Texas Hold 'Em
Tournament Basics

No Limit Hold ‘Em Poker Tournament Basics

This piece is meant to aid those who know little to nothing about No Limit Texas Hold ‘em (NLHE) poker tournament play but who want to enjoy the occasional updates of action at the table.

To enter a NLHE tournament a player only needs to “buy-in” for a set amount in order to qualify to play. Buy-ins can range from $25-$1,000,000. The larger the buy-in and the more players, the bigger the prize pool to pay winners. Part of the buy-in is used to pay the host casino and in some cases part of the fee is used to tip the tournament dealers. For example: the buy-in is $135 dollars; $25 is paid to the casino, $10 goes to dealer gratuity and $100 is pooled to pay the tournament winners. One hundred players creates a total prize value of $10,000 typically to be divided among the last 10% of entrants to survive elimination.

The goal of a poker tournament player is to survive elimination with her being the last player remaining with chips. In the scenario described above the prize might be divided like this:

1st $3,500, 2nd $2,500, 3rd  $1,500, 3rd $600, 4th $ 475, 5th $375, 6th $290, 7th $235, 8th $205, 9th $175, 10th $145. In this case 10 players are paid. Tenth place pays a little over the buy in cost while first place pays 26 times the buy-in. One could play for six hours and earn only $20 for an effective pay rate of $3.33 cents per hour. No minimum wage for poker? Gotta get to first place!

How does a tournament differ from playing cash poker? The chips in a tournament have no cash value even though each chip has a dollar denomination associated with it for the purpose of betting. In a cash game, the value of the chip is what the player paid for that chip. For example, a $5 chip was purchased by the player for $5. When the player wins or loses that chip the face value is the actual amount won or lost by that player. In a cash game, a player may replenish her chip stack (chips for playing) by buying additional chips to play with up to the maximum allowed for that particular game. When players in a cash game are done playing at any time, they take their chips to a cashier and are paid the full face value of the chips.

Tournament chips have no cash value. Tournament players do not leave the table until they are eliminated by losing all the chips in their possession. Some tournaments allow players to “re-enter” into the tournament for a limited time (say two hours after the tournament starts) as though they were new players entering the tournament. This increases the prize pool but more important to the casino it’s an additional fee for the house. It also gives a player additional chances to win after being eliminated.

NLHE play basics.  There are 9 or 10 players at each table to begin. Every hand that is dealt includes several components.

The dealer position rotates clockwise or to the left with each new hand and is designated by a round, white disk know as the “button” that is placed in front of a different player each hand. Even though a professional dealer distributes the playing cards for all hands, the button moves each time a new hand is dealt. This is important because in Texas Hold ‘em, the virtual dealer position (button) has significant tactical advantage.

 “Big blind” and  “small blind”. These are mandatory bets that rotate around the table with each new hand. The blinds require each player to pay into the “pot” (chips bet by players that increase the value of the winner’s pool with each bet) at least two times each rotation of hands around the table. Doing this prevents players from just waiting until they have fantastic hands. The small blind is generally half the value of the big blind.

Blinds values increase periodically. Typically blinds increase every twenty to sixty minutes. In a game with blind progressions of 30 minutes, the small blind that was $25 becomes $50 after the first 30 minutes of play and the big blind increases from $50 to $100. Increasing blinds encourages players to act rather than just wait because, in time, the blinds would eat-up their stack of chips even though they never played hands by voluntarily betting. Shorter blind progressions favor the lucky while longer blind progressions favor skilled players.

Betting order starts to the left of the big blind. Picture this: The dealer button is in front of you. To your left is the small blind player who must put a $25 chip on the table in front of him. To his left is the big blind player who has placed a $50 chip in front of herself. The professional dealer doles out the first card in a new hand to the small blind position to your immediate left. The dealer continues to deal clockwise to each player until he has dealt around the table twice, giving each player two cards (hole cards) that are not visible to anyone but the player holding those cards. You get the last card dealt.

The “first to act” is the player to the left of the big blind (that position is known as “under-the-gun”.) The first to act person decides if he wants to stay in the hand by “calling” the value of the big blind, $50, or by “raising”--betting at least double the value of the big blind or any amount above that with no limit. The third option for the player is to “fold” their hand and quite without putting more of their chips in the pot. I call this FROC: fold, raise or call/check.  The person who folds is out of play until the next round.

The next person to act is to the left of the previous acting player. She must FROC by calling the previous bet, raising or folding. Once this action has progressed around the entire table the final player to act is the big blind position.

After all action is done, (no more betting) the dealer puts three cards, face up, on the table. This round is called the “flop” and these face up community cards can be used by each player to combine with their hole cards to create the best five card combination. There will be two additional cards added to the community cards by the last round of this hand. Each player hopes that his card combination will have a higher five card poker ranking than other players who have remained in this hand without folding.

The three flop cards are dealt face up, betting starts to your left with the player in the small blind position. This betting sequence will hold true for the remainder of the hand.   The minimum bet must be equal to or more than the big blind amount. In this round, players have the opportunity to just “check” and not make a bet as long as another player acting before them didn’t make a bet.

Since you are last to bet in this round you have the advantage of seeing how everyone else feels about their hole cards and the flop cards before you decide what to do. If they check around to you without making a bet you may decide that even your poor cards can be represented to the other players as good through you making a bet. This may cause the other players to fold their mediocre cards, allowing you to win the pot because no one feels they can beat you. If anyone calls a bet made by you or anyone else, they remain in the hand until the next card is dealt and betting starts anew.

The “turn card” round also known as “fourth street” follows the flop round. This is the fourth card dealt face up and combines with the three flop cards to make four community cards. Again, betting starts with the next player to the left of the dealer who has not folded his hand during the previous round.

Finally comes the “river” card round also known as “fifth street.” This is the final card dealt and is dealt face up becoming the fifth community card. Players who still remain in the game will mentally combine the community cards with their private hole cards to choose the best five card hand based upon poker hand value. A round of betting ensues. Once the final bets and calls are made hole cards are exposed to all players revealing the winning hand. The winner takes all the chips in the pot for that hand. Occasionally there are two hands with the same poker value in which case the pot is “chopped” or split evenly between the two players.

Tournament play continues until one player remains. Players who avoid elimination until they are “in the money” (qualify for receiving a piece of the prize pool) are paid based upon their winning position. In the example above, the player eliminated in the tenth paid position leaves the table and is paid $145 immediately upon departing the table. Some casinos allow a “chop” of the prize pool whereby remaining players who survive until only the paid positions remain, or at anytime thereafter,  choose to split the prize money evenly or by any ratio negotiated and agreed upon by all qualified players.

There you have No Limit Hold ‘Em tournament play in a nutshell. If you want to learn more about the game, buy my book! LOL

If this text fails to answer your questions about the basics of NLHE or if something is unclear, please tell me. That will help me improve the copy for clarity.

Enjoy the game as a spectator. Play the game for fun and profit. If you find yourself at my table just nod and wink and prepare for destruction!

TJ Western © 2014



Hand--starts with the first card dealt and ends when only one player remains or remaining players reveal their cards and poker ranking determines the winner of that hand.

Round--a betting session that follows cards dealt. The next round begins when additional cards are dealt that initiates another betting session.

Blinds—mandatory bets that rotate to each player at the table.

Flop—first three community cards dealt face up.

Turn or 4th Street—fourth community card dealt face up.

River or 5th Street—fifth community card dealt face up.

Big Blind—establishes the minimum bet. Value is double the small blind value.

Small Blind—half the value of the big blind.

 Under the Gun—Player to the left of the big blind and the first to act pre-flop.

Hole Cards—the first two cards dealt face down to each player, visible only to the holding player.

Chop—to split the winnings among qualifying players.

Button—the virtual dealer position that rotates to the left after each hand.

Stack—chips available to the player for betting.

Re-entry—Re-enter a tournament after losing the chips received after the player’s initial buy-in purchase. The full tournament purchase price is required to re-enter.

In the money—player has achieved tournament survival until the paid player positions are all that remain.

First to act—the player who is in the table position that requires him to decide first whether to fold, raise or call/check after the dealer has dealt the cards for that round.

Buy-in—tournament entry fee.

 ©TJ Western 2010                                    facebook: tjwestern