How often should I finish in the money when playing poker tournaments?

If you play poker tournaments on a regular basis (and want to make a profit), then the question of winning frequency is an important one. Of course, you cannot win every tournament you buy in for, even if you were playing 100% perfect poker. Variance can be a bitch, but without it, poker would not be fun at all, right?

How to reduce variance

Variance mainly depends on two two factors: first, your strategy, and second your choice of smaller or bigger poker tournaments. As far as strategy goes, it it safe to assume that a somewhat tighter, "small ball"-type of poker strategy will reduce variance. This type of play is all about keeping pots small and not risking more than app. 25% of your chips in any hand (unless you have a monster). Obviously, this strategy works best in tournaments with more participants, deep stacks and when the blinds go up slowly.

Secondly, variance depends on which kind of poker tournaments you play. If you want to keep variance at a minimum, you could choose to play 10-player or even 6-player SitnGos, or tournaments where you know that not too many players register. Of course, the potential reward is limited in those. The answer to the question from the headline for one-table SNGs is that you need to end up in the money at least once out of two tourneys. Minimum cash will usually mean that you win one buy-in, and your profit will come from eventually winning top or second prize every once in a while.

In the money in multi-table poker tournaments

Let's take two types of tournaments as example to show you a profitable win rate:

First, a tournament with a field of 100 players, $100 buy-in and a somewhat "flat" payout structure. Especially online tournaments usually pay a smaller amount to first or second place, in favor of paying out more players. After all, the online poker room has an interest in not frustrating the majority of players, they want their customers coming back and keep the poker money in circulation.

If you play 10 of those tournaments, the buy-in will cost you a total of $1000. The tournament will have a total prize money of $10,000 and first place pays approximately $2000 (20%), $1500 (15%) for second and $1000 (10%) for third place. You will show a profit if you:

  • win a minimum cash 6 times out of ten, meaning you win $1200 minus your investment, giving you a $200 profit
  • min cash once and finish 3rd once: $200 plus $1000 minus $1000 for buy-ins = $200 profit
  • min cash twice and finish second once: $400 plus $1500 minus $1000 = $900 profit
  • finish in 1st place just once: $2000 minus $1000 for buy-ins = $1000 profit

That also means that finishing in first place once in 20 tournaments played will allow you to break even.

Things look a little different when a tournament pays less players, or when the prize money structure is more skewered towards the first three finishers. Often times, you will see the winner take home 25% or even 30% of the total prize money. Obviously, in this case it will not be enough to win the minimum cash 5 times out of 10 since min cash may be no more than 1.5 buy-ins. On the other hand, winning one of those tournaments will cover your buy-ins for a decent number of tournaments for the future.

Let's take an example of a major live poker tournament with a buy-in of $500 and 1000 participants. Total prize mone to be won now is $500,000, and let's say the winner will take home 30% of that, making first place worth $150.000, or 150 buy-ins. Now that is serious step forward BUT it even with the top pros, it is not unheard of that they may play 100 of those tournaments and not win even once.

All that said, we advise you to take a look at your bankroll and divide it by at least 50. The number you get is the buy-in per tournament you can afford. Keep track of your winnings and go on playing until you bankroll has either fallen by 50% or you have doubled it. Then, redo the calculation and move on to smaller or bigger tournaments. That way, you avoid going bankrupt, which has to be your main concern.