Tournaments vs Cash Games: What the Pros Play [2024]

Tournaments vs Cash Games: What the Pros Play
Should you play poker tournaments or cash games? This is something that a lot of people ask themselves when they first start playing poker.

Poker tournaments are easier for a beginner to learn but they also require a large time commitment and your winnings will be very inconsistent. Cash games on the other hand offer much less demands on your time and your winnings will be a lot more consistent. The choice between tournaments and cash games is ultimately up to you.

In tournaments everybody starts with the same amount of chips and the blinds increase at regular intervals. The goal of the tournament is to win everybody else's chips. And there are real money payouts depending on where you finish.

In cash games however, the chips that you have in front of you represent real dollar amounts and the blinds never increase. Furthermore, you cannot be eliminated and you can reload again anytime you want. So the goal is simply to win more chips than you started with.

For me personally, I have always taken poker very seriously from the start. So I wanted to know which format the pros play. Because I figured that there must be more money in the one that they choose.

So I created this simple infographic below to weigh some of the advantages and disadvantages of playing in cash games versus tournaments.

Tournaments vs Cash Games - What the Pros Play

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1. More Consistent Money in Cash Games

The first thing that you will notice about cash games is that you tend to make steady money in them. As long as you play a consistent amount of hands you can actually almost predict how much you will make on a monthly basis.

Tournaments are a totally different animal though. Even some of the top players will go months in a row without any kind of a significant score. And since they are always paying buyin fees this means that they are slowly losing money.

This is actually one of the biggest reasons why I recently decided to cut down on how many tournaments I play, as I discuss in my latest YouTube video.

But then boom out of nowhere they will go on a tear and have a huge month. Sometimes they might even take down a few tournaments in a row. This will make up for all of those dry months when nothing was working for them.

So if a steady consistent cash flow is what you are looking for, then cash games are definitely the way to go. If you have the stomach for some truly insane variance, then maybe tournaments are for you.

2. Cash Games Give You More Flexibility

The other thing that you have to think about is having flexibility with your time. Do you like to have a social life? Do you like to be able to plan things out in advance and have some control over you time?

If so then cash games also get the big advantage here. You can come and go in cash games basically any time you want. And since the games run around the clock online in particular, you can quite literally play whenever you want.

With tournaments though, not only do you need to schedule your play around the key events that you want to play in, but you also have no idea whether you will be playing for 30 minutes, 2 hours or 10 hours.

This makes planning out your life difficult. And it is a major negative for me as someone who believes that a good work/life balance as a poker pro is the key to better results.

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3. Tournaments are Easier to Learn

Now in the plus category for tournaments is the fact that they are much easier to learn. It is really difficult to make a lot of mistakes in tournaments because the decisions are a lot more straightforward.

In fact, once you get past the first couple levels and the blinds start increasing, fewer and fewer hands get played all the way until the river (unless somebody is all-in). This is because the stack sizes are more shallow, often being 50bb (big blinds), 30bb or even less in the mid to late stages of a tournament.

In cash games by comparison, most players will have 100bb or even more in front of them at all times. This means that there is much more room to maneuver both preflop and postflop. And this ultimately leads to more complex decisions.

Also, when the stacks are deeper like this it is always going to favor the more skilled players. This means that the newer players will lose their money faster.

So if you are brand new to poker the easier learning curve in tournaments can definitely be a plus. You will have a better chance of becoming a competent winning player faster.

With that said though, cash games will ultimately teach you a broader skill-set (all 4 streets instead of focusing on just the first 2). I personally think that this is worth investing the time in.

This is also why you tend to see cash game players make an easy transition to tournaments whereas tournament players often struggle mightily in cash games.

Lastly, if you really want to start crushing poker tournaments then I recommend that you start studying some advanced poker tournament strategy.

You need to know the advanced math and GTO theory necessary to crush good players and make sure that you dominate the final table.

4. Higher Potential Earnings in Cash Games

The last thing that is important to note (especially for any aspiring pros out there) is that there is more potential money to be made in cash games than tournaments.

High stakes cash games can be found regularly on the internet and in casinos and private games. High stakes tournaments on the other hand tend to only run on certain days of the week or times of the year (WSOP for example).

Also, if you are looking to make it to the very top in the poker world, then you also need to consider that there just aren't too many ultra high stakes poker tournaments per year. 

Whereas cash games with millions of dollars flying around frequently run in places like Macau and Las Vegas for example.

However, an important point to note is that tournaments tend to attract more fish overall. The low limit tourneys online are a testament to this. They are absolutely packed with terrible players day and night.

And the reason why is because the lure of the big payday will always attract the recreational players. The chance to quickly turn $5 into $5000 or $100 into $100000 is a huge draw especially for gamblers looking to make a quick buck.

So if you are looking for insanely soft games, tournaments tend to offer a little more in this category especially at the lower limits.

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What Do the Pros Play?

So what do the pros actually play then, tournaments or cash games? Well, I would say that most pros that I know at least play cash games for a living. And this is also the case for me personally.

As I discussed above, they are just better suited overall to the life of a professional poker player. The money is more consistent and your have a lot more flexibility with your time.

But this doesn't mean that poker pros don't dabble in tournaments on the side as well. I regularly find myself loading up a bunch of MTTs online especially on Sunday when the best events run.

And I will also never forget the first time that I won a poker tournament. It was only for about $600 but that was still one of the greatest thrills that I have ever had in this game.

There is nothing quite like the feeling of making it really deep in a large field tournament. That "rush" is something that you just can't really get in a cash game.

What Should YOU Play?

Now I realize that most people reading this article aren't looking to become professional poker players though. They play this game as a part time hobby. They already have full time careers that they are happy with.

In that case, I would definitely just suggest playing the format that you enjoy more. Some people are simply wired for cash games or for tournaments. You shouldn't try to fight this.

The thing about poker is that it is a long term grind. You are going to play many, many hours and endure countless ups and downs. If you are going to become successful in poker, then you need to play in the games that you are going to enjoy the most.

Don't just play cash games for instance because you heard me or somebody else say that they are better for the pros or for making consistent money. The facts are that there is good money to be made in both tournaments and cash games.

Your commitment to putting in the hours at the tables, and improving your poker game away from the tables, is what is really going to bring you success in either format.

Final Thoughts

Tournaments versus cash games. A dilemma for the ages! It really doesn't have to be such a big deal though. And if you are brand new to the game, then I would suggest just playing both to start and seeing which one that you personally prefer more.

I would also recommend that you start learning some advanced poker strategy no matter which one you choose. You need to know the advanced math in particular to beat good players.

If you have future aspirations towards playing this game on a professional level though, then I would have to recommend cash games over tournaments. The money is more consistent and you can have a life outside of the game as well which is very important as a pro.

But the bottom line is that there is good money to be made in either format. If you personally prefer tournaments, then by all means go for it!

Make sure you win the World Series of Poker Main Event for $8 million and believe me you will be happy that you chose to play tournaments!

Lastly, if you want to learn how to start making $1000+ per month from low stakes poker games, make sure you grab a copy of my free poker cheat sheet.

Let me know in the comments below which you prefer, cash games or tournaments?

Cash games or tournaments?


  1. As grandma said in "Parenthood", some people like the roller coaster and some like the carousel. I don't particularly like tourneys with short levels because you get little or no time to get a feel for the tables and are forced to make low EV plays to keep up. On the other hand, a tourney with longer levels forces you to commit longer time to the event and frankly, that gets boring for me.

    So on the whole I tend to prefer the cash games. Not as exciting (unless Ivey, Dwan or Viffer is across the table), but more steadily profitable and interesting in that you get to know the others and get to make a wider range of plays. Plus, you can get in and out as it suits you.

    1. Hey Morgan, ya I am definitely on the same page as you. Although, I still love playing a big tourney every once in awhile.

  2. Excellent article. I'd just be happy making an extra $1k a month. I haven't been able to win a large amount of money tourney since 2010 and too boot that was on Carbon. I've won many $500< on Stars+Party but never won those $22-$109s tourney ever.

    Anyways thanks for the article, but I just love the "Thought (As It's only a thought thus far and not a realization) of being able to win $100k (One day), but those (RIVERS) they are just heart breaking

    1. Thanks Naruto! In my experience once you get to about the $20 buyin or higher online the players start to get reasonably good. The $5 and below are a full of really bad players, sometimes the $10 too.

  3. Another great article Nathan! Great points all around and I would add:
    (1) It can take you a LONG time to find out that you're a tournament fish while cash games will give you more consistent feedback. This is why cash games might be better for beginners - otherwise you can fool yourself into thinking you're "just running bad" at tourneys when you're really just a fish.

    (2) In order to win the truly prestigious events (like the Main Event) you *must* have a cash game background because those tourneys are so deep stacked. You can basically make the money in the ME by playing it as a big cash game - actual tourney theory doesn't begin until *days* into the ME. I think this is one of the reasons why pros consider the ME one of the softest fields of the year - too many people in there ramming & jamming with 200+BB stacks LOL!

    1. Hey Dennis,

      Great points! I wish I had thought of them :)

  4. Why are you doing this to me man ! :)

    I had finally made up my mind about playing only micro tourney on iPoker, and now I have second thoughts about it because of all those good points you made.

    And ofc the vast majority of the poker community agrees with you...Damn it! I guess I'll just have to get used to Cash Game then...

    1. Haha sorry Thomas! If you like playing tourneys though I would just go for it. Like I said in the article it is all about playing the games you enjoy as well.

    2. No you're right, waaaaaay too much variance in mtts, plus I do indeed enjoy having a social life every once in a while :p

      Another good point is the amount of postflop play in Cash Game.

      Going down to the 4th line of your hud before wondering if it's worth 3betting there, then firing that second barrel because you know the villain just won't call without the nuts, actually feels pretty good :)

      Thanks for the good content as always and good luck at the tables !

    3. Thanks Thomas same to you!

  5. Last question, did you make any changes to the opening ranges ans raise sizes from CTM over the years ?

    I'm asking because the general tendency is to make it 2.5-3 bbs from everywhere.

    1. I make changes to all my books from time to time. I also introduce new guides such as The Starting Hand Cheat Sheets which comes as a free bonus with CTM. This guide covers opening raise sizes and ranges.

  6. Anonymous12 March

    How many players play different variants of the game? what makes them involved in poker game? Trying to know more about poker and their buzz around it

    1. Hey Murali,

      I would say that NL cash games are still the most popular followed by NL tournaments.