Online Poker Strategy: Cash vs. Tournaments

Jason Lake

Friday, July 25, 2014 2:49 PM UTC

Friday, Jul. 25, 2014 2:49 PM UTC

There are many different ways to play online poker, and each way requires something a bit different from your poker strategy. Or does it? Decide for yourself after brushing up on cash poker versus tournaments.

So what kind of online poker do you like to play? If you’re here at SBR playing for points, you’re enjoying our daily tournaments. If you’re out there trying to make a buck, you might be playing tournaments, but you might also be playing cash poker, or maybe sit-n-goes. The name of the game is still no-limit hold ‘em, assuming that’s your game. However, you might want to consider tailoring your poker strategy to match the format you’re playing.


All Rise for The Judge
They say that cash poker is the purest form of the game – especially heads-up cash poker. You can use math to help you craft a strategy as close to “game-theory optimal” (GTO) as possible. Most of the time, you’ll both be playing with 100BB stacks. Sometimes your opponent won’t reload, or will be playing with a shorter stack, but you can again use math to adjust your strategy. From there, you can take your opponent’s tendencies into account and make some exploitative plays.

The more players you add to the table, the more math you need to do if you want to play GTO. A 6-max cash game requires dozens of pre-flop ranges. What hands will you 3-bet from the big blind over a button open? In theory, more hands than you will 3-bet over a cutoff open, and even more hands than over a hijack open. Make it a full-ring game with nine or even 10 players, and you get even more GTO ranges to figure out. And that’s just preflop.


Keep Your Hands Offa My Stack
No wonder so many beginning players (and not just beginners, either) prefer to play tournaments. These are much simpler to play in many ways – but not in every way. The biggest challenge is the different stack sizes; as your stack grows or shrinks, you might find yourself playing with 200BB, 20BB or just 2BB. Your opponents will also have varying stack sizes. Like suited connectors? They’re great when everyone has a deep stack, and not so great when people are short.

Thanks to the escalating blinds in a tournament or a sit-n-go, you can rest assured that your stack will get smaller over time in terms of BB. Which brings us to the other challenge with tournament poker: You’re on the clock. When you play cash poker, if you see a marginally profitable situation, you’ll probably want to take it. You can always reload if things don’t work out. But what about in a tournament? Should you wait for a better investment opportunity? Or do the escalating blinds force you to take every spot you can?


Two Tribes
As with many things in life (and tournament poker maps incredibly well onto real life), there are two competing schools of thought on this subject. The first school emphasizes survival. You have value as long as you’re still in the tournament, so you might want to err on the passive side in marginal situations, checking when you could bet and folding when you could raise. This is also why you’ll see the last 2-4 players (or more) making deals at the final table, reducing their variance by splitting up the prize money more evenly rather than bearing the risk of not finishing first.

The other school says screw all that and just play theoretically sound poker all the time, as you might in a cash game. This style can work even better in a tournament setting where your opponents are playing more passively. But it also puts your so-called tournament life at risk. Imagine being heads-up at the World Series of Poker main event and you get dealt K6o on the button with 15BB left in your stack. Are you willing to shove those chips?

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