Ultimate Guide to Poker Tournament Structure

If you are a cash poker player the best predictor of success is clearly how you play your hands. When blinds do not escalate and you can leave the table whenever you want, hand analysis and execution are king. In tournament play, choosing playable hands and executing them with skill is certainly critical as well. However, understanding the impact of poker tournament structure is crucial to your tournament success long-term. Tournament structure should direct both the approach you take to the tournament overall, and how you play at different stages of the tournament.

Evaluating whether a poker tournament is a good match for you is a bigger issue and one we’ve discussed previously. However, once you’ve chosen a tournament to enter, it is important to know why and how poker tournament structure is so important to earning that big money in the end. In the article below we will discuss the effects of tournament structure on your game, the variety of ways that tournament structures are currently evaluated, and factors that current evaluations miss.

Tournament poker is a hobby for 99.9% of us. There are vanishingly few profitable tournament players over time. Thus, it is important to understand the “value” you get from different tournaments. Understanding structure and cost combined will help you make good decisions about how to spend your tournament buy-ins.

Why is Tournament Structure Important?

Let’s start with a ludicrous example. Say you were in a single-table freeze-out tournament of 10 players where you start with 100 blind stacks. The blinds double every hand, and only 10 hands will be dealt. Oh, and it’s winner-take-all. How should you play? If all 10 hands you were dealt were the bottom 20% hands, should you fold them all? Of course not. To get paid, you need to be the single largest stack at the end of this game. You need to get aggressive and pick a hand pretty early and take a chance. By the final hand, everyone should be all in without looking at their cards. It’s the only way to win such a crazy structure.

Compare that to the structure of the WSOP Main Event with 2-hour blind levels and deep starting stacks. While not an optimal strategy for cashing, you could fold all your hands in Day 1 and still make Day 2. It takes 3 to 4 days to make the money in the Main Event. This is a long haul tournament structure which allows for a lot of patience and deep stack play.

WSOP Final Table

These are extreme examples, but they highlight how tournament structure dictates approach. Imagine you’re in a tournament with 15,000 chips, 15-minute blinds, and a structure that starts at 100-200, but by level 6 is at 1,000/2,000 with a big blind ante kicking in at level 3. With this fast structure, you must be aggressive from the start. You may need to get your chips in the middle with a reasonable hand soon after the first hour or so. But what if you’re playing a tournament with 30-minute blinds that takes 12 hours to finish? Early on you may strongly consider folding those pocket aces post-flop when another player shoves.

How do we differentiate poker tournament structures? When do you need to look for a decent shove and when do you need to sit tight? Poker theorists have been tackling this problem for decades. The best have made great progress in helping us think about the effect poker tournament structure should have on our play.

Harrington’s M

Dan Harrington was one of the first to tackle this beast. Dan Harrington’s M calculation (the ratio of your stack to the cost in blind and antes in a round) offered an initial guide to how desperate and aggressive you needed to play at any stage of a tournament. However, Harrington’s calculation impacted tournament strategy at a given moment and did not offer an overall structure assessment. To learn more about Harrington’s approach, we recommend Harrington on Hold ‘Em, one of the classic tournament strategy books.

Harrington on Hold'Em

Synder’s Patience Factor

Arnold Snyder penned some of the most valuable poker tournament books for cardroom daily event regulars. His The Poker Tournament Formula and The Poker Tournament Formula 2 are seminal books on understanding how poker tournament structure should impact strategy. I repeatedly go back to these books, rereading key sections to address where I am falling down in my approach.

The Poker Tournament Formula

Synder differs with the “survival at all costs” and “you can’t win the tournament in the early levels” mantras. In multi-day events, there may be some merit to those philosophies. But, most daily tournaments require a more aggressive early stack-building approach. Snyder believes that given the top-heavy quality of payment structures, playing with suboptimal stacks in hopes of limping into the money is a recipe for long-range financial losses. In order to determine just how aggressive you need to play means you need to know how “good/bad” the structure is.

In Volume 1, Synder lays out computation of the Patience Factor. The Patience Factor is based on the time it would take to blind off if you folded every hand you were dealt. Synder squares the actual time in hours to get his metric, but the basis of the computation is blind-off time. The application of this obvious. If a structure means you will blind/ante off in 1.5 hours, you’d better be much less patient and more aggressive than if you have 6 hours of decent play.

Synder’s Even Better Idea: Utility Factor

In Volume 2, Synder introduces the concept of Chip Utility. There is no way I can do this concept justice in a 2,000 word article. Chip Utility is the single most important idea in tournament poker strategy that I have ever read. If you don’t know what it is, pick up his books and study them in depth. In Snyder’s words “a very basic definition would be the usefulness or serviceability of your chips”. Snyder then goes into detail about how chips can be useful and the factors that impact chip utility. He also then takes his Patience Score and multiplies it by a “starting competitive factor” and gets a Utility Factor that all tournaments can be scored with. Finally, he details how tournaments with different Utility Factors should be approached. If you are only going to read one book on poker tournament strategy in your life, we recommend The Poker Tournament Formula 2 .

Most Common Current Measure of Tournament Structure: S-Points

For whatever reason, Synder’s calculation Chip Utility Factor never caught on completely. But others have continued to build on that work. Structure Points, abbreviated S-Points is the most successful and widely known method for evaluating tournament structures today. A detailed explanation of the factors utilized to calculate S-Points is available here. The information needed to calculate S-Points is:

  • Starting Stack
  • Length of the blind levels
  • The blinds and antes are for each level

Any tournament structure sheet has this information and will thus allow you to make the calculation.

poker tournament structure sheet
A Typical Poker Tournament Structure Sheet

The starting stack and blind levels are used to calculate 100% minutes which is the number of minutes it takes for the “oribit cost” (most commonly now the small blind, big blind and big blind ante) to equal or exceed the size of the starting stack. For a 30,000 chip starting stack, if the blind levels are 20 minutes long and at level 18 the blinds are 6,000/12,000/12,000 (for a total of 30,000 chips), the 100% time is 360 minutes (18 levels*20 minutes).

The “orbit costs” of levels 6, 10, 14, and 18 are then used with the 100% time to calculate S-points in the following equation:

S-Points = (100% time)/((Level 10 orbit cost/Level 6 orbit cost)+(Level 14 orbit cost/Level 10 orbit cost) + (Level 18 orbit cost/Level 14 orbit cost))

Simple, huh?! OK, that’s not likely to make intrinsic sense to all but the highest math nerds among us. I am not one of those. But in short, the distance between orbit costs of those levels tells you how stretched out or narrow the jumps are. The bigger those gaps are, the higher the dominator gets, and the lower the S-points go.

Say two tournaments both have a level 6 at 400/800/800 (orbit cost = 2,000). But at level 10, tournament A is at 1,000/2,000/2,000 (orbit cost = 5,000) and tournament B is 2,000/4,000/4,000 (orbit cost = 10,000). Tournament B has a far worse structure from levels 6 to level 10, and the S-Points will be decreased by that piece of the denominator.

Most daily tournaments in the country range from 5 to 70 S-points. We know this because earlier this year we calculated S-points for every daily tournament in the US with a published structure sheet. The information was eye-opening. Some tournaments with nice opening stacks and 30-minute blind levels have far worse S-point structures than others with lower starting stacks and 20-minute blinds.

What to Look for in Tournament Structures if You Don’t Calculate S-Points

I know most readers have just thought: I will never calculate S-points in my life! I totally understand. After spending as many hours as I have doing so, I may even say that’s wise. So short of that what simple factors should you consider beyond starting stacks and length of blinds? What can help guide your overall approach to identifying poker tournament structure?

Most simply, in the tournaments you regularly play, how many hours does it take to finish? If your tournament lasts 4 hours until there is a winner, that’s a very fast tournament. You’re not going to see a ton of hands, so you’d better be aggressive in your play because you’ll chip off fast. If the tournament is an all-day affair (12 to 15 hours), and you make the money you will have seen a few hundred hands. You can be a bit more selective in your play.

Inflection points are key as well. This is when a sharp break occurs in blind levels that abruptly changes your relative stack size (as measured in big blinds). For example, if you are at 1,000/2,000 with an 80,000 chip stack you have 40 big blinds. If the next level is 1,200 then you only drop to about 33 big blinds. not a major change and your strategy only alters slightly.

But if the blinds double to 2,000/4,000, then your effective stack has been cut in half to 20BBs. Now you are bordering on shove or fold mode. In this situation if you raise 3x preflop, get two callers, and then c-bet 50% pot, 80% of your stack is in the middle. If you get shoved on, you are pot-committed with almost any even mediocre hand. In the seconds it took to go from one level to the next, your position and strategy have completely changed. Look at structure sheets and be prepared for these inflection points. You want to be altering your approach before you get to them. You have less time than you think to make the plays possible with a deeper stack.

Tournament Structure Factors to Consider

Dealer Add-Ons and Bonuses

The dealer add-on has become a very popular tournament feature in the last few years. With rare exceptions, the right strategy is: just do it. The dealer add-on almost always offers a great value in additional chips compared to the original buy-in. Typically, the add-on will offer something like 5K to 10K for $5-$20 added to a 20K to 40K starting stack for $80 to $150 buy-in. When you are evaluating a tournament’s structure, know that the “20,000 starting stack with an additional 10,000 chips for $10 deal add-on” is in essence a 30,000 chip starting stack for everyone.

Other factors to consider when calculating your starting stack size are less common. Early/on-time entry bonuses (e.g. register by 10 minutes before start and get 2,000 extra chips) and cash play bonuses (e.g., play 3 hours of cash that day and get an extra 4,000 chips). Some players hate playing early levels, so they just register late no matter what. But if you generally arrive for the start of the tournament then register by the bonus chip requirement time. And take into account the impact of those chips on the tournament’s structure.

Re-buys and Re-Entries

Although some tournaments are freeze-outs (if you lose your stack you are out), many allow you to buy back in. Rebuys allow you to remain at your seat and immediately repurchase a starting stack. Re-entries require you to abandon your seat, go to the registration desk, and buy back into the tournament. You will either immediately be assigned a new seat (if there are openings) or be put on the waiting list. These options typically end when registration for the tournament closes. The ability to rebuy/re-enter has a profound effect on play versus a freeze-out. Players are more aggressive and take more risks to build a big stack early, knowing they can buy back in.

Add-ons Other Than Dealer Add

Finally, in addition to the dealer add-on, other add-ons are sometimes offered. The cost of an add-on and the add-on chip stack varies widely. Deciding whether the add-on option is a good value, is another article altogether.

One way to determine the value of an add-on is by calculating the percentage of chips you get compared to the opening stack vs. the percentage of rebuy cost compared to the registration cost. For example, if you get 20,000 add-on chips for $20 and the original buy was $100 for 40,000 chips, that’s a pretty good value. You are getting 50% of the starting stack (20,000/40,000) for only 20% of the opening cost ($20/$100). That is a 2.5-to-1 value (50%/20%). If you get 20,000 chips for $50 for both registration and add-ons, then you are only getting a 1-to-1 value. (20,000/20,000 divided by $50/$50).

Add-ons can take various forms. Sometimes you can purchase them right at the start of the tournament. Sometimes you have to wait until right before registration ends. Others are only offered when you fall below a certain stack level. Timing has a major impact in determining whether the add-on is worth it as well. Say you started with the hypothetical 40,000 chip stack and tripled up to 120,000 by break. That $20 for the additional 20,000 in chips doesn’t change your prospects enough to justify the purchase. Conversely, say you lost half your stack. That $20 doubles your stack. That 100% increase in chips improves your play flexibility and likely makes the add-on worthwhile.

PokerAtlas is a good source for tournament add-on and re-entry options.

What’s Missing from Current Tournament Structure Evaluations?

Every formal attempt at codifying the evaluation of tournament structure has resulted in yielding some overall metric. That’s helpful for understanding the overall approach you should take across different tournaments. What is currently missing from tournament assessment devices are metrics for how the different phases of a tournament will play out. In some tournaments you emerge saying “The first 3 hours were nice, slow blind levels…then it all went to hell”. A typical example is when you might have 8-9 levels between a 100/100 start and the 1,000/2,000 level, then suddenly it skips right to 2000/4000. Within seconds, your effective stack is cut in half and the ramifications for shifts in play are often extreme. In other tournaments, the start is steep, but later blind increases seem to slow down, offering a solid period of mid-tournament play.

In future articles, we’ll take up how to approach a metric for tournament stage evaluation and the challenges in developing such a metric.

Disclosure: Some of the links on this page are affiliate links. However, we love all of the books listed here. Each one of these books has a permanent place on our bookshelf. Several were consulted as we wrote this article! For more information, see our Disclosure page.

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