Profitable poker tournaments – How to identify

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A player can increase their average return on investment (ROI), by hand picking profitable poker tournaments. What should you look for?

Low rake

Most of the money paid by players to enter tournaments usually goes into the prize pool. However, some money goes to the cardroom. How much this is can vary. Sometimes the split is clearly laid out for you, e.g. a $600 + $60 tournament will usually mean each player has to pay $660 to enter the tournament – of this $600 goes into the prize pool, and $60 goes to the cardroom as a fee for organizing the tournament. Sometimes, the split won’t be shown directly, instead only the total buy-in will be shown, and it will be stated that a certain percentage will be deducted from buy-ins as a fee. Sometimes, even when a split is laid out (e.g. $600 + $60), there may be small print stating an additional percentage will be deducted from the prize pool.

The rake is the first thing you should look at when trying to identify profitable poker tournaments. If the rake is too high it may be impossible for even the most skilled players to have a positive ROI for the tournament.

Live tournaments usually have a much higher rake than online tournaments, which is totally understandable due to the increased costs of putting on live tournaments, e.g. staff costs (dealers, floor, security), physical venue hire, marketing expenditure to attract players etc. If a live tournament with higher rake is still more profitable than an online tournament with lower rake, this will not be an issue.

The absolute smallest live tournaments are sometimes totally unwinnable (in the long run) due to the huge rake (anything more than 15% rake in live tournaments is something you should be concerned about, and some of the smallest live tournaments can even have 40% rake deducted) – this is not really the cardroom’s fault (they may even be making a loss even with a huge percentage rake) – as there are fixed costs with running a tournament that don’t change whether the buy-in is small or large.

Weak or soft opponents

Weaker fields (compared to your skill level) generally make for more profitable poker tournaments. Note, it does not necessarily follow that a tournament with a higher buy-in (entry fee) attracts stronger players than a tournament with a lower buy-in. Also, look out for relatively softer live tournaments than similar online tournaments. We have an article on, on the subject of why live cash games are more profitable than online cash games (in general) – many of these reasons apply to live tournaments. Also, if a lot of players have qualified through satellites to the main tournament, the field is likely to be weaker than a tournament where few or no players have qualified through satellites.

One of the softest tournaments you could play (relative to the buy-in) is the WSOP main event (which has a $10,000 buy-in) – this is despite the fact many of the world’s best players will be playing. This is a really well known tournament, that every poker player is aware of and that many dream of playing in one day. Many players will have qualified through satellites (including super satellites) or promotions. Many players will have saved up from other income (i.e. a non-poker bankroll) as it is an life experience they cherish. Players who do not necessarily put in much time studying or playing poker (they may have a career and/or family they are focused on), may (if they have the money) look to play this one event hoping for fame (no other poker tournament is covered as much in the media, including non-poker media) or fortune (the first prize is currently $10 million dollars).

Opportunities to use your superior skills

The more skilled you are compared to the field (on average), the more you want to look for ways to be able to use your skills. The more opportunities you have to use your superior skills, make for generally more profitable poker tournaments. You should take a detailed look at the tournament structure. Deeper average stacks (compared to the blinds), longer time at each blind level, and smaller jumps in the levels of the blinds, are beneficial for the more skilled player in that particular tournament. You do need to keep in mind, that if the tournament structure is better it will take longer to play the tournament on average, and especially if you are playing live poker (where you can’t multi-table) you have to consider the opportunity costs of your time. However, on the subject of opportunity costs look out for tournaments that allow late registration – it is sometimes extremely profitable to late register for tournaments (using your time to do something more profitable, than playing the early levels of certain tournaments).

Sometimes a less good structure is actually better for you, as the tournament is over quicker on average, and you can put in more volume (in other tournaments, or cash games). The less good that a structure is, the more likely that weaker players make it further in the tournament – which is obviously to your advantage as a strong player. In addition, there is less to learn (as you don’t have to think about complex deep stacked situations). Some online players specialize in multi-tabling turbo or hyper-turbo tournaments, putting in a great deal of volume.

Depending on your skill levels, you may actually not want the tournament structure to be too good, otherwise you may find that if you get into the later levels (where the money is being paid out) you are mainly playing with players better than you!

If you do want to play a deep structure, do watch out for tournaments that try and trick you with fancy names such as the ‘super duper mega deep stacked tournament’ – a high absolute amount of starting chips alone, or a deep first level (e.g. 500bb or 200bb in the first level) alone, does not mean you are necessarily playing a good tournament. What is important, is how deep the average stacks will be throughout the entirety of the tournament. Tournament organizers often try and trick players less in the know with a big absolute number of starting chips, and/or a big number of blinds in the first couple of levels, only to rapidly decrease the average big blinds in play as the levels go on – they can do this by leaving out several key levels that would be standard in other tournaments. We recommend you find and familiarize yourself with a great tournament structure as a benchmark, then look out for how many of these levels are missed out in any tournament you are considering playing.