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A poker tournament is a poker event involving a number of players who agree beforehand to start with a specific number of chips and play until one player has all of them. Usually, all players start with the same number of chips, but there have been tournaments where players start with different size chipstacks. In order to ensure the result of one player winning all the chips, tournaments always have some form of forced bets which are raised at regular intervals. Eventually, the forced bet becomes so high that players are forced into action even with inferior hands and eventually, all but one player has busted out.

Poker tournaments can be held online, in brick-and-mortar casinos, or in home games, and the number of participants can range from two (in online heads-up events) to the 5619 entrants in the 2005 World Series of Poker, or even more (some online tournaments can top 10,000 participants). Tournaments may play any variant of poker, and may even play more than one variant during the course of the tournament, though the most popular tournament variant by far is No-limit Texas Hold 'Em.

Tournament Chips And Buyins

Tournament chips generally do not represent real money, but are instead similar to the "play money" found in board games like Monopoly. Typically, when a player enters a tournament, they are given a certain amount of "play money" chips, which are measured in units known as tournament dollars, often abbreviated with the prefix T (either in place of, or in addition to, the $ symbol, as in T$2000 or T900). During the course of tournament play, these chips are simply referred to as dollars ("I raise a thousand dollars.") or, more commonly, not given any designation at all ("Raise to 9,000 total; that's 5,000 more."). Unlike the chips used in cash games, tournament chips are not redeemable for cash. A player cannot choose to simply stop playing at some point and take their remaining chips to cash them in; they must play until they have lost all of their chips or they are the last remaining player in the tournament.

Tournaments generally have an entry fee called a buyin (since the player "buys in" to the tournament). A tournament with no entry fee is called a freeroll. The prize pool for a tournament is funded by pooling the buyins from all participating players. Sometimes, the casino will add extra money to the prize pool (this is usually denoted as "$XXX added" or "$XXX guaranteed"), but in most cases the prize pool is no more than the total of the players' buyins.

Most casinos, whether online or brick-and-mortar, take some portion of each player's buyin as a house fee. Since by definition there can be no normal rake during a tournament (the house would only be taking play money chips, which don't pay the rent), this portion of the buyin is typically called the fee. Tournaments are often listed as having a buyin of two sums added together, in which case the second of the two numbers if the house fee while the first is the amount of the buyin that will go to the prize pool. For example, a $20+$5 tournament would cost $25 to enter, but only $20 of that amount would be added to prize pool.

In some tournaments held at physical casinos, there is an additional fee taken from the prize pool to tip the dealers. Again, this is because the players cannot really tip the dealers during the tournament; they have only play money in front of them. Sometimes, casinos tip the dealers out of the house fee amount (which explains some high house fees on occasion). Other times, it is listed explicitly as a third amount in the buyin: $20+$5+$5 means the buyin for a player is $30, with $20 going to the prize pool, $5 going to the house, and $5 going to the dealers, to be split after the tournament. Some players also personally tip the tournament dealers if they win a significant amount of money in a tournament, by simply taking a portion of their winnings and handing it to the tournament director to be divided between the dealers.

Tournaments may also choose to allow rebuys (abbreviated rb) and addons (abbreviated ao). A tournament is not required to allow these, but many do. A tournament that has no rebuys or addons is known as a freeze-out tournament.

A rebuy allows a player to purchase additional play money tournament chips if they meet certain conditions specified in advance by the tournament director. A usual condition is that the player must at the time of the rebuy have no more chips than they started with in the tournament. There is also usually a time limit for rebuys, after which no more rebuys are allowed. There may also be a limit on the number of rebuys allowed per player (a typical limit is 1, or sometimes 2). Players are not required to rebuy additional chips, but most do, reasoning that having more chips gives them more "ammunition" with which to bet in the game. Also, sometimes the price in real dollars of rebuy chips is actually cheaper than the price of the original chips (e.g. the buyin of $50 may get you T$1000 in chips, while a rebuy of $25 may get you an additional T$1000; this would mean the rebuy chips are costing you only 2.5 cents per tournament dollar, or half the original price); many players feel that this type of rebuy is a "required rebuy" due to the inexpensive nature of the rebuy. Generally, all the money collected from rebuys is added to the prize pool. This means that usually, the tournament director cannot report the total size of the prize pool until after the time limit for rebuys has passed.

An addon is similar to a rebuy: it allows players to purchase additional play money tournament chips. However, an addon has no conditions - all players may choose to "add on" to their chipstacks if they so choose. Also, addons generally only occur at one specified time in a tournament (usually during the break after the first hour of play). A player may not use their addon before that time, and may not use it after; they may only choose to use it during that one moment of the tournament. Addons, since they generally happen after rebuys at a point when the blinds have risen to a significant degree, usually grant the player a much larger number of tournament dollars for their real-money fee than the original buyin, to give the add-on a chance to make a difference. Generally, all the money collected from addons is added to the prize pool. This means that usually, the tournament director cannot report the total size of the prize pool until after the time for addons has passed.

In summary, tournaments are often described in shorthand to specify their buyin and rebuy and addon rules. For example,

  NLHE $50+$10+$5 1x$20rb 1x$40ao

describes a no-limit hold 'em tournament whose buyin is $65, from which $50 goes into the prize pool. Players are allowed one $20 rebuy and one $40 addon.

Prize Pool Allocation

A tournamnet generally awards the prize pool to the winners using a steeply-curved award structure. The first-place winner generally wins between 15-30% of the total prize pool, depending on the tournament rules. The second-place winner generally wins an amount equal to half of the prize for the first-place winner, and the third-place winner wins half of the second-place prize. In most cases, tournaments award prize money to players finishing in about the top 10% of the field. (In a 200-player tournament, generally the top 20 or so would receive some money), though players at the bottom of the prize-winning list generally win only slightly more than their original buyin fee. Players who do not end up "in the money" win nothing. This makes the experience of busting out on the bubble fairly painful.

Prize pool payouts vary from casino to casino and from tournament to tournament, however; if you are concerned you should check with the tournament director for details.

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