Unlike regular "ring" or "live" games, poker tournaments are played with chips that have no cash value. You pay a certain amount of money, known as the "buy-in," and receive tournament chips in exchange. The number of tournament chips you receive doesn't necessarily have any correlation to the amount of money you paid - just think of them as points.
A tournament starts with blinds of a certain level, and then increases those blinds at regular intervals, often doubling them for the first few rounds. As the blind levels increase, players with smaller stacks are quickly forced all-in, and one by one, people bust out. In some tournaments, a player may buy in again ("re-buy") during the first few blind levels1. Otherwise, he is out of the tournament.
In most tournaments, there is a percentage payout. That is, the tournament continues until one person has won all the chips, but the last few people each get a percentage of the total prize pool.
For instance, 100 people might each put up $60 to participate in a limit hold'em tournament. Of that $60, $10 goes to the card-room or casino that is hosting the tournament, and $50 goes into the prize pool, so there's $5000 in the prize pool. Each player receives 500 in tournament chips, and the blinds start at 5 and 10, so the game plays like a regular 10-20 hold'em game. After 30 minutes, the blinds double - now they're 10 and 20, and the game is a 20-40 structure. This continues with the more fortunate players building big stacks and the less fortunate ones busting out. Let's say that our sample tournament has rebuys during the first three blind levels, and 48 players took 57 $50 rebuys (note that some players rebought multiple times). The additional $2850 (57 x $50) is added to the prize pool for a total of $7850.
'i hold with the school that says that the tournament starts when the rebuys end.
Before the tournament begins, the hosting club announces the prize structure. For our example, a typical structure might be 40% to the winner, 20% to 2nd place, 10% to third place, 5% to places 4-7, and 3.3% to places 8-10. So the person who busts out when there are six people left in the tournament wins 5% of the total prize pool, or about $390 — not a bad return on a $50 investment (plus any rebuys that player made).2
It's these big wins that make tournaments wildly popular. Of course, many of those people will sit down in regular games when they bust out of the tournament, and that makes the card-room happy.
Tournaments have become such a big thing that some people play tournaments exclusively and don't play in ring games. There are even tournament professionals who follow the tournament trail around the country, hoping to make a single big win that will keep them in buy-in's (and groceries) for the next 6-12 months.
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