What Makes a Good Poker Tournament?: Stats from Over 1,000 Weekly Events Across the US

“Is this a good poker tournament?”

How many times has that phrase been uttered? For those who crave a good poker tournament, it is a deceptively complex question. Some players seek large fields with high buy-ins which can lead to big paydays. Others seek a longer period of “quality” play before the shovefest stage sets in. Still others seek the best possible rake and the weakest opponents. There are as many definitions of a “good” poker tournament as there are tournament poker players.

Ways to Evaluate a Good Poker Tournament

In order to define “good” we need to establish our norms. What is reasonable to expect of a daily or weekly tournament today? We’ve previously written about the key factors we suggest when evaluating a poker tournament. But these factors need data to ground them. Over the past nine months, we have gathered information from over 1,300 weekly tournaments across the United States. We then created tables of tournament data for each region of the US.

Once we gathered the data, we had questions. What size buy-ins are typical in the US? How big is a “big field”? What is a typical tournament rake? How many hours of solid play can you expect in a tournament? While everyone has their own ideas of “good,” an objective assessment requires knowing the standard buy-ins, rakes, structures, and playing fields. Without knowing what is typical, it’s impossible to know what is good.

We will analyze these data thoroughly in the future. We look forward to identifying the best poker tournaments in each region, as we recently did for Las Vegas. For now, we outline the norms across the country so you can evaluate your local options. To be clear, we are talking about standard weekly tournaments. These are not WSOP or WPT circuit events or special series or once-a-month big events that a room may offer. This article is solely about your regular daily or weekly tournament options.

Finally, note that tournaments are changing all the time. Some of this data will drift from year-to-year and even month-to-month. But taken overall, these summary statistics will provide a fairly stable base to determine your options.

Typical Weekly Poker Tournament Buy-Ins

Weekly tournament buy-ins in the United States range from a low of $5 (yes, those still exist) to a high of $500. Buy-in is actually a trickier calculation than you might think given the way various rooms define it.

We determined the buy-in amount (and accompanying starting chip stacks) to include the base buy-in amount (so the amount that goes to the prize pool and the house’s take), and, in nearly all cases the “dealer add,” if one was available. For example, if the buy-in is $150 for 30,000 chips and there was a $10 dealer add for 10,000 more chips we called that a $160 buy-in because almost everyone opts for the extra chips. You’d be crazy not to. The dealer add is almost always a remarkably small amount in exchange for a notable amount of chips.

We do not include traditional rebuys or add-ons that are not going directly to the dealer/house. So if the buy-in is $100 for 20,000 chips, but you can add-on 15,000 chips for $50 sometime after the start of the tournament, we do not include the add on. A much lower proportion of people opt for the later add on, even if it might be a good value.

Average Tournament Buy-In

So what is the average buy-in in the United States? Of the 1,291 tournaments we gathered data for, the mean (or average) buy-in was $104, and the median (the 50th percentile/middle score) was $100. In other words, you can expect to pay $100 to play a weekly poker tournament across the US. The distribution below shows how rare the larger buy-in tournaments are:

$50 or less21.8%
$51 to $10041.2%
$101 to $20029.5%
More than $2007.4%

There are only about 37 tournaments with buy-ins of $300 or more. Of those, only nine are $400 or higher. Most of those are found at the Venetian in Las Vegas.

Venetian in Las Vegas

Average Poker Tournament Rake

The rake (or vig) is the amount of money that the house withholds from the buy-in to cover its costs. The remainder of your buy-in goes into the prize pool. Again, the dealer add complicates this a bit. Given that we are including it in the buy-in amount, we also include it in the rake. Of the 941 tournaments we have rake data for, the mean (or average) rake is 24.7% and the median (the 50th percentile/middle score) is 24.0%. Given the unusual situation in Texas, with most rooms requiring a “membership fee” as opposed to a rake, we did not include tournaments in Texas in this analysis.

As you likely know, tournament rake is generally inversely correlated with buy-in amount. That is, the higher the buy-in, the lower proportion of buy-in is withheld. We confirmed this relationship in our data:

Buy-in AmountAverage Rake
$50 or less28.7%
$51 ot $10026.9%
$101 to $20021.9%
More than $20017.2%

Make sure you know what is being pulled from the prize pool in the tournaments that you enter. If you are buying in for $250 and the house is withholding $60 (24%) you’re paying a premium compared to other higher buy-in events. If you’re looking for a good poker tournament, you can likely find a better deal at that price.

Starting Tournament Chip Stacks

Starting chip stacks are of less importance than an evaluation of the overall structure, but here’s the quick scoop for those who like to focus on the chips. Of the 1,300 tournaments gathered, the mean starting stack is a shade under 20,000 chips (19,254) with a median of 17,000.

As we see with rake, there is a relationship between buy-in amounts and starting stacks. The more you pay, the larger starting stack you can expect. We confirmed that in our data as well, although perhaps not with the spread we anticipated:

Buy-in AmountAverage Starting Stack
$50 or less16,425
$51 ot $10018,115
$101 to 20021,250
$200 or more27,125

Again, starting stack is just a piece of the more important S-point evaluation. But if you are looking for some decent deep stack early tournament play, deeper stacks certainly help.

WSOP is a Good Poker Tournament

Structures – S Point Calculations

Over the years, there have been various attempts to quantify the structure of tournaments. Arnold Synder in his excellent books on tournament play, The Poker Tournament Formula (Volumes I and II), dug into tournament structure in ways that are worth a read. More important than Snyder’s specific formulae is his thinking about how various tournament structures should affect your approach to a tournament. These books are excellent reading for people who play a lot of weekly tournaments.

One of the more commonly utilized tournament structure summary calculations is S-points. You can find an explanation of S-Points (structure points) here as well as a tab for a calculator that allows you to put in the details of the tournament you want to evaluate.

While multiday tournaments can have S-point structures that score well over 100, most weekly/daily tournaments have scores that range from 5 to 60. The higher the score, the more hours of play you will get at a decent stack depth. I have not seen these figures turned into exact time frames and they are likely not linear, but I’d say a good estimate is that for every 10 S-points, a tournament will play out in about 3 hours. So if your tournament has 10 S-points it will be very fast and likely over in about 3 hours. If your tournament has 40-50 S-points plan to be there for 12 hours to win.

Calculating S-Points requires you to have the tournament structure sheet, which is not always available online (or sometimes even at rooms!). But we did track down this info for 809 tournaments across the country, and the mean S-point structure was a bit over 23, with a median of 21. So the typical daily or weekly tournament is a 5-6 hour affair.

Of course, if you pay more to get into a tournament, you should expect more hours of play. That is indeed the case in our data:

Buy-in AmountAverage S-Points
$50 or less16.4
$51 to $10017.6
$101 to 20029.1
More than $20042.9

Understanding the structure of tournaments and how that structure should affect your play is one of the most underdeveloped skills for most tournament poker players. For recreational poker players, the S-Points also impact the entertainment value you get for your dollar.

Average Poker Tournament Field Size

If you’ve played enough poker tournaments in different venues, you may have played in weekly tournaments that barely scratch together 1 to 2 tables and others where there are hundreds of entrants. Many tournaments across the country draw fewer than 25 entries on average. Conversely, rooms such as The Orleans or Wynn in Las Vegas, Lone Butte In Arizona, or the Seminole Hard Rock in Florida can average well over 200 players for some of their weekly tournaments.

Of the 871 tournaments with field size in our data, the average number of entrants is just under 52 with a median of 43. The breakout looks like this:

25 Players or less22.6%
26 to 50 Players37.4%
51 to 100 Players28.9%
More than 100 Players11.0%

Unsurprisingly, given that most poker rooms are not huge, most poker tournaments are not large field events. If you’re looking for an event with over 100 entrants, in most regions you’ll have to look hard. In some regions, large fields may not exist at all.

While tournament size means less than buy-in amount, rake, and structure in evaluating a “quality” tournament, there are some considerations. If you play larger tournaments, the variance in frequency of cashing tends to be higher. On the other hand, if you typically play 20 to 30 person tournaments, you’re less like to go on extremely long droughts without cashing. Also, of course, the number of entrants affects the prize pool. More players = more money in the pot.

Understanding Your Poker Tournament Options

We encourage all players to compare their regular local tournaments to our data. You may find that your favorite tournament has an unusually high rake and poor structure. And you may not care! If you are having fun and you like that tournament, that’s certainly fine. But you may be able to find a better option.

Several of the factors above can affect win rates, profitability, and the likelihood of prolonged losing streaks in subtle ways. They are important to take into consideration when you assess whether your play or your tournament is the primary source of your struggles. Perhaps you are playing against a rake that is nearly impossible to beat. Maybe you are playing a game with such a poor structure that luck/variability is an immense factor (we call this Bingo Poker). Or maybe your approach to a tournament needs to be tweaked because of the starting chip depth or the tournament’s structure.

We hope that, given whatever standards you personally apply, when you evaluate a poker tournament, you can now answer “Is this a good poker tournament?” As a reminder, if you are looking for a tournament with your own preferred characteristics, you can find them on our Poker Tournament Activity page. Tables are fully sortable by each column.

Like this post? Want to learn more about recreational poker opportunities in the US? Head on over to the sidebar and subscribe. We’ll let you know whenever a new Poker Pilgrims blog post goes live!

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