Poker rooms use different payout structures to distribute prizes and it can be quite confusing for new players. There are poker tournaments where a min-cash is barely double the buy-in. On the other hand, you can find some tournaments where the winner scoops a third of the prize pool and the min-cash is worth triple your buy-in.
Naturally, the tournament prizes vary according to the number of players participating. The portion reserved for the winner decreases as more players take part in the tournament. At your typical multi-table tournament, the winner generally gets between 20% and 25% of the total money.
As a rule of thumb, the overall winner takes the biggest portion of the pool. But, it isn’t always this simple. In many cases, a deal is being made after negotiations between the remaining players at the final table.
In this guide to poker tournament payout structures, we’ll take a deep dive into how prize pools are formed in poker tournaments. After reading this guide, you’ll understand how pros earn money in poker and learn what you can expect to win when trying your luck in a tournament.
What types of payout structures are used in poker tournaments
In general, poker tournament payout structures can be classified as either conservative or top-heavy. Conservative structure allows the majority of the entries to receive some amount of payouts. A top-heavy structure has higher amounts going to a select number of participants finishing in the top positions. Most poker players prefer the top-heavy structure. This is not surprising, as you have a shot to walk away with bigger bucks, which many players call chasing their ‘one time’.
If you’re mostly playing against novice poker players, then opting for a flat structure may be the better option in the long run. If too many players keep walking away empty-handed, they might stop playing poker entirely.
Top-heavy payout structure
A top-heavy structure pays out money to only 10% of the total participants. The winner is usually in contention for about 35% of the pool. The remaining payouts decline quickly when going lower on the finishing positions. Regardless of the structure, winners almost always get over double the amount of what runner-ups get.
Single-table events feature standard payout structures. For an STT tourney with about 10 entries, the most popular structure is to reward the leading 3 participants with portions of 50% / 30% / 20%. Shorthanded events featuring 6 players have the top two players distributing the pool 60% / 40%.
Conservative payout structure
Conservative structure pays out money to about 25% of the entries. Often, the first competitors who make it to the money might receive around double their buy-ins. Players who finish at higher positions tend to earn a nice profit. With a flat structure, the winner can cash out 20% of the entire prize pool.
Which payout structure is best for me
Your experience level
Even the most experienced pros were once beginners at some point. When you’re learning the secrets of tournament play, you can expect to lose some money at first. Not playing too expensive tournaments is crucial if you’re looking to manage your bankroll responsibly. Even the smallest wins, like double the entry fees, can be helpful to start with. You need to gain as much experience as possible without losing too heavily!
Experienced poker pros understand that the prizes worth going for are awarded only at the final table. They can switch gears effortlessly to maneuver the different stages of tournaments. Chances of a professional player playing “scared-money” are low. Most of them are financially backed or have hefty bankrolls that can survive the brutal variance of MTT poker. These players see the conservative version as the optimal structure. With a more flat structure, you experience less sewer downswings, and keeping a healthy bankroll becomes easier.
Your playing style
Most recreational poker players love taking risks and pressuring competitors by building a huge stack early on. They aren’t afraid of busting early as they can’t find sitting in-the-money for hours enjoyable. A top-heavy structure may suit players who play a loose-aggressive style. Top-heavy structure allows them to leverage their aggression at the expense of the timid players.
What about tight players then? Conservative players often prefer a flat payout structure. It appeals to the players who love winning big but aren’t willing to risk busting deep in the tournament. Tight players usually see the smaller payouts as insurance, which protects them from possible bad beats during deep runs. Even though a very tight strategy may not win you a lot of money in the long run, you can make a min-cash surprisingly often by just being patient.
How tournament format affects the payout structure
Before you can understand how payout structures work in poker, you first have to know the various formats of poker tournaments out there. The type of tournament format being played affects the amount you can receive when you reach the prizes. The more entries a tournament gathers, the more cash will be available for the top finishers to split.
Here are the most common poker tournament formats:
Freezeouts are the most popular types of tournaments. Normally, you give out your buy-in and receive your chips. You’ll play until you’re out of chips. Once you don’t have any chips remaining, you can not get back to the game through rebuying. That’s why it’s good to make sure which tournament format will be played before you decide to play it. Failing to do so might result in you mismanaging your stack and making strategic mistakes during play.
The vast majority of real money poker tournaments played at online poker sites are freezeouts. It’s quite common for a freezeout to have a guaranteed prize pool. They’re simple to understand as there are no second chances once you’re out.
Let’s say you join a poker tournament with 80 entries. You take a look at the tournament lobby for more information and see the top 8 spots will be in the money. If you finish at 9th place, you won’t get any winnings. Finishing at the last palace before the money is called bubbling a tournament. The higher you finish, the bigger the money prize you’ll receive. In simple terms, the player finishing at 7th place will get more money than the 8th placed player. The player in 1st place will then naturally walk away with the most money.
Rebuys are a format similar to freezeouts. The only difference is that you can buy yourself back into the game if you run out of chips. This rebuy option may be available to you only once in the poker tournament. If the tournament is played as unlimited rebuys, you can buy yourself back in the action multiple times during the event.
Some tournaments only allow you to rebuy when short stacked. For instance, you might have 3000 starting chips. If you bust in this case or run below a certain number of chips like 300, the rebuy option will only allow you to purchase the starting chips amount.
Other tournaments allow you to rebuy until a specified period, after which the play continues the same way as in a freezeout. As mentioned earlier, you can’t return to the game once you’re eliminated at this stage.
What’s the point of having the rebuy option? Poker sites can increase their prize pools by offering the rebuy option. Even if you begin playing with a tiny prize pool, there might be a lot of money at stake later on. As more competitors bust out and return through rebuys, the prize pool can bloat to a whole new level!
Re-entries have a model similar to rebuy games, although they do differ slightly. Rebuy tournaments allow you to purchase extra chips when your stack falls below a certain point. Re-entry tournaments allow players to buy back in only when they don’t have any remaining chips. You can’t return to the tournament even if you’re down to only one chip – you have to be at zero instead.
Being familiar with all the tournament formats helps you in decision-making during the re-entry time. Some tournaments require you to give up your stack to get another one.
Let’s assume, for instance, your buy-in at a re-entry event is $300 and you receive 10000 chips. When the re-entry time ends and you’re only in possession of 100 chips, you may need to surrender the remaining stack and buy the 10000 chips for $100 again. Whether to do that depends entirely on you.
As you probably noticed, the tournament treats you as another new player whenever you re-enter. You’ll be required to pay a similar amount and you’ll get a similar amount of starting chips to play with. It’s just like when you joined the tournament for the first time. You’ll also get a new seat, just like every other new player.
Re-entry tournaments can offer unlimited re-entries or a specified amount of them, for example just one re-entry per player. Re-entering is possible only during the first few levels. Once the re-entry time is over, you can’t get back to the tournament if you run out of chips. After the re-entry time is over, you’ll often see players playing more conservatively than during the re-entry period. The majority of players approach re-entries similarly to traditional freezeouts.
How to determine the prize pool for tournaments
Now that you know the difference between tournament formats, we can talk more about how the prize pool is formed. The higher the number of tournament entries, the bigger prizes will be available at the top spots. Each tourney format has its perks and drawbacks in terms of the prize pool structure. Let’s dive deeper into how the prize money is distributed in each format:
Freezeout tournament prize pools
Calculating how much the winner receives in a freezeout is super easy. There are no rebuys or re-entries, so you can get a specified figure that the tournament sticks to. Organizers state this structure right from the start of the game.
The downside for this is obvious: If there’s no guaranteed prize pool, you might get a lower figure than you initially expected. Poker rooms can adjust the structure in case very few players take part in the event. But even in a case like this, the pool figure may remain low if the game doesn’t get much traction from the beginning. For example, the winner might get only 10x their buy-in if there are 40-50 runners in a freezeout.
Guaranteed prize pools are the best way to ensure appealing prizes at the top finishing places. You’ll find that most online tournaments offer guaranteed prize pools.
Rebuy & re-entry tournament prize pools
In rebuys or re-entries, prize pools are very likely to be much more than the amount of starting entries. You can expect most entrants to be willing to buy back after busting out to still compete for the win.
The downside to these formats is that you can’t tell the amount winners will receive. Unlike freezeouts, rebuys and re-entries don’t specify this figure from the start. This is because re-entries happen during the tournament play, so you can’t know how much you can expect. By limiting the amount of times you can activate re-entries, poker rooms can at least get estimates of the final size of the prize pool. For some players, this might be exciting instead of stressful. Winning even more than you thought you would is never bad news for a tournament player!
Multi-Table Tournament Payout Tables
So far we’ve laid out the general principles determining the prize pool in a tournament. Now, it’s time to walk through some examples of actual payout structures. Visualizing the payout structure without exact numbers can quickly get overwhelming. That’s why we’ve assembled several payout tables for you to figure out what players finishing in top positions get.
Below you can find the most common MTT payout structures used at World Series of Poker tournaments.
MTT Payout Structure with top 10% paid
|Position / Entries||41 to 50||51 to 60||61 to 75||76 to 100||101 to 125||126 to 150||151 to 200||201 to 250||251 to 300|
Typical MTT Payout Structure with top 15% paid
|Position / Entries||3 to 10||11 to 20||21 to 30||31 to 40||41 to 50||51 to 60||61 to 75|
MTT Payout Structure with top 20% paid
|Position / Entries||501 to 600||601 to 800||801 to 900||901 to 1000||1001 to 1250||1251 to 1500||1501 to 1750||1751 to 2000|
Payout structures in poker tourneys can be difficult to get the hang off at first. How much the winner will get is based on factors like the number of players, the buy-in, the payout structure, and the tournament format. By bookmarking our guide to payout structures, you can always check how prize pools are formed in different formats.
Next time you’re about to play a real money poker tournament, you’ll have a better idea of how much you can expect to win and why you’re getting that specific amount. You’ll know whether a conservative or a top-heavy tournament payout structure suits your experience level and playing style. Remember the goal of tournament play is to outlast your opponents – it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Make the most of it and may the cards be with you all the way to the trophy!
Poker Tournament Payout Structure FAQ
In single-table tournaments, payouts follow a standard structure. Multi-table tournaments have a few different commonly used payout structures, with the top 10 to 20% of players getting paid. The winner gets anywhere between 15 to 40% of the total prize pool in a tournament with more than 20 entries.
The main difference between cash game and tournament play is in the payouts. Chips in cash games represent actual money that can be cashed out at any time. In tournaments, you pay a set entry fee to participate for the chance to win a portion of the total prize pool. The prize pool consists of all entry fees made in the tournament.
Each poker tournament costs the same amount for all players who decide to enter. Your entry fee to a poker tournament covers the prize pool part and the house fee taken as percentage of the buy-ins. In case the prize pool part is $100 and the rake is $8, the entry fee would be disclosed as $100+$8. Rake usually varies between 5% to 10% depending on the size of the buy-in. The higher the buy-in, the lower the rake usually is.
Anyone who can pay the entry fee and is of legal age can take part in a poker tournament. This is one of the best aspects of tournament poker, as you can compete against the best players in the world without having to qualify the same way as you would in sports.
No, tournament chips are only used for keeping track and cannot be cashed out for real money. You get a real money prize according to your finishing position in the tournament.
Poker tournaments generally last 6 to 10 hours online and 1 to 4 days in live play. In the modern online poker tournament series, the main events can sometimes last for several days as well. Every tournament will be played until there is a winner. There are a few exceptions to this rule though. A good example is a satellite with a set number of seats, or a deal is struck between the remaining players. If there’s no amount of money set aside from the prize pool, the tournament will end once a deal is reached.
The player who has all the chips at the end is crowned as the winner of the tournament. In the last phase of the tournament, two players are playing for the title. This phase is known as the heads-up.
In online poker, the seats of each player will be drawn at the beginning of the tournament. The most common way to determine seating order in live tournaments is by using a random draw. In a random draw, all players draw a card with a table and seat number when they enter the tournament.
Guaranteed tournaments have a set minimum prize pool that is announced many days or even weeks ahead of the event. The poker room is responsible for covering the missing part of the prize pool in case it falls short of the guaranteed amount. This can happen if there are not enough players participating to cover the guaranteed amount with their buy-ins. This situation is known as an overlay in poker lingo.
Guaranteed prize pools attract many players to chase a life-changing tournament win. That’s why they are great for the marketing purposes of poker sites and tournament organizers.
In 2019, Hossein Ensan won the WSOP title for $10 million and a golden bracelet plated with white and black diamonds. He beat 8,568 competitors in the process. 1286 of all competitors got paid at least $15,000 with all final table finishers receiving at least $1 million for their efforts.
Yes, as long as you’re at least 21 years old and can afford the buy-in. The cheapest option for a player to enter WSOP main event is by winning a WSOP satellite tournament. By winning a satellite, you can turn several hundred or a thousand dollars into a ticket worth $10,000.
An option to purchase extra tournament chips at the end of the rebuy period is called an add-on. The cost of the add-on is typically the same as the entry fee of the tournament.
ROI stands for Return On Investment. This metric measures how much money you win on average by playing tournaments once your buy-ins are subtracted from your winnings. The formula for calculating ROI is profit divided by the buy-ins times 100. Let’s say you’ve won $5,000 in total prize money and have played three tournaments, each costing $1,000 to enter. Your net profit is $5,000 – 3x$1,000 = $2,000. Therefore, your ROI would be calculated as $2,000/$3000 = 66.67%.
Johannes is the Editor in Chief at Beasts Of Poker and is an expert in both live & online poker. Johannes played online poker semi-professionally for 5 years while completing his Master’s Degree in Technology.