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Poker Cash Games or Tournaments: Which is More Profitable?

Poker is, as pretty much everyone knows, probably the most popular card game that is played for real money. It’s also easily the best. Unlike something like baccarat or even blackjack, there is real skill involved in poker and there is a very, very wide gap between “bad” and “good” poker players; even between “good” and “great” poker players. 

Discounting video poker and related electronic poker games where you play against a machine that uses a random number generator to create its “cards”, there are two major ways in which poker is played. Cash games and tournaments. Both offer proper poker games and you can find all sorts of variants of poker (5 card draw, Texas Hold ‘Em etc.) in both too. But which one is more profitable?

It really depends.


Cash Game vs Tournament: What’s the Difference

Before figuring out which of the two is better, or at least more profitable, we need to delineate between the two.

Cash games are poker games where you either host or join a game, whether professionally or even just with a group of friends at a single table. Minimum and maximum buy-ins, which is to say the cash you pay out to join a game by buying poker chips, are set at the outset. Players can quit whenever they want by cashing  in their chips for cash at any point. Binds (opening bets) are set amounts throughout the game (often something like $1) and even if players lose all their chips, they have the option to buy-in again and continue playing. 

Tournaments, on the other hand, usually consist of organized events, involving multiple tables. Like cash games, games are normally played with chips that you get when you buy-in at the beginning of the tournament – but unlike cash games, if you run out of chips, you’re out of the tournament. That’s because while the only real objective in cash poker is to beat your opponents and take their cash bets, the objective in a tournament is to be the last person standing by getting everyone else’s chips – and runners up are paid out according to how much they made when they went out. Unlike cash games, you can’t just cash-out at any time. If you wish to quit, you forfeit all your chips and you leave empty handed. Further, “binds” increase every 15 minutes or so, so what may start at $1 may end up at $50 just for an opening bet.

Another difference is that while cash games are always, by definition, played for cash, tournaments are often also used by charities in fundraising drives, whereby you buy-in as normal and all that cash goes to the charity, and the winner will win a prize of some sort from a sponsor. Though unlike traditional tournaments, players can often buy in once they’ve run out of chips, which is done, obviously, so the charity can bring in even more money and the players can play for longer.

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Profitable vs Preference: Which One to Choose      

As to which one you should play, the honest truth is that in terms of gameplay, it’s entirely up to you. Cash games are obviously much better if you don’t have the time to play for hours upon hours upon days on end and can be played in more informal settings with friends or more formal settings at casinos and “proper” games. 

Tournaments, however, offer you the chance to really compete against dozens of other players. They’re generally much more user-friendly than all cash games except those played informally with friends and because there are limits on how much you can spend, tournaments force you to gamble responsibly, whereas gambling addictions and irresponsible play can be sparked off or exacerbated by cash games.

They’re different enough, though, that most serious poker players will play both for different experiences and different ways to hone their skills. 

In terms of profits, though, I think it’s pretty clear which of the two is more profitable: it depends on what you mean by “profitable”. 

Cash games can bring in insane amounts of money and because they happen much more often and it’s much easier to win money, they’re much more consistent revenue streams. That is, however, only if you actually win a lot and you’re good enough to take on the other players at the table. Because you can buy in indefinitely, you can lose, well, everything just as easily as you could also end the night thousands of dollars richer at high-stakes games. Which is why it is so vital that you make sure you play with other players of a similar (or lower) skill level to you.

Tournaments, on the other hand, often have really nice payouts for the top players and certainly for the winner, but because you are playing so many other players, often of very varying skill levels, tournaments are actually very tough to win. They’re certainly more reliant on luck than cash games are, as one bad play can get you eliminated from a tournament, whereas it may just be a bump in the road in cash games. On the flipside, what you pay to buy in is literally all the money you can lose in a tournament, which doesn’t just make it safer, it means that you won’t have to make up for huge losses with huge gains. 

Profitable, after all, doesn’t just mean winning money but the balance between what you lost vs what you gained. It’s far more profitable to win $500 on a $50 buy-in, after all, than to win $50,000 after losing $49,000 – let alone winning $50,000 and losing $500,000!

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