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What is a poker tournament? How does one work? What is a chip race? What is a satellite?

Author: Michael Maurer
Last updated: 1998
Copyright © 2004 Michael Maurer
The official and up-to-date version of this answer is here.


A poker tournament is an event in which poker players compete for all or part of a prize pool. Each player pays an entry fee and initial buy-in for a set number of tournament chips. The chips are non-negotiable, having no cash value except at the end of the tournament. The contestants play until all but one or a few are busted; the top finishers divide up the prize pool according to the tournament rules. The game's stakes increase with time to hasten the tournament's end.


Within this framework is considerable room for variation. Many tournaments permit "rebuys", which allow a busted player to reenter the tournament by immediately posting additional money to the prize pool. The number of rebuys may be unlimited, limited to one or a few, or limited to an initial period of the tournament. Rebuys may also be available to players with short stacks or even to all active players. Some tournaments allow an "add-on", a one-time opportunity for all active players to buy a set number of additional chips, again increasing the prize pool. The add-on may be available at the end of the rebuy period, at the beginning of the tournament, or, rarely, at any time during the rebuy period. The exchange rate for rebuys and add-ons may be better than that for the initial buy-in. A tournament with no rebuys is called a "freezeout". The betting structure may be limit only, pot-limit, no-limit, or a mixture, usually limit in the early rounds and no-limit later. Whatever the betting structure, the blinds or betting limits increase regularly, perhaps doubling every twenty minutes in a small tournament, or more slowly in a large one.

The Chip Race

A confusing aspect of the increasing stakes is the way in which some tournaments get rid of the small denomination chips. At some point in the tournament, the dealer may "race off" all the red $5 chips. Each player puts all their red chips in front of them, and the dealer converts them to as many green $25 chips as possible. Whatever red chips remain are raced off: each player receives one card for each chip, and the player receiving the highest card (ace, king, etc) wins everybody's reds and converts them to greens. Bridge suits break ties for the high card (spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs). In other tournaments, the red chips may simply be rounded to green chips. Although rounding can change the total amount of money in play, it is better at preserving the players' relative chip positions.

Some tournaments use a new chip race technique that only awards one chip to the player with the highest card. Then that player is ineligible to receive more chips. If more chips remain, the player having the next highest card receives the next chip and becomes ineligible also, and so on until all chips are distributed.


The tournament usually continues until only one player remains. The winner may take all the money, or the top finishers may divide it up according to a set schedule. In most tournaments, tables are consolidated and seats redrawn when a certain number of players are eliminated, eventually resulting in a "final table" of contestants. Sometimes, each table plays until only one player remains, and then the survivors meet at a final table; this is called a "shootout". Since the betting stakes are large at the final table and payout schedules often favor first place, luck plays a major role and many players prefer cutting a deal to playing the tournament to its conclusion.


A "satellite" is a tournament in which the prize is an entry to another tournament. Large tournaments like the $10,000 No-limit Hold'em event in the World Series of Poker generate a lot of satellites. Typically, the satellite buy-in is around 1/10 the tournament buy-in, so the top 10% of satellite finishers win a tournament buy-in. Sometimes a satellite will even have mini-satellites, in which the prize is an entry to the main satellite. A mini-satellite for the $10,000 event might have a $100 buy-in and award a $1,000 buyin to a satellite that is awarding a $10,000 buy-in to the main event.

A satellite format popular in the larger tournaments is the "super-satellite". This is a multi-table tournament that awards a number of entries into the main tournament. The buy-in to the super can be as little as 2% of the buy-in to the main tournament, with rebuys usually permitted. Depending on the number of entrants and rebuys, the top N finishers receive an entry into the main tournament. The strategy late in a super-satellite can be unusual because of the flat payout structure.


Many small (under $100 buy-in) daily or weekly tournaments are listed in the back pages of Card Player magazine. Be sure to call the casino to see if they are having the tournament that day, since the magazine is sometimes out of date.

Tournament Strategy

See the special section on tournament strategy for more information.

Tournament Structures

NEW See Tex's TEARS for widely used poker tournament structures (how the blinds and betting limits go up each round).

Online Tournaments

NEW The Beginners' Guide to Online Poker has a section on online tournaments that explains the most commonly seen variations.