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Transitioning from cash games to playing in a poker tournament, and vice versa, can be a difficult part of the gap for players of any level to bridge. Both disciplines demand, to paraphrase Liam Neeson’s character in Taken, “a very particular set of skills”, and whether those are skills you’ve “acquired over a very long career” or are still picking up, there are dangers to avoid and areas which you’ll wish to control. So what should you br looking out for as you transform yourself from a specialist to an all-rounder? We bring up the percentages.

There are some obvious differences between playing a cash game or a multi-table tournament that you’ll likely be familiar with. In a cash game, you’ll have a buy-in amount that you can easily equate to a large number of big blinds. You’ll see tournaments compared to the style of a cash game only in the early levels, when the tournament buy-in affords for similar flexibility among its players. But quickly, the blind levels increase, antes come into play and the value of a stack in terms of big blinds goes down as the tournament progresses. Cash games don’t feature this element, so your stack will always be relative to your success or failure at the table.

In addition to the relativity of your stack to the number of big blinds you’ll have, in a tournament, your stack is finite – you can’t get up and walk away with your profits, and eventually, every tournament bar the winner ends up with the roundest number of all, zero. In tournament poker, the nature of escalating blinds dictate that you’ll be playing tighter than in a cash game. After all, when your chips are gone, you’re out of the tournament! Chips are your lifeline, but you can win a much bigger prize by winning one tournament than you might in four outstanding cash game sessions.

What are the advantages of each discipline? Let’s give you some handy tips!

Cash Games

You can take every edge in cash games that you find – tournaments don’t always allow for that as play is highly situational. Cash games over the long term bear out any right choice, because even if you lose in short term you’ll show a profit in the long run. Variance be dashed!

When switching from tournaments to cash games, you should be playing less hands than your VPIP in tournaments, which will typically be anywhere between 17-22%. Because you are short-stacked more in a tournament, the shove/fold area of play that dominates certain stages can affect your overall mentality in poker. Cash games typically start 300-500 big blinds deep for many participants, so you don’t need to have that element of risk that tournaments are designed to put participants in.

It is easier to exploit bad play over a longer amount of time in a cash game. You will also – hopefully – start to make a profit from the get-go, whereas in a tournament, only the top 10-15% are going home with a return on their investment. Micro-managing your stack and your buy-in is much easier in cash games.

If you can perfect a speciality in playing cash games (Pot Limit Omaha or 6-Max No Limit, for example) then there are often games that you can really make good money in, often very quickly. It’s much harder to establish a game choice edge over your opponents in Texas No Limit Hold’Em.


One of the earliest chances you get to prove your tournament mettle will possibly be in folding, even in slightly +EV positions. Knowing that you have the ability to wait your moment rather than exploit the tiniest edge could mean putting yourself in a much better spot later on in the tournament.

One of the most important parts of tournament play is stealing blinds. Whereas in a cash game you’ll often be adding just 2-3% to your stack, in tournaments, you’re often adding 10%+, with even more pot odds in your favour when the tournament reaches its pivotal stages.

The importance of fold equity is paramount in tournament play, whereby your stack is sufficient to be able to get a fold from another player. In cash games, of course, even if everyone is sitting just 100 big blinds deep, an all-in move would almost always be enough to scare off callers. In tournament play, however, this definition is far more marginally applied. When you make a move like a steal or a re-steal pre-flop, you must make sure that you have fold equity. Only re-steal if you believe that your opponents will fold, but if you are sure, then make hay when you can, and watch how often players call off their tournament stack all-in – it isn’t often!

Using the ‘money bubble’ to make money isn’t something you do in cash games. Your objective is to win tournaments, and certainly come in the top few places, so the crucial benefit of aggression in a long-term tournament poker strategy is common. Use the money bubble to supplement your stack by identifying players who are tight, have a smaller stack than you, or often call with very light holdings (great to double through if you’re holding a premium pair). The bubble is the point in tournament poker when you push your stack, so take advantage of it!

Though there are many differences between cash games and tournament poker, if you apply yourself to each discipline and retain focus whenever you sit down, you’ll be a profitable player in both arenas. Good luck!

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