choice.
The skills required for MTTs are somewhat different from the skills we normally require for a cash game. Most of the differences are related to the effective stack sizes. In cash games, we will usually always be starting off with our pre-determined stack, in most cases 100bb. It's true that we will have to adjust our decisions against players with a shallower stack, but in the majority of cases we will be playing with 100bb effective.
In tournaments, the stack sizes are constantly changing. Similar to cash games we will often start with 100bb or even 150bb, but as the blind levels increase we generally find ourselves increasingly short stacked. This dramatically changes the range of hands we can play profitably in various situations. A decent chunk of our tournament career will be played when the stacks get below 20bb, and we enter what is commonly referred to as the push-or-fold stage. In this stage we are typically making preflop decisions only, the stacks aren't deep enough for us to enter more specific turn and river scenarios.
Playing with less than 20bb effective is somewhat rare in cash games, and hence tournament players make use of a skill-set that cash game players don't typically need. Nash and ICM strategies are frequently employed to help players calculate preflop push/fold ranges. This is an integral part of tournament play and does require a decent amount of skill, but most would argue that 100bb play requires a higher degree of skill. As a result, the majority would agree that cash games are tougher than tournament games in the long run.
It's also important to understand that we feel a sense of time pressure in tournaments that we don't feel in cash games. Every hand of a cash game starts off with the same structure. In tournaments the structure is constantly evolving, which will affect the decisions we make. Sometimes what might be a correct preflop shove in one situation may change, based on how long is remaining until the next blind level, or how many players remain before the tournament bubble bursts. As such, we can consider tournament decisions a little more dynamic while cash game decisions are typically more static.
As a result, being proficient in cash games does not automatically mean that we will be an excellent MTT player and vice versa. This is frequently why many players choose to specialize in either tournament games or cash games. Both require a unique set of skill-sets: specializing in one field allows us to maximise our potential rather than attempting to learn both skill-sets.
However, there is some degree of crossover. Having strong late-stage tournament fundamentals may help us when we find ourselves playing with short-stacks in a cash game. Having strong 100bb cash game skills may help us in the early stages of a tournament. So as a result, it's not necessarily incorrect to pursue both disciplines to a high level; it's a personal choice.
Summary – Cash vs Tournaments
|Can sit down and play whenever||Involves a time commitment|
|Requires more skill on average||Requires less skill on average|
|Involves less variance||Involves big variance|
|Same thing over and over||Final tables are exciting, big payouts|
As we can see, there is no right or wrong answer. But we should usually be comfortable with the above pros and cons before making a decision either way.
For further reading you check out our live cash game poker strategy guide and poker tournaments strategy guide.
You can also check our list of top cash game strategy books and tournaments strategy books.