Tournaments vs. Cash Games
by Jason Kirk  

Many of today's newer poker players come to the game through television exposure - not too surprising given the explosion in poker programming over the last three years. This means they're accustomed to the style of play they see in tournaments, rather than that of the cash games that make up the bulk of the poker games played around the world. A lot of these players also start off playing in tournaments - not only because they are more familiar with them, but also because the amount of money that they can lose is capped. Those players who try to learn to play poker by jumping straight into tournaments, outside of the occasional wunderkind who grasps the game immediately, only increase their learning curve. There is nothing to say you can't learn a lot and enjoy great success as a tournament beginner, but there are plenty of reasons why anyone new to the game should begin by playing cash games instead of tournaments.

Poker's Scoreboard

It's been said before that money is the only true scoreboard in poker. A good cash game player will regularly see his score increase. Winning players generally show a profit of about 2 to 3 big blinds per hour - so chances are that any time a winning cash game player plays a good session, his bankroll will show a definite positive. Compare that to the bankroll fluctuations of those players who focus exclusively on tournaments. Today's multi-table tournaments are the biggest poker minefields the game has ever seen; a reasonably good player can expect to play many good sessions with the possibility of having nothing to show for their efforts. For most players, cash games are the surest way to increase the bankroll.

Early Success

One of the most encouraging things a person can experience when learning a new pursuit is to enjoy some early success. The math of tournament poker says that for most people success is unlikely. In a generous pay structure, 10% of the tournament field will make the money. That means that 90% of the players, no matter how well they paid, are still losers. Now, imagine being in that bottom 90% for the first twenty tournaments you played - what are the chances you're going to keep playing long enough to find out how many you can lose before you win? Without anything to hang your hat on, losing gets old quickly.

In a tournament, you have to outlast 90% or more of the field to be a winner. In a cash game, you only have to outlast one other player on a single hand to be a winner. Long-term success in cash games is a different matter altogether, a mixture of study and practice, but in the short term something as simple as a little luck on a single hand can make you a winner and give you something to feel good about. And that's the most important factor in continuing to pursue poker as a hobby. You can't play poker for very long at all if you don't feel good about the game at least occasionally

Tournament Strategy

Despite the large role that luck can play in tournament poker from one hand to another, numerous tournament pros have proven that skill is a long-term factor in the game. Like Mike McDermott said in Rounders, there's a reason you see the same guys at the final table of the WSOP every year. Tournaments are really tests of two separate skill sets: skill at the game of poker, and skill at adapting to changing circumstances. Whether they're in the biggest tourneys in the world or in $5 and $10 tourneys at a small online card room, the players who have studied the game and practiced often have an edge over players whose approaches might win in a cash game but don't hold up in the facing of escalating blinds. Anyone who is less than adept at both skill sets is giving up a big edge to his fellow players, and is probably better off in a cash game where the blinds are constant.

Time Commitment

Finally, there is one big advantage to playing cash games: you can leave whenever you want to. Because winning money in a tournament only comes to those who outlast the field, you're signing away a chunk of your life to play in a tournament. Compare that to cash games, where's there's no rule that you can't stand up, even if you hit a monster pot on your first hand and want to quit on the spot. Beginning players who aren't yet completely immersed can get bored if they have to play for longer than they're prepared to pay attention - cash games are much more suitable until they can appreciate the game enough to play for long stretches without losing focus.

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