Filtering the Noise: Cash Games or Tournaments?

Filtering the Noise: Cash Games or Tournaments?


Within the poker community there is a longstanding rival between tournament grinders and cash game players. Here are some of the differences, pros and cons:


Fame: The only way to receive sponsorships and make a name for yourself is by competing in tournaments. The American public doesn’t care about the biggest winner at the Bellagio.

Fortune: Tournaments are the poker equivalent of playing the lottery. If you win, the payout can be life changing.

Competition: In a tournament, there is actually a winner. Success is measurable. “I got first place” is much more gratifying than “I won the most at the table.”

Travel: For the lucky few who play the tour, it’s a great way to see the world. What’s more, players can choose their destinations, making for an appealing lifestyle.


Variance: In a given year, a serious pro might play 100 live events. If they average a buy in of $5,000, that’s a $500,000 bankroll for a year’s worth of play. With the volatility of tournaments, one can easily go 30 in a row without cashing and a full year without making a final table. Withstanding this variance requires a ton of capital.

Rake: Many tournament players don’t consider the rake for traveling the circuit. The European Poker Tour (EPT) Grand Final, for example, is held in Monaco. A hotel room at the Monte Carlo Bay costs $600 per night and a round trip flight from LA is roughly $2,000. The best players in the world assume they have a 50% ROI. In other words if the world’s greatest MTT pro spends $3,000 on a trip they have to play $6,000 worth of tournaments just to break even.

Happiness: Tournaments are mentally draining. One is never satisfied unless they win. Because you are competing, the results are measured not by dollars, but by place. Even when I got second place in the WSOP, I was heartbroken from getting so close to winning letting the title slip. The life of a tournament grinder is one of constant anguish. An ROI of 100% (meaning, for every dollar they pay to enter, they expect to earn a dollar in return). If they spend 10 days in Monaco, that’s $8,000 for hotel and flight alone. You do the math.



Flexibility: As a cash game player, I am completely free to make my own schedule. I have no travel, date and time restrictions. The price of freedom is arguably the most lucrative draw to being a pro.

Money: The constant money is in the cash games. Tournaments are deceptively appealing. Sure one can make a million dollars in a few days, but in the long run the math says otherwise. Choosing to play cash means a higher probability of showing a profit.

Sustainability: It’s easier to make a living playing cash games because they run more frequently. For the $5/$10 NL player in Vegas, he can find a game nearly 24 hours a day. Even if he is a small winner, he can earn $50 an hour. Not bad for playing a game.


Difficulty: There is one overwhelming downside to playing cash games: they are difficult. As you progress through the levels, the edges get smaller and the games get tougher. Contrary to common belief, the best players in the world don’t fly to Vegas to play the $10,000 tournaments, but the $100,000 buy in cash games.

The reason is simple. That’s where the money is. When you’re stuck at a table with five elite players who aren’t afraid to risk it all on a bluff, you’re always put to the test. With less room for luck, the better players are going to win a lot quicker and more often. It’s a cut throat business and it’s not long before you sink or learn to swim.

Losing: In a tournament, the most you can lose is your entry fee. In the bigger cash games the numbers can be astounding, often nearly the size of first place in a single hand. It takes a certain breed to be able to cope with that sort of loss. Also, the ability to remove yourself from the utility of money is absolutely imperative to one’s success.

 YOUR OPINION COUNTS! Do you prefer tournaments or cash games? Why?


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  • Nick March 6, 2012 4:57 am


    Very well written. I prefer cash due because you can make a mistake and still play. Tournament often one mistake will cost you your buyin.

    Thanks again.


    • Alec Torelli March 6, 2012 10:15 am

      I agree. Although the few times that you make it deep in tournament, the fact you can't make any mistakes is what makes it so exciting!

  • Andy Vaughn October 14, 2013 5:51 am

    One of the biggest components between the two is compounding your equity (assuming you have an edge). In a cash game, you are compounding your equity with every played hand. In a tournament, you are compounding your equity every tournament. It's much slower for the tournament edge to compound itself over time (barring large scores). For skilled players, the edge in tournaments can be much greater, but it still can't outpace the rate of growth of a cash-game.

    • Alec Torelli October 15, 2013 1:03 pm

      Andy, I agree with the idea of realizing the long run quicker in cash games. However I also think that the edge is much greater in cash games because of the stack depth. Tournaments are a simplified form of poker and because the stack depth is shallower it limits the amount of decision making on every street. In cash games, this decision making process is magnified on each street leaving more room for skilled players to maneuver.

      • Andy Vaughn October 18, 2013 2:03 am

        Perhaps. Although edge in cash games come down to the decision-tree, magnified by the depth of the stacks (especially important in no-cap games). But in tournaments, for an experienced player, there are many other irrational factors that can add "edge": a final table is only reached after many hours and sometimes days – there are lots of people who succumb to exhaustion.

        Most mistakes I see playing WSOP hold 'em events are not rational, but rather irrational ones caused by not eating, exhaustion, impatience, relief (after bubbles). Through improper self-management, newbie tournament players make serious mistakes that they would never make in a more controlled cash-game environment. A veteran tournament player can really have an edge over a newbie with endurance and taking care of his or her rational-endurance.

        Example: Two strong online players, 1st and 2nd in chips at a very passive table, tangled late day 2 of the WSOP ME. After 5bet and 6bet shove, the hands shown were AJo and QQ. Queens held, and 2nd in chips busted. They were sitting with about 120 and 150bb, when the rest of the table was 30-70bb. I hadn't seen either eating, staying hydrated, stretching, etc. Beyond simple tactical spew, I doubt their mutual lines were "A" game. And after 3 days (Day 1, rest, Day 2), it seemed they just weren't patient any more. I was sat back and watched Aggro 1 take out Aggro 2, making our table much easier, and making it much easier to get to Day 3.

        Perhaps this is more applicable with live poker. But, I do think the irrational edge can be ridiculously large, even with the shallow stacks, in tournament poker. However, the compounding, hand-after-hand, in cash games (especially no-cap) still outweighs it.

        • Alec Torelli October 18, 2013 11:45 am

          Hi Andy,

          Again interesting observation. There is undoubtedly an interesting dynamic in tournaments which requires subtle yet important skills from players. In cash games where one has the freedom to not subject themselves to situations of tiredness, dehydration, etc., perhaps those players aren't as accustomed to playing under these circumstances. This of course can affect their edge and if left unchecked, can seriously affect ones ability to perform. No doubt.

          I would however add an antidote from my experience: the true top players in cash games, even with little to no tournament experience, are incredibly good, actually the best I've seen at playing marathon sessions. The highest cash games require much more comprehensive decision making under much more stressful situations, especially while tired.

          I appreciate the dialogue. Great points.

  • Craig Gray November 17, 2016 9:31 pm

    The most success I’ve had and what I recommend is to play cash games as your main source of income and play tournaments as a “bonus”. Play the occasional tournament such as WSOP and maybe a couple other stops a year, but rely on cash games. Playing ONLY tournaments is a GRIND both physically and mentally. I personally LOVE the competitiveness of tournaments and feeling of accomplishment when winning one, but the $$$ over the long run is going to be better in cash games unless you’ve earned a sponsorship.

    • Alec November 18, 2016 7:28 pm

      Well said Craig, thanks for the feedback.

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