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There are two basic types of games in poker that new players can compete in, Tournaments and Cash Games. While cash games are very straight forward and ensure every single chip is a reflection of its real money equivalent, tournaments offer much more variety along with a chance for a major score.

Deciding which one is right for you could could be the determining factor in whether you succeed or falter at the tables, so let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each.

Poker Cash Games: Pros

checkmarkThe one undeniable advantage of participating in a poker cash games is that once seated, you can compete or leave the table instantly. The moment a player feels that anything is other than optimal at a cash game table, he or she can stand up and either look for another game or do something else other than poker.

Multi-tabling online poker cash games has become extremely popular because of their flexibility. Grinders who may feel they lose their “A Game” after a specific amount of time can simply Sit Out online or vacate live without worrying about losing any tournament equity.

Cash games are also a great way to slowly but steadily build ones bankroll if long term expectation is positive. There may not be much glory in averaging a few dollars per hour in cash games, but players can rather easily increase a modest bankroll many times over by grinding away. While it may be impossible to make six figures in a $200 buy-in cash game session, a player can avoid the heartache of bubbling a major event after dedicating many hours to the tournament.

Generally speaking, cash games require more post flop play than tournaments due to their consistent, deep-stacked blind structures. If you’re looking to improve your poker skills by playing poker’s purest form, then cash games are the route to pursue.

Poker Cash Games: Cons

xAs referenced above, you’re not going to feel much “glory” after a cash game session unless you happen upon an unusually juicy game or simply have a great run of cards. Cash game action can be very monotonous. They can also be particularly frustrating during sessions in which the player quickly falls behind several buy-ins and may not feel overly motivated to grind for several days just to make up for the shortfall.

If you’re down 10 buy-ins in a cash game, chances are probably against you breaking even for that session regardless of how great a player you are. Variance for winning cash game players is typically lower than it is in tournaments, yet that doesn’t mean the best players in the world don’t go through downswings. Assuming a player remains at the same stakes, beginning players could become disillusioned with the prospect of working hours upon end just to recuperate funds lost during a bad run of luck.

Poker Tournaments: Pros

checkmarkThere are few emotional triumphs that compare with navigating through a large player field, dominating a final table, and earning a spot at the top of the heap with a massive payout to justify your time spent. Such are the possibilities in Multi Table Tournaments (MTTs).

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Did you know that in certain online tournaments — like the PokerStars Sunday Storm — you can risk $11 and potentially walk away with over $20,000 in less than 24 hours?  Of course, there’s a very slim chance of any player to outlast tens of thousands of opponents, yet the possibility is there every time you enter a poker tournament.

A first place finish in a large player field event can instantly jump start a poker career, which is what makes MTTs so popular. Yet there is a ton of variety in poker tournament formats nowadays — especially if you’re playing online. Those who don’t have several hours to dedicate to a game can seamlessly move to Sit & Gos (SNGs) or even Spin & Gos, which rarely require more than 15 minutes at a time. You can choose which type of tournament format (Satellite, MTT, SNG, Lottery Style, Heads Up, etc.) you want to compete in beforehand and enter those that correspond to the amount of time you can invest in your poker session.

One other great aspect about tournaments is that the decisions are typically easier than they would be in cash games. This is because of the ever-escalating nature of tournament blind structures. The amount of decision making that goes into a hand where you or your opponent is short stacked compared to cash games is much, much less — but this also results in higher variance.

Poker Tournaments: Cons

xThe biggest drawback to poker tournaments is the required time investment. Mind you, this is a non-issue if you indeed have several hours (or maybe even several days) set aside to compete and focus entirely on the action at your table(s), but otherwise tournaments can be a quick path to bankroll loss. The most common advice given to beginning poker players is, If you don’t have the time to play a tournament to its conclusion, don’t play it at all.

There is also the distinct possibility that even the best tournament player in the world will invest a large amount of time and bust out without any compensation whatsoever in any given event. For those who play a lot of events, this can become particularly tiresome when bad luck keeps a player from earning anything over a long period of time. That $100,000-plus top prize for winning the Sunday Million may be tantalizing, but forging a successful path through some of the best poker tournament players in the world could significantly harm your bankroll (and attitude) after a string of close calls or bustouts.

Finally, because of the short-stacked nature of most tournament end stages, the variance in tournaments can be unbelievably high even for great players. A great run can result in a giant boost in funds, but a horrible in poker tournaments can affect a player’s enjoyment of the game to a much higher degree than in cash games.

Cash Games or Tournaments?

Beginning poker players should experiment with as many types and formats as possible. Thanks to online micro-stakes games, even the greenest of newbies can accumulate an enormous amount of experience with a very modest initial deposit of $100 or less.

Use online variety and small buy-ins to your advantage when starting out, and consider your time at the tables as a learning experience that could very well prepare you for all the positive expectation that’s just around the corner.

Best of luck at the tables!


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David Huber

David Huber has been involved in the poker industry for more than a decade: initially as a professional online poker player and later as an editor, consultant, writer, and forum manager. Known as "dhubermex" online, David's poker-related work has been heavily published across numerous websites since 2004.