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Differences between tournament and cash play

Everyone knows that good cash game players are not necessarily good tourney players and vice versa. The question is: how is that possible? After all, both game structures are about the same game, right? They are actually, but way beyond that, there are several differences between tournament and cash play, some obvious, others less so.

First of all, there's the issue of investment/potential return ratio. While in a cash game the best thing that can happen to you is that you double up while putting all your stack in harm's way, in tournament poker there's a relatively small investment required of you which you could win back 80 or 100 times if successful.

In a tournament, there's a fixed buy-in + fee that one needs to pay, while in a cash-game the sky is the limit to what it may cost someone to win.

Experts generally agree on the fact that it can indeed be reassuring for weaker players to know that there is a set limit to what they can lose. That way they'll be able to focus on the game better, which means that most rookies and those who know they're at a disadvantage compared to the opposition will choose to play in tournaments, rather than in cash-games.

This way, tournaments will feature more fish than cash games, thus they'll be easier to beat.

Tournament players will also be relatively certain that they'll play many hands on the money that they paid out, thus the fun factor will also gain a boost. In Cash play, especially if you're playing NL Holdem, there's no guarantee whatsoever that the hand you're playing won't be your last.

In this respect there's another not-so-small difference too. In a cash game, you'll be paying rake on each and every single hand that you play. The rake is a function of the size of the pot and it is a 5% industry-standard up to a max of about $3. The poker room makes its money through the rake, which is basically a kind of fee you pay for being allowed to take advantage of the action there. It's not only winners that pay the rake, actually everyone who actively takes part in a pot pays a part of this rake.

In a tournament, there is no rake whatsoever on a per-hand basis. You pay a tournament fee together with your buy-in and that's about it. Regardless of how many hands you play, you won't pay more rake. A good rake back deal can take the edge out of the tourney fees you pay too, but it's also true it will have a bigger impact on cash games.

Most good cash game players know how to play well in relation to the blinds. This is one of the keys to becoming successful in cash games, the problem is, in tournaments one needs to show an incredible amount of flexibility in this respect to stay ahead of the competition. The pot odds say that the smaller the blinds are in relation to future bets, the tighter you should play. Well, in a tournament, the blinds change all the time, they level up, and therefore a player needs to adapt constantly to stay ahead of the opposition.

Bankroll issues are also a huge wedge between tournament and live poker. On one hand, a tournament acts as an equalizer bankroll-wise. Everyone starts with an equal number of chips and deep-stacked, so being under bankrolled shouldn't be an issue in any particular tourney. On the whole however, being a tournament player means one has to have a much bigger real money bankroll than a cash game player would need. On average, a very good tournament player will win 1 in 40 tournaments he takes part in. Even though that single win (and other money finishes that may come up along the way) will more than make up for the 39 lost buy-ins, but his/her bankroll will have to swallow a much bigger variation, than any cash player's would.

Finally, keep in mind that cash game players sitting at a table are usually of equal skills. He who stands out one way or the other sooner or later moves up to higher limits. In a tournament there is no such separation based on skill level.