The Wild World of Tournaments

Sizing up Tournaments: Which One Is Right for You?

If you’re the type of person who loves competition, then tournaments are just your ticket. And don’t worry about being a novice — most tournaments are very player-friendly and easy to understand. But before you play in a tournament (and ideally win), you need to know what you’re getting into before you jump in, head first. Although poker and blackjack are probably the best-known tournament competitions, tournaments in craps, slots, baccarat, Pai Gow poker, video poker, and keno draw good crowds and a loyal following. And even though hot spots such as Las Vegas host the biggest events, casinos all over the country regularly hold tournaments.

Betting on the Most Lucrative Tournaments

I used to assume that tournaments were a waste of time. I viewed them as similar to the lottery because their main appeal is the chance to turn a small initial investment into an astronomical sum. Instead of trying to get rich quickly, I made my first million the hard way — one chip at a time. I avoided shortcuts and methodically built up my bankroll to higher levels month after month.

I was dead wrong in my assessment of tournaments. They offer some of the best odds in the casino. But before you first start playing in tournaments, you need to find out how to evaluate a tournament to determine its profit potential. After you know that information, you can choose to play in only the most lucrative events.

Taking advantage of overlays

Unfortunately, there is no simple way to find out about overlays. They are more frequently online and in smaller events, but few places ever advertise that their tournaments are overlays. Players need to do the math themselves in most cases. A typical casino game rarely pays back more than 98 percent to its customers, which means you will lose at least $2 for every $100 wagered. But many tournaments return all the entry fees back to the players in prize money, making these events a tremendous value. And some tournaments offer lucrative overlays, giving players a return of more than 100 percent on their gambling dollar.

Finding a freeroll (Who says you can’t get a free lunch?)

For the budget-minded, the surest way to get an edge is to play in only freeroll tournaments. These tournaments are becoming very common in poker and involve absolutely no risk (hence the catchy name). Here’s how they work: A casino puts up all the prize money and gives you a fixed amount of special tournament chips. There is no entry fee so you can’t possibly lose.

Eyeing the competition over cocktails

After you enroll in a larger tournament, make sure you attend the welcome reception. During this time, you receive your information packet, which includes the tournament rules and details about your starting time and the location of your table or machine. The tournament director normally speaks at this function and answers your questions.

During this reception, make sure you mingle with and meet your opponents. If you’re new to the scene, finding a veteran of the circuit to help show you the ropes can be quite helpful. Most tournament players are quite social and are usually willing to share tips to make your first foray into this new world more successful.

Playing with fixed chips

Before the tournament begins, you receive a fixed amount (such as $500) of chips (for table-games tournaments) or credits (for slot machines or video poker tournaments). In most cases, the chips you use in tournaments equate to funny money — they’re non-negotiable and have no real value.

The great part is that you can never lose more than your original entry fee. Playing with a fixed amount of chips can create a totally different dynamic than playing in a no-tournament game.

Seating yourself in the tournament section

Typically, casinos hold tournaments in a section set aside, especially for the event. Often casinos reprogram slot machines or enhance blackjack rules to give you a greater chance of winning. Casinos assign each table or slot machine a number for the tournament so that you know where to go when your session begins. Unlike typical casino play, you’re usually assigned your seat in a tournament to ensure fairness, because position becomes very important in many tournaments. Most tournaments allow spectators to watch the events, and each round normally lasts an hour or less, so there is ample time for breaks and kibitzing.


When playing tournament table games, such as blackjack and craps, just remember one important point: Whoever finishes with the highest total of chips advances from each table? So even if you have a great run, all your “profit” is worthless unless you win your table and advance, which creates some wild and wacky finishes.

Unfortunately, no one-size-fits-all advice applies to every type of game. The tips that help you in blackjack may have no bearing at all in a Pai Gow tournament. With that caveat in mind, the following principles are helpful for craps, blackjack, and Pai Gow tournaments.

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