Cash games versus tournaments – Which should I play?

Cash games versus tournaments

Holdem players are often torn on the decision between devoting their time to cash games versus tournaments. We present the pros and cons of each game type below. Of course there are various types of tournaments, but for the purposes of this article we are talking about large field tournaments (if played live, these will be multi-day tournaments).

Advantages of cash games

  • You need a relatively smaller bankroll, compared to tournaments. Even 25-35 buy-ins at your current stake level may be enough, to have an acceptably low risk of ruin. This is due to the lower variance of cash games versus to tournaments.
  • You can choose your routine (and change it anytime) according to what best suit your wants and needs (subject to games being available). Even when you have decided on your routine, you can stop playing without notice, if for whatever reason you are not playing well.
  • If you play live cash games, and you are lucky enough to live close enough to an active cardroom, you will not incur significant travel costs (and not incur any accommodation costs).

Disadvantages of cash games

  • Even as a winning player, you won’t get rich quick. Winning cash game players can grind out steady regular winnings. There is no chance of winning a life altering amount of money in one go.
  • The overall skill level of your cash game may be much higher than an equivalent tournament. Tournaments tend to attend weaker players, especially when there are satellites to the tournament.

Advantages of tournaments

  • You may have a chance of winning a life changing amount of money at any time. For example, the WSOP main event has a first prize of ten million dollars, and a massive prize pool overall. Even if you are not playing a tournament with such a big first prize or prize pool, you still have the opportunity to win a lump sum any time you enter a tournament.
  • It is easy to play a tournament you are not bankrolled for, without causing damage to your bankroll, by playing a satellite (that you are bankrolled for) to gain entry to the tournament.
  • If you are playing live tournaments, you may get to travel across your country or even the world which you may enjoy.
  • The overall skill level in any given tournament, may be less than an equivalent cash game. Late on in certain tournaments when the money is at stake, if you have survived, you may find yourself up against much significantly weaker opposition on average than what would be the equivalent cash game stakes (this is due to the variance of tournaments).

Disadvantages of tournaments

  • You will have to play when the tournament is scheduled. If you progress in a tournament, you cannot quit (without incurring potential losses). If you are playing live large field tournaments, this means you could have to play several successive (or near successive) days, at the times scheduled by the tournament organizers.
  • You will need a relatively larger bankroll, compared to cash games. Less than 100 buy-ins at your current tournament buy-in level probably won’t be enough, to have an acceptably low risk of ruin. This is because of the higher variance of tournaments compared to cash games.
  • If you are playing live tournaments, depending on where you live, you may have to do a lot of traveling to play in the best tournaments. This means you may incur substantial travel costs, accommodation costs, food costs etc. Sometimes, this can be avoided by only playing local tournaments, or somewhat mitigated – e.g. sharing rooms with fellow tournament players. Nevertheless, your ROI in tournaments will have to be high enough to cover your substantial costs.

Cash games versus tournaments: What’s best?

We at UnfairPoker.com cannot answer this for you. Perhaps, you are looking for a regular grind producing steady winnings (provided you have the skills) in the low variance cash arena. Or maybe, you are looking to take on more variance, for the chance of one day winning a life changing amount, in the high variance tournament arena (although do be sure to pick the most profitable tournaments). There is certainly an argument for specializing in one or the other, and devoting all your time to improving at that. In truth, many players actually end up playing a mixture of both – however, you really have to understand the differences between necessary strategy in these different game types if you are to do well in both. This means you can generate a steady income through cash games, whilst still giving yourself a chance at a big score through the tournaments you play. How you split your time is up to you. For example, if there are a few major tournaments in your area (so you don’t have to incur travel costs, or accommodation costs) you can play these when they occur, and cash games the rest of the time.