Running a Poker Tournament

Handling Chips

During the play of a tournament (or cash game), you should put any extra chips away from players in case they get stolen or "worked into" the game. Keep in mind that during your game, your chips have a temporarily higher value than their intrinsic value. In other words, someone could grab some of your chips without paying you for them, and then cash them out to you at the end of the night. Similarly, you should be aware that someone could go to the store and buy a set of chips for $0.10 cents each, work them into your game, and then "cash them out" in your game for $5 each. This is much more likely to occur if you use generic chips.

For a tournament, you can put the starting chips in Ziploc bags before any players arrive. Then, as people pay you their buy-in, you give them the bag with their chips. You can also put a piece of paper in their bag with their seat number so that when they get a random bag then they will get a random seat number.

Seating Players

Players should be distributed evenly between all the tables. Each table at a casino will seat a maximum of 10 players. At home games though, many times people use non-poker tables (like kitchen tables) to play on. So you may have to limit the maximum table size to about 4 to 6.

Drawing Seats

There are 2 popular methods used to draw seats:

  • Lottery - You can write seat numbers down on pieces of paper and have the players pick them. You can have the numbers given out with chip stacks, or draw them separately.

  • Draw Cards - Set aside cards Ace through 10. Those cards represent the seats numbers (Aces count as 1). Shuffle the cards and have players pick them. You can use different suits for different tables.

Drawing for the button

The most popular (and easiest) method to draw for the button will be to deal one card to each player and the player with the highest card gets the button. If 2 players have the same cards, a formal game will have a rule that says that suits break the tie. Unfortunately, most casual poker players don't know the order of suits, so it is easier to break the tie by simply dealing a second card to each of the players who tied.

Late players

Any player that has prepaid to get into the tournament will have to right to have his stack at the table and be blinded down (i.e. his blinds are posted in his absence). He has the right to join the tournament in progress at any point as long as he still has chips. The status of other players arriving late will be determined at the host's discretion. The host may let the player post all his historical blinds since the start of the tournament - or he could simply let him buy into the tournament and receive a chip stack equivalent to the blinded down amount. This last option also lets players enter the tournament late who were not originally signed up.

In my experience, some players (for some inexplicable reason) don't like it when other players are allowed to come into the tourney late. I sometimes get the feeling that this is due to them thinking that the late players have somehow "advanced" in the tournament without having to play, and are getting some kind of a "free ride". Obviously, this is a logically-flawed argument because the absent players being blinded-down is mathematically equivalent to them folding every hand in person. Having another player blinded down is actually an advantage for the other players because the amount of money blinded-off is free money for the rest of the player involved in the blinded-down hands. The only advantage an absent player possesses is that he hasn't exposed himself to busting out (or losing a lot of his chips) since he can't make any big bets. So, an absent player has actually averted some risk, but this has come at the expense of his chips.

Moving players

Technically, when the difference in the number of players between tables is greater than 1, then a player should be moved from the bigger table to the smaller table. Specifically, it should be the player who is on the Big Blind. Moving players can be a pain in the ass though so you can let it get to 2 players if the tables are almost full. For example, if the two tables have 10 and 8 players respectively, it probably isn't worth the hassle to move a player just to make them 9 and 9. If the table differences are 5 and 3 though, it might be better to move a player and make it 4 and 4.

Color Up

The lowest denomination of chip in play will be removed from the table and swapped out when it is no longer needed in the blind or ante structure. Many times this is only done because there are so many of the lowest denomination chips in play that the players' chip stacks become too difficult to manage. But if these chips stacks do not become unwieldy, then you don't need to do color-ups.

Try to do your color-ups when your tournament is on break. This way you don't waste player's time, and you also don't have the players getting involved in the color-up process.

Chip Race

After a color-up is done, any extra chips will be raced off. Each player will receive 1 card for each odd chip. The player with the highest card will be dealt a higher-denomination chip. You can use suits to break ties or deal another card. There will be a maximum of one chip going to any player. A player cannot be raced out of a tournament. In the event that a player has only one chip left, the regular race procedure will take place. If that player loses the race, he will be given one higher-denomination chip and will still play.

Making Deals at the End of a Tournament

In most tourneys, players can make deals at the end of a tourney to cut 'side deals' to split the payouts. For example, the final two players might agree to split the first and second prize payouts between the two of them. Private agreements by players in a tournament may or may not be allowed. If such an agreement is made, the director has the option of making sure it is carried out by paying the correct amounts. If the Tournament Director decides to not be involved, then any such side deals are strictly between the players. Any deal that excludes any active players is not allowed. You can use my home poker game spreadsheet on my downloads page to use the Deal Calculator I made up in Excel.

Some of the reasons why players make deals are:

  • Some players don't like playing heads up. They may be risk averse players or simply bad at short-handed play.
  • At home games, some people get annoyed at all of the shuffling you have to do when playing heads up.
  • If you are playing a series of mini-tournaments at a home game, the rest of the players will be sitting around getting bored while waiting for the next tournament to start.
  • The strategy can get boring. Most of the time, when playing heads-up, the hands don't play out until the river very often because the player with the stronger hand just keeps going all-in while the player with the weaker hand constantly folds.

Personally, I hate making deals at tournaments. I think the most exciting time in a tournament is getting to play heads-up at the end. Not only is there more financial incentive (since the difference between finishing in 1st place and 2nd place is usually big), but the game is more interesting because playing heads-up is more psychological than methodical. I also think playing at the end of a tournament is a unique opportunity for a player to improve their skillset because it isn't often that they get to play in that situation. So there is a lot to learn.

Sometimes, when there are only 3 players left, and 2 of the players want to make a deal, the 3rd player may feel pressure to make a deal just to get the next tournament started. Other times, when there are only two players left, one player may want to make a deal while the other player wants to play longer. What you can do in this situation is make an unofficial agreement to play heads up for a while (like 5 minutes) and then cut a deal if no one has won the tournament by then.


Hand-for-hand may be implemented to keep players from slowing down the game. This is where a new hand is not dealt until all the hands at the other tables are done. It keeps people from stalling until someone else busts out so they can finish higher in the money. You normally don't have to worry about this happening at home games, for a couple of reasons. First, the prizes are not normally large enough for people to bother slowing down the game. Second, you normally don't know when the other players have busted out in home game (and B&M tournaments in general). When you play online, on the other hand, you can see exactly how many other players are left in the tourney, so you can see how slowing down your play can give you an advantage over other players.

Tournament Ties

If two (or more) players are in-the-money in a tournament and they go all-in and both get knocked out, then the player with the most chips will place higher than the player with fewer chips. If they both have an equal number of chips and both get knocked out then they will finish in a tie.


The host (or tournament director in a more formal tournament) can use various penalties at his discretion, such as verbal warnings, or time away from the table (such as 10, 20, and 30 minutes).

Side games

If you are holding a large tournament, then it is appreciated if you set up cash games on the side for players who bust out early. Usually a game will start up as soon as 3 to 4 players bust out. If you are playing a series of mini-tournaments then players are usually fine with sitting around for a while and waiting for the next tourney to start.


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Running A Game - Tournaments

HPG ADMIN on March 1, 2013