Five Key Differences Between Cash Table and Tournament Poker Play

Poker Cash Tables vs Tournaments

You will have often heard people describe other players as a “good poker player” or a “bad poker player” but in actual fact it is perfectly possible to be both. The reason for that is because there are several versions of the game of poker and while the actual game itself may not change, the skills required to be proficient in one area of the game, such as tournament play, may not easily transfer over to be so successful in another, such as cash table play.

Indeed, the differences between good tournament play and strong play at the cash tables can be marked and often completely different. What is a strong, sensible play on a cash table, may be a suicidal move in a tournament and vice versa.

These different factors mean that in order to be a truly great player, a budding poker star needs to learn the nuances of both types of game and in particular, the key differences between playing poker in a tournament and playing on a cash table.

In this article, we’ll examine some of the key differences between each type of game, together with how they impinge upon a players poker skills and abilities.

Key Difference 1: The Buy In

The first big difference about playing on a cash table against a tournament is the buy in. On a cash table, your buy in is simply how much you elect to bring to the table whereas in a tournament your buy in is stated beforehand and that money buys you a certain amount of starting chips.

In tournaments, rebuy tournaments excepted, once you lose all your chips you are out of the tournament. On a cash table though, if you lose all your chips, you can opt to buy in once again from your remaining bankroll.

The importance of this difference is key. In a non-rebuy tournament, you know that once all your chips are gone, you are out, so this means that solid tournament players tend to play a game based on preserving their chips. It’s a paradigm that while a tournament is effectively about eliminating players, most top tournament players play a game that aims to preserve their chips first and foremost.

In a cash game though, players tend to be freer to use their buy in more creatively and as such, good cash table players will bet more freely, perhaps be more prone to making a well-timed bluff. This doesn’t mean that cash table players have a more flippant attitude to their money (far from it) but it does mean that the fact they can rebuy into a game, even if they lose their first stack of chips, gives them a tad more freedom when betting.

A good tournament player will allow players to eliminate themselves, taking calculated risks when the cards are right to preserve their buy in in the game. Whereas a cash table player of standing will not only do this, but be able to judge when to be a little more ‘free’ in their betting to allow them to pick up a few pots cheaply. They do this because they are safe in the knowledge that if they do lose their buy in, they can rebuy back to the table if they wish to do so.

Key Difference 2: Game Structure

One of the biggest differences between a cash table and a tournament table is the structure. A cash table can see the same players playing day in, day out. Cash table regulars at top poker sites like Bet365 Poker or Sky Poker, will often find themselves up against other players who prefer cash tables time and time again.

In a MTT however, it is very different. With hundreds, if not thousands of players, you can be on a table that mixes complete novices with poker professionals. Furthermore, as the tournament progresses and tables are balanced, you may be switched from the table you were playing at onto a completely different table at a moment’s notice.

These different game rules and structures mean that good tournament players often pay relatively scant attention to the players they are up against at the table. Instead, they will concern themselves with their position in the tournament (based on the amount of chips they hold) and will look for opportunities when the cards are right, to improve that, while all the while, trying to avoid elimination.

In contrast, a sharp card table player, who finds themselves playing the same people frequently, will often pay as much attention to what another player is doing as to the cards themselves. The psychological aspect of the game is more prevalent on the cash table far more so than in the tournament version of the game.

This brings us neatly onto the third key difference between cash games and tournament games. 

Key Difference 3: Mindset of a Cash Table Player vs. a Tournament Grinder

Your mindset will determine what type of poker you play, how aggressive or passive you are, whether you play a tight, minimal risk strategy, or a looser, high risk, high reward strategy. While the skills a cash table and tournament poker player have may be very similar, their mindset can influence greatly how they approach a game.

A tournament grinder will know that finishing in the money is a key aim, but they also know that it is a low risk/high reward strategy in that their buy in is only likely to be a very small fraction of the rewards on offer for those players finishing in the points. 

This will tend to give a tournament player a more controlled mindset, wagering only when the cards they hold are strong, not taking unnecessary risks and using late position in the betting to try and steal pots to keep their chip stack ticking over. That is not to say that a tournament player won’t take risks, they certainly will, but often the risks may be a last ditch effort (such as if they are in danger of going out of the tournament due to a low chip stack), or if they believe they have a tell on players at their table.

While a tournament grinder will have a more controlled, tight mindset aiming for a specific short term goal, a cash table player will often have a more open, freer mindset, which focuses on longer term aims, rather than immediate short term gain.

This means a cash player may be willing to take small, calculated risks, even if they feel they may lose a pot, if they believe that doing so may benefit them in the long run, such as by showing if a player is trying to bluff them frequently or not.

A cash table player doesn’t have an immediate short term goal, other than winning the next pot. Their aim and strategy is towards increasing their bankroll by winning more cash table hands. This gives them a more open mindset and allows them to play more loosely, when they feel it is time to do so.

Key Difference 4: Betting

It is fair to say that how players bet varies in tournaments compared to cash games. In tournaments, all bets are made with a view to preserving your chips, while accumulating others. Maintaining your status in the game is paramount, so good tournament players will think long and hard about any bet that forces them all in, or could put them in a troublesome position in terms of chip stack size.

That is less of a concern in a cash game as even if the player loses the hand, they can always rebuy straight back into the game with more chips. That element of jeopardy if you lose isn’t quite as prevalent, so it does mean cash players are more likely to call, or even raise, against even a strong hand. 

Key Difference 5: The importance of reading the opposition

Finally, in a tournament situation, your opponents can and will change at the table as you progress through the tournament. As such, it is hard to get a read on any opponent you are facing. Hence, tournament players of proven skill tend to rely more on their cards and poker skills, rather than reading the play of people at their table.

At a cash table though, because you can play against the same players for hours on end, day after day, reading your opponent is a real skill. Good cash table players will have copious notes added about the players they face regularly detailing if they play tight or loose, or if they are prone to bluffing etc.

At a cash table, who you play can be as important as the cards you are dealt.

It is worth noting though that for all these key differences between the games, there is a high degree of variance within that. You will get tournament players who take risks frequently (especially in lower buy in events, when the first few rounds can resemble a bingo hall, with people going all in left, right and centre) and you’ll get cash table players who are very tight.

The key to becoming a great, rather than good, poker player, is mastering the skills to do both effectively.

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