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Poker Tournament Structure: Time in Stage (TIS) Evaluation

Recently, we reviewed the current state of poker tournament structure assessment. The development of summary metrics for tournament structures (e.g., S-points) has added real value to evaluating the playability of one tournament vs. another. However, there are still gaps in these metrics. We investigated these gaps to help you better plan your approach to playing a tournament.

Sure, the very savvy, experienced tournament player can pick up a structure sheet and discern a great deal. They might figure out approximately when play is going to shift from early deep-stack play to mid-stack play to short-stack and shove or fold play. However, this analysis requires assessing a lot of dimensions. There is also key information that a structure sheet does not provide. Most critically, how many players have bought in and how fast they typically knock out.

If you can gather this information, a higher level of strategic guidance would be available. We have developed the concept of Time in Stage (TIS) assessment. TIS tells you when, on average, you will need to shift tournament strategy based on average stack depth. In this article, we walk you through our solution to do just that.

How Players Usually Think of Poker Tournament Structure

Whenever a player is using a common metric to discuss poker tournament structure (e.g., “This has 35 S-points”) or a more subjective statement (e.g., “This tournament is great, you can play ‘real’ poker for a while), their statements tend to be all-encompassing. But daily tournaments are generally not black-and-white, “good” or “bad”. Different rooms will follow very different paths to the same 30 S-points.

While good early structure/bad late structure tournaments are most common, occasionally it works the other way. Earlier this year, we played a tournament at Northwoods in New Hampshire. After the first few levels, I feared this tournament had the worst structure we had played in a long time. Despite deep starting stacks, some of the typical lower levels were skipped. With 15-minute blinds, it seemed like we were at medium stack play before the first hour was even up. However, the structure became quite gradual after the first few levels. This allowed for a few hours of quality play before the shove-or-fold late stages set in.

What we are hoping to create with our TIS metric is a more complete look at poker tournament structure. Basically, how long does each “stage” of a tournament last? Before we do so, we will cover a couple of concepts that will serve as the building blocks for this analysis: average stack depth (as measured by big blinds) and average effective stack size.

Concept: Stack Depth as Measured by Big Blinds

Various poker writers have offered categorizations of stacks depth. I have not seen one that completely pleases me. Therefore, I am going to fashion my own – even though I am already disappointed with it! But here goes.

  • Free-play (Have fun or skip it altogether), 150+ BBs. Some tournaments start with an obscene number of chips (some 200 to 500 big blinds). I think you have three choices with these. First, you can register on-time and play a lot of hands trying to build a good stack. Second, you can register early, fold a lot, and assess how others play. Finally, you can rest up and skip these stages and come in late. I recommend you enter at least by the “medium” stacked range below. Unless you are crazy loose with no judgment at all, you can’t make too many fatal errors in this stage.
  • Very Deep, 100-149 BBs. Very close to free play here. Four players limp to you on the button with passive blinds behind you and you have 97o? By all means, see a flop (I can sense Heather’s eye roll already). If you can see flops cheaply, preferably in position, or get a reasonable price to chase nut flushes and straights post-flop, you are not going to do too much damage. AS LONG AS YOU DON’T DO IT ON NEARLY EVERY HAND! You need to use some judgment with starting hands and position. And you should not get too deep into hands with only speculation and prayers left to you.
  • Deep, 50-99 BBs. I really like the 5% rule as a guideline. This says that if you can enter a hand pre-flop for 5% of your stack or less, you can generally be comfortable playing speculative hands (assuming other players have similar stacks). This does not mean you have to play these hands, but it helps to define when you definitely should not. Playing T9s for 25% of your stacks is unwise. For 4% of your stack, it makes more sense. When deep stacked, a raise of 3x or less, almost always falls in this range (6% at the most). However, post-flop play requires a lot of judgment along with pot odds and equity evaluations. Recklessness at this stage can turn a hearty deep stack into a short stack quickly.
  • Medium, 30-49 BBs. In my opinion, the toughest stack depth to play in a poker tournament. You can talk yourself into or out of almost anything here. Some players shut down and wait for premium hands. Others see this as a last opportunity to splash around before their play gets more restricted. Read pro players’ advice and you’ll get a ton of advice about different approaches. Whatever tack you usually take, ground it in thoughtful design from pre-flop to the river.
  • Selective, 20-29 BBs. At this stage, you should have clear rules for the hands, positions, and situations when you will enter a pot. Discipline is the key. Make a plan, stick to it, don’t get sucked into moves that you know have poor returns. Yeah, you may love 52s, but the time to fool around with that ended a few stages above.
  • Short, 10-19 BBs: Some players view this as shove-or-fold territory, especially when you are closer to 10 big blinds. Others, will make a 2.5x raise with strong hands and hope for a caller or two. But you should not be splashing around here with speculative hands. Limping and then folding to 5x raises repeatedly will quickly kill your stack. You have a very narrow range of wise plays here.
  • Desperation, Less than 10 BBs. Little nuanced thought necessary here. You should almost always be either putting your whole stack in or folding pre-flop. It’s the obverse of the Free Play stage: you can’t make too many errors if you have a solid shove or fold plan.
poker tournament structure

Concept: Average Effective Stack Size

Effective stack size is a concept every poker player should know. Simply, in every pot the maximum amount you are playing for is defined by the lower stack size in the hand. If I have 110 big blinds and my opponent’s stack size is 15 big blinds, then the effective stack size is 15. We are dueling over a maximum of 15 big blinds. While I am very deep-stacked, he is short-stacked, and will likely be playing a small-stack strategy post-flop. I must be ready to play for those 15 BBs at any point in the hand, and understand that is my max profit.

The average effective stack size is determined by the average stack divided by the current big blind. Therefore, if 100 players started for a 20,000 buy-in and 40 players are left, the average stack is 50,000 chips. If we are at the 500-1,000 blind level, the average effective stack size is 50 (50,000/1,000). Exact chip amounts will obviously vary greatly, but most players are likely to be in the medium and deep stacked depths. Most hands will likely play out in a manner typical of those average effect sizes.

What Would a Poker Tournament Structure Stage Assessment Look Like?

Before I launch into this, I have to say that I am not suggesting I have developed a perfect metric for tournament structure stage play. Nor have I thought through every possible way to approach the assessment. What I am about to lay out to you are the guidelines I would like to have and how I might calculate them.

This proposed calculation requires information beyond structure sheets. It may require players to use their knowledge of specific tournaments or use a source like our average numbers of players in tournaments across the country. It may also mean taking notes live at your regular tournament on the number of players and/or average stack size at every level. If the tournament clock is available on Bravo or PokerAtlas, you can gather this information remotely as well.

We are hoping to get to a calculation of when exactly you can expect to switch your style of play to accommodate the typical stack depths at the table?

Information Needed for Poker Tournament Stage Assessment

The component elements needed to assess each tournament stage is:

  • Starting stack (including any dealer add-on)
  • Minutes of blind levels (note if they change as the tournament proceeds)
  • The big blind at each level
  • Average number of players typically in the tournament at the start of each level
  • And, if there are add-ons, an approximation of how many chips have been added into the tournament

The good news is that the starting stack, add-ons, and the number of players at each level are merely used to calculate “average stack”. Most (but not all) rooms will display this with whatever software they use to track their tournaments. We’re just going to spell it out in case you have to manually make these calculations. Ultimately we hope to take those average stack sizes and understand how many big blinds they represent.

Tournament Stage Assessment Example

The table below shows how this would work in practice. The example constitutes a very good daily poker tournament structure. Assuming a big blind ante starting level 6 or before, the structure has 46 S-points. Despite having only 20-minute blinds, the starting stack is a decent 25,000 chips. Most importantly, the blind levels go up very gradually.

The numbers of entries and remaining players describe how many exist at the start of that level. Chips in play are calculated by multiplying the average starting stack by the number of entries and, if applicable, adding in an estimation of how many chips have been added to the tournament by add-ons (e.g., if you think 10 players added on 20,000 chips then another 200,000 chips would enter the tournament). Chips in play are then divided by the number of remaining players. In turn, that is divided by the current big blind to get the average number of blinds held by each player.

Time in Stage Calculation

What the above tells you is your Time in Stage (TIS). That is, how much time will generally be spent at each depth level of this tournament. In the example above here’s how it plays out:

  • Deep stack or better: 1 hour, 20 minutes (First 4 levels)
  • Medium to selective: 2 hours (levels 5 through 10)
  • Short to Desperate: Everything after that

In this tournament, you can expect a little over 3 hours of “decent” play. The average stacks can open raise 2x-4x (more selectively as you get into levels 8 to 10), and be able to play post-flop in a variety of ways. For example, players are not pot committed even if they c-bet and someone shoves over the top.

But come level 11 and after, you can expect that styles will shift as stack depths diminish. Even if you’ve built a big stack, you’ll need to understand that some of those small stacks acting after you, may well shove their 13 blinds in over your 3x open raise. Understanding this, you need to assess the likelihood of those players doing so (and what range of hands they would do so with) because that will dictate what hands you are willing to open with.

While you can assess those things in real-time in any tournament, this poker tournament structure stage assessment allows you to prepare for when these inflection points will generally occur.

How to Collect Information to Calculate TIS

There are two potential ways to collect the information to calculate Time in Stage.

Live: If this is a tournament you play often, you can record how many players entered the tournament, how many are left at each level, the big blind at each level, and if there are add-ons about how many people added on. If the room does not display this information (or if they are not updating frequently), you’ll have to estimate player counts and add-on chips yourself. If the room is indeed showing an accurate “average stack” you can just use that.

Remotely: If your room uses PokerAtlas or Bravo for their live clocks you can track this information for the tournament before you sit down to play. Again, you need to know whether the clock is updated correctly. Take notice as to whether the “players left in the tournament” change from level to level (if not, the average chips will also be off). Some rooms do a poor job of updating, especially early in the event. But if it is accurate, you can score this tournament before playing and be ready the following week when you enter.

Why Does Any of this Matter?

Tournament structure does not concern some players much. They play their hands similarly throughout, and sense that when short-stacked they need to shove or fold. However, that is a mistake for long-term tournament success. Understanding the implications of tournament structure is incredibly important to understanding optimal play.

Even good tournament players who understand aspects of structure are sometimes slow to adjust. Some players splash around with far too many hands when they are in the yellow zone above. They are playing deep stack poker in medium-depth situations. More egregious are the players who play in the red zone like they are still in yellow, or god forbid, green. Calling a 3x raise in the small blind with suited connectors when you have 8 BBs left is the quickest path out the door.

If players come in prepared with Time in Stage guidelines, they could map out default approaches to each level, and may be less prone to making these errors.

For Another Day: Poker Tournament Value

To get brutally honest, 99.9% of poker players should consider the game a recreational pursuit. Most people playing lower levels of cash ($2/$5 or below) or tournaments ($200 or lower), are either not profitable at all, or turning such a small profit that it is not significant. By the time you figure in the ancillary costs (e.g., gas to poker room, dining out, and drinks if that’s how you roll), even many profitable players are back to break even.

Given that, poker tournaments have a “value” to every player. Basically, how much hourly entertainment will you get for your outlay, and how fun is that time? If you play break even poker (all costs considered) or better, no problem. Play at will! However, if you are playing at a deficit, you need to track your buy-ins, cashes, tipping, and ancillary costs. Then tournament structure evaluation, a tracking sheet of your average hours playing, and a subjective rating of the tournament (“Do you like to play this one?) will give you an idea of how good a value you are getting from your tournament play.

But that’s another layer that we’ll discuss in greater detail in the future.


Current poker tournament structure evaluations have only scratched the surface in helping players decide where and how to play. Our Time in Stage assessment is a straightforward tool meant to provide some signposts for guiding poker decisions based on typical stack depth. Understanding when the inflection points occur in the tournaments you regularly play, and adjusting your play accordingly, will give you a leg up on other players.

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