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What Really Makes a Tournament Structure “Good” and Profitable?

You’ve probably seen a tournament with a name like this…

Super MEGA-Stack Tournament of Champions Poker Event

“Wow,” you may think. “This tournament must have a great structure, right?”

Maybe, but not necessarily.

Casinos benefit from disguising tournaments with bad structures by giving them fancy names and big starting stacks. We have to look past that and evaluate the tournament’s structure by what’s really important, such as:

  • The blind structure.
  • Level duration.
  • How much the house rakes.

When a tournament’s structure is bad, casinos use one of several tricks to disguise it so players think that they’re getting more bang for their buck. This article aims to thwart some of those tricks.

What Makes a Tournament Blind Structure “Good”?

When experienced players talk about good tournament structure, they typically refer to tournaments that feature ‘room to play’, so to speak.

In other words, tournaments that move at a pace that allows a player’s skill to shine through; one that does not minimize a player’s skill advantage by turning into an all-in luck fest.

What are the differences between good and bad blind structures? You might be surprised to learn that small details distinguish good structures from bad ones—details that many players overlook.

Should You Avoid Fast Tournament Structures?

Tournaments with fast blind structures aren’t necessarily bad. At the end of the day, it comes down to personal preference.

Fast structures, like turbos on PokerStars, have a number of upsides:

  • Turbos offer a higher attainable hourly (if the rake is good) because it is easier to put in volume.
  • You are more likely to face weak players when deep in a turbo tournament because of the large luck factor.
  • Turbos can be really exciting and fun!

But if you’re playing to test your deep stack skills, or if you just hate push/fold tournament poker, slower is almost always better.

(Note: Want to be the best player at the table, no matter how your opponents play? Check out The Lab, an extensive poker training course developed and updated monthly by Doug Polk and Ryan Fee. Click here or below to learn more!)

Don’t Let Casinos Sell You a Pig with Lipstick

Let’s discuss the tricks casinos employ to disguise bad tournament structures.

  • Beware of fancy and deceptive names.

I’m often shocked that this trick works. Players will see, “Deep Stack,” or “Mega Stack” in the name of a tournament and immediately trust that the casino has put together a tournament with a deep structure, or a structure that is favorably slow.

This is usually not the case, but players fall for it anyway. It’s a bit like going to a car dealer and buying a car that is ‘on sale’, but that on sale price was marked down from an astronomically high starting price.

tournament structure used car salesman

“This is a great deal for you!” says the least trustworthy looking face ever.

You shouldn’t trust a car dealer’s word that you’re getting a good price, and likewise you shouldn’t trust a casino’s word that a tournament has a good structure.

  • Starting stack size is, in itself, irrelevant

Which tournament sounds more appealing?

Tournament (A): The Super Megalicious Deep Stack – 100,000 Starting Chips

Tournament (B): Nameless Poker Tournament – 4,000 Starting Chips

If you answered Tournament (A), you’re incorrect. If you answered Tournament (B), you’re also incorrect, because that wasn’t enough information to decide. You need to know (at least) the starting blinds.

It turns out that the blinds in Tournament (A) start at 500/1,000, whereas in Tournament (B) they start at 10/20.

This means that in Tournament (A) you start with 100 times the big blind, whereas in (B) you start with a juicy 200 times the big blind. The second tournament is the better value so far.

Too often I hear players ask, “what’s the starting stack?” and then they use only that information to gauge the tournament’s structure. This is probably the most common trick casinos use to get you in and out of the poker room as quickly as possible.

  • Starting blinds are, in themselves, irrelevant

But wait! That still wasn’t enough information to definitely choose between tournaments (A) and (B).

We need to know where the blinds begin, but looking ahead at how the blinds progress is just as important.

What if the second level in Tournament (B) was 25/50, and then 50/100, and then 100/200. That means in just four levels, the starting stack would be just 20 big blinds.

On the other hand, say Tournament (A)’s second level was 600/1200, then 800/1600, then 1000/2000, and so on. In this case, Tournament (A) is the structure that allows for more play.

It’s important to look at the entire blind structure to see how big the jumps in levels are. Some casinos and online rooms will start tournaments with a few very low levels only to have huge jumps at later levels. Unfortunately, many players fall for this—make sure you’re not one of them!

There are a few blind levels that are often skipped in live tournaments. Seeing a tournament that skips two or more of these should be a big red flag:

250/500. Usually, the jump would be from 200/400 to 300/600 if this level is missing. In my opinion, a tournament can still have a decent structure without this level. The main reason why is that it’s an earlier level, so even without it there is still room to maneuver. I wouldn’t skip a tournament just because this level was missing, but I would closely examine the rest of the structure as a result.

300/600. I freak out when this level is missing since usually the 250/500 will also be missing. That means the blinds jump from 200/400 to 400/800, which is much too quick an increase—If I wanted to gamble I would have went to the pit! Unless you’re really looking to gamble, I’d avoid tournaments missing this level.

500/1000. When this level is missing I take a similar approach as when 250/500. It’s not a major red flag, but it does cause me to look more closely at the overall structure of the tournament. I’m a bit more averse to tournaments missing this level since it occurs later in the tournament, which means less room to maneuver.

Now that you know what to avoid, let’s discuss what you should be looking for in a structure.

What to Look for in a Tournament Structure

There are two more crucial things to examine when evaluating a tournament structure: the level duration and the house rake. (Photo credit PocketFives)

  • Level duration

Level duration is easy to understand: longer levels mean more room to play, which is favorable for skilled players.

tournament structure clock

(Photo credit PocketFives)

If the tournament is a multi-day event, make sure look for changes in level duration across multiple days: from day 1 to day 2; day 2 to day 3, etc. A new trend is to shorten levels at the beginning of a tournament, and to lengthen the later levels.

Personally, I think this is a cool idea so long as the earlier levels aren’t too short. This kind of structure allows you to get to the juicy part of the tournament quicker, slowing down around the point when big money is on the line.

  • The house rake

If you only take one line away from this article, make it the following…

Always pay attention to is how much the casino rake is on the tournament.

Remember, this is essentially a fee the casino is charging to play in a tournament. From the casino’s perspective, this fee makes perfect sense: they have to pay dealers and staff, as well as for tables, cards, room space, advertising etc. It’s unfair to be mad at the existence of house rake (unless it’s too high).

The rake is normally easy to spot. The buy-in of a tournament is almost always explicitly stated as the Amount to Prize Pool + House Rake. For example, a tournament with a $100 total buy-in where 10% goes to the house would typically be advertised as “$90.00 + $10.00”.

If it’s not laid out in this way, either on a poster or structure sheet (it’s usually on both), be sure to ask a casino representative to tell you the breakdown of the buy-in. It’s absence from the structure sheet and poster is a possible red flag—the rake might be high, and so the casino might be trying to hide the breakdown from you.

If staying profitable is important to you, stick to these rules when it comes to rake as a percentage of the tournament structure:

  • When playing online, try to play tournaments with less than 11% rake.
  • Live tournaments vary much more, but try to play ones with less than 15% rake. (Some high value live tournaments can be worth paying more.)

I think once you start paying closer attention to the rake, you’ll often be blown away how much casinos try to take out of each buy-in, especially in lower buy-in events.

I’ve seen $50.00 tournaments with a $30 + $20 breakdown. That’s 40% of your money going to the rake!—an awful investment if you’re trying to make any money playing tournaments.

To some extent, it’s understandable that lower buy-in tournaments don’t have great structures. After all, they require the same casino resources to run as higher buy-in tournaments. That being said, don’t just light your money on fire. There are plenty of lower buy-in tournaments that have decent rake structures.

One Quick Trick

Fellow Upswing contributor Miikka Anttonen has a cool trick for determining whether a structure is too slow or too fast. I’ll let his quote from CardPlayer explain:

A good way to figure out if a structure is good or not is to take a look at the final table average in big blinds. Something around 25 big blinds is great – it’s deep enough to not be a complete flipfest, but also shallow enough to ensure it’s not just regulars battling. Anything above 40 is almost certainly not optimal moneymaking-wise.

In other words, Miikka wants you to be wary of tournaments with too slow of a structure because then it’s more likely only good players will run deep. To demonstrate his point, think which of these final table scenarios sounds better:

  1. 4 weak players, 4 strong professionals at the final table with 25 big blind average stacks
  2. 1 weak player, 7 strong professionals at the final table with 40 big blind average stacks

I sure hope you chose A.

Obviously this method will only be available if you can reference past tournaments, but it’s a very useful trick when possible.

Putting It All Together

The first step to choosing a tournament is to decide what you’re looking for.

  • If you’re looking to really test your skills and play some post-flop poker, then pick a tournament with a slower structure.
  • If, on the other hand, you’re looking to put in a quick session or you want to put in a ton of volume, consider firing off some fast structured turbos.

The second step is to be an informed consumer. Remember: you are the casino’s customer. You are the one spending money to play in the tournament. They need you for their business to survive, not the other way around. Many casinos and tournament directors act like this isn’t the case, and run tournaments with structures that favor the house, not the players.

Remember to look at the starting stack, starting blinds, blind changes, level duration, and the house rake. You can check for all of this information online, usually on the casino’s website, but if it’s not on the website then call the poker room or casino directly.

I hope you enjoyed the article and found it useful. Until next time!

(Note: Ready to take your poker game to the next level and win more money? The Poker Lab training course is the most comprehensive and efficient way to move up in stakes and grow your bankroll. Don’t take my word for it, see what our members are saying here!) upswing poker lab banner

Jason is a former MTT grinder and current content creator who owns and operates the website Plug In Vegas

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