One of poker’s most prominent selling points is the sheer number of ways there are to play. Variants like Omaha offer exciting spins on the traditional Texas Holdem formula. Omaha offers a more draw-focused and methodical experience, while Holdem is known for emphasizing aggressive play and bluffs.

Having many ways to play is always a good thing. Every new player can find a form of poker they like, and veteran players have more options in case they get bored.

Another aspect of poker’s variety is its number of game formats. Cash games, tournaments, and sit-and-goes have distinct advantages, but many players aren’t aware of them.

If you’re struggling to find your main game format, this poker guide is for you. We’ll break down each game format, describing how they work and why you would choose them over the rest.

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Cash game breakdown

Cash games are the simplest and most well-known way to play poker. Nine to ten players sit at the table and play for real money. The entry fee, known as the buy-in, directly corresponds to your starting chip amount. The same goes for cashing out; chips are one-to-one with real money. There are minimum and maximum limits to buy-ins, and players who go broke can simply buy in again.

Players can leave at any time in between hands to cash out, so it’s common to see players come and go from a single table. Holdem also features a unique kind of cash game: 6-max. This format has no more than six players at the table, which leads to increased activity as the blinds get around the table faster.

Cash game pros and cons

Cash games offer two significant advantages for poker players. The first is their flexibility. You can enter and exit any time in between hands, meaning you can play poker for however long you want. This makes cash games the mode of choice for those with strict schedules or those who want the freedom to play whenever they want.

The second major advantage cash games have is their reliability. Blinds are fixed, and they don’t follow the elimination format of tournaments, so they reward consistent play. Cash games are far less subject to variance (the element of luck affecting your win).

Winning in cash games is about the long term; downswings and lucky streaks don’t affect your bankroll as much as they would in tournaments. This makes cash games the mode of choice for veteran grinders, thanks to their consistency. However, this can definitely make cash games feel more monotonous and grindy, especially since cash games usually attract tougher competition.

Tournament breakdown

Tournaments aren’t one constant game like cash games are. Instead, they are pre-scheduled events with a set start and end time. Players pay a fixed buy-in, starting with the same amount of chips. Multi-table tournaments are the most common kind, with thousands of players playing across different tables simultaneously.

Instead of playing for chips equivalent to money, tournaments follow an elimination format. Once a player loses all their chips, they are usually out. Some tournament formats offer rebuys, which allow a player to pay the entry fee and rejoin within a specific time window from the start of the tournament. However, most tournaments follow the freezeout format, which only allows you to buy in once.

In tournaments, the surviving players progress onto different tables. Blinds also increase at scheduled intervals to increase the rate of elimination. Tournament cash is distributed based on where you finished, and the prize pool comprises all the entrants’ buy-ins. The winner takes most of the prize pool, and most players don’t receive any cash.

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Tournament pros and cons

Tournaments have two main things going for them, and they are quite literally fame and fortune. Tournaments offer the largest single monetary rewards in the poker world, as winning a major tournament can net you millions of dollars, something cash games need time to match.

Additionally, tournaments are the foundation of poker’s competitive scene. Winning a major event like the World Series of Poker (WSOP) puts your name on the map. It establishes you as an up-and-coming poker player and can get you recognized worldwide.

However, the primary downsides of tournaments are their inflexibility and high variance. Jason Somerville likens them to lotteries “where the best players get more than one ticket.” The elimination format and the prize pool being heavily skewed towards the top 1% of entrants means you need a bigger bankroll to handle the swings of tournament life. Downswings can mean you have no income for months, so you must consider tournament variance.

Tournaments being scheduled events means you need to allot hours for them. You don’t know whether you’ll make it to the final table or get eliminated in the first round, so you must always plan as if you’ll last the tournament’s full duration.

Sit-and-go breakdown

Sit-and-goes act as a bridge between tournaments and cash games. They combine the elimination format of tournaments with the convenience and simplicity of cash games. Players register for sit-and-goes, getting their names placed on the list. The sit-and-go automatically starts when enough people are ready, solving the tournament problem of having a rigid start and end time.

Sit-and-goes also only take place on one table with nine to ten players. The top three players receive cash, which is usually a larger percentage of players than in multi-table tournaments. Finally, they have smaller but more frequent payouts, reducing the variance tournaments are prone to.

Sit-and-go pros and cons

Sit-and-goes can be seen as the best of both worlds for tournaments and cash games as they combine the benefits of both. While they don’t have the same massive prize pools tournaments have or the sheer consistency of grinding cash games, they are a good place to start if you have difficulty deciding between tournaments or cash games. The only real downside is sit-and-goes are rarely offered in a live setting. The registration format makes them far better online, so keep this in mind if you plan to play sit-and-goes at a casino.

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Which format is your favorite?

If you’re considering trying these game formats, the best way is to play poker online. While cash games and tournaments can be found offline, the digital nature of online poker gives you many more options to choose from. Cash games can be found of every stake, and online is also the one place you can find sit-and-goes easily.