Aces Full of It: Cash Games vs. Tournament Play

Where do I begin to explain my hatred for cash games?

I’m just going to say it right away: I hate cash games.  And not a colloquial, casual, not really hate in a literal sense hate, I’m actively repulsed by the thought of playing in a cash session for more than around twenty minutes.  I admit it shamelessly, comparing tournament poker to cash games is just about as unoriginal an article topic that I could possibly think of, but it’s important that I talk about this, because it’s the only way to establish another essential building block in the structure of what people should expect from me.

Cash vs. Tournaments: The Basics of the Basics

For those of you who somehow found this blog and know almost nothing about poker, first of all congratulations and I’m very happy that you’re taking an interest!  Second, the most basic difference between tournaments and cash games is that…hmm, how to explain it?

An anecdote should do the trick: If you’ve ever been to a casino with a poker room, you’ll know that all you really have to do is go up and ask to be placed at a table with certain stakes, and you can sit down and immediately (sort of, there is the “bring-in” to consider but that’s another topic) begin playing.

You play with your money and if you run out, hey no sweat you can just go get more money.  That is, of course, provided you have more money.

In a tournament, you pay an entry fee prior to a scheduled start, sit at a seat you’re assigned at random, and play with “chips” rather than money, the starting amount of which is usually completely arbitrary to the amount of the entry fee.

Some poker rooms, like the only one within my reasonable driving distance, have an entire separate area of the floor earmarked for tournament play.

Congratulations, you can tell a poker tournament from a cash game!

Some of you may think the preceding was so obvious that clearly I’m just wasting time and racking up word count.  To which I say: 1) I have no reason to artificially increase my word count, and 2) You can never overestimate human ignorance, especially on the internet.

Some Less Obvious Differences

For those of you already familiar with cash games and tournaments, the first major difference that probably springs to mind is the blind levels.  In a cash game, the blinds are completely static, depending on the stakes your table is set at.

In a tournament, the blinds escalate continually at a regular interval, usually 30 minutes or so in live play but they can change as often as every two minutes in online play.  In particular tournaments that have high entry fees, and usually high prestige, the interval can be as long as two hours.

Such as in the Main Event of the WSOP, which goes a long way to explaining just why it takes so darn long to complete when less elite online tournaments with as many or more entries can complete in a single day.

There’s one more difference that I want to bring up, and it’s one that very effectively “hides in plain sight,” that is, it’s so obvious that it seems beneath discussion, and by extension notice: the number of tables.

As this man would say, “It’s so overt, it’s covert.”

Any tournament player who actually knows a thing or two can tell you that a multi-tabled environment is very different to play in than a cash game table that essentially exists in its own vacuum. In fact, it’s so different that I don’t even know how a multi table cash game would possibly work!

In a cash game, you can get to know basically everyone else, how they’re playing, what mistakes they favor making, and only occasionally will one of them get up and leave.  In other words, you retain the data you gather on your opponents fairly easily.

In a tournament, anyone can leave at any time, whether by being eliminated or the people running the event moving them–including you!  You can easily find yourself in a situation where you’re playing 6-9 people, in which you have absolutely no data on, several different times throughout a tournament, even in live play.

But what does it all MEAN?

So what do I think of all this?  At the end of the day, to me tournament play is thrilling and challenging, where cash game play is boring and repetitive.  One of the best ways to win cash games is simply to only get your money in when your “Expected Value” is positive, that is, over the proverbial long run, the odds are in your favor to the point that you actually make a reliable profit.

Psychology can factor in to this, and it can be quite challenging, but in regards to being disciplined enough and skilled enough at calculating EV.  On top of that, because the blinds never increase there is very little true incentive to “Voluntarily put chips in pot” or VPIP (geez, we poker players have lingo for just about everything don’t we?) very often except when the odds are in my favor.

In tournaments, the blinds are constantly increasing, forcing much looser action.  A starting stack of 3,000 may seem pretty good when the blinds are 10/20, but fold your way down to say 2,000 by the time the blinds get up to 50/100 and your situation is a lot more in need of chips.

All right, all right!

In other words, because of quite a few factors, but mostly the escalating blinds, playing cash games entails a lot more folding than tournaments–the “action” is a lot more loose in tournaments which appeals to me a great deal.

All right, confession time–there’s another reason I hate cash games.  When I’m handed a big stack, say 50+ big blinds, I’m not really what you would call comfortable.  The prevailing wisdom in cash games is to buy in for the maximum amount you can for the table, which I believe is almost always a hundred BB.

Having that much to work with either paralyzes me (“I’ve got so much, I don’t want to lose any of it!”) or gets me reckless to the point I become no better than the average donk (“It’s like nothing to call this, who cares if I have K2 offsuit?”)  It’s a real problem, I know.

If you have any suggestions in regard to my problem, or anything else to say at all, please do not hesitate to do so as long as you follow my number one rule: Either back up what you’re saying, or if you just want to be unhelpful, say your piece and leave it at that.  We’ll get along fine.

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