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How to Set Your Home Game Tournament Structure

Kaja recently asked about the live homegame tournament structures that I've played, and it came to my attention that this is a topic that I hadn't really discussed. I have a lot of experience with homegame tournaments, from quick super turbos like the 10 min blind levels at the Roose Game and long-form tournaments, like the rebuy for two hours, two table tournaments at the I Had Outs game. I never considered myself to be particularly adept at tourney structures, but at the recent Wall Street Game, where I was surprisingly the second-to-last person to arrive (and took 4th place for $19 profit on a $70 buy-in, no rebuys needed), host Jamie asked me to audit the format to ensure that it was proper for the longer-form tournament he wished to run.

I looked at the structure, and it was pretty standard. If you follow the traditional 25/50 starting blinds, there are two blind levels that are essentially the key to a longer or shorter tournament: 75/150 and 150/300. Jamie opted for the second of the two tweener levels, which is probably the smarter choice between the two, assuming you don't want to use both.

Ultimately, when I am looking at a structure, I want to know when the big blind reaches to 1/10th of the starting stacks. In Jamie's tournament, we started with 5000 chips, and the structure was as follows (as best as I can remember):

25/50, 25 mins.
50/100, 25 mins.
100/200, 25 mins.
100/200, 25 ante, 25 mins. (last blind period for rebuys)
150/300, 25 ante, 20 mins.
200/400, 50 ante, 20 mins.
300/600, 50 ante, 20 mins.
and so on...

According to Jamie's format, the BB reaches 1/10th of starting stacks at the 100 minute mark. Since this is a one-table tournament with an 11-person table, that meant that at around that mark, a good 1/2 of the players will be shortstacked. After all, if no one is busted, the average stack is just about at 10x the BB (or, more accurately significantly less, since its 600 BB and an ante, with a 5k starting stack). The point is, for me, this feels like the part where certain players are bound to be shortstacked.

From there, you have to factor in how many players are left and add in more time accordingly. Again, it is an art, not a science. I don't have any magic formula, but I can offer some general suggestions for setting your blind structure.

Start the blinds at either 1/50 to 1/100 of the starting stacks for an average tournament length. I used to play a homegame with blinds of 1/2, 2/4, 4/8, and so on. We started with 200 chips. This may appear vastly different than a 25/50, 50/100, 100/200 structure, but if that 25/50 structure has 5k in chips, its exactly the same (although, psychologically, the game may play different).

Next, figure out how long you want your tournament to run. Then, pick your final blinds with that goal in mind. You can end any tournament at any time if you set the blinds right. For example, if you only have 6 people and want to run an hour-long tournament (which, admittedly, is a bit turbo of you, but who am I to judge), with starting stacks of 2000 chips, plan on having the blinds reach about 400/800 by the end of the hour. By that point, if players aren't voluntarily all-in with any two cards, they will be blinded all-in with any two cards anyway. It might seem low, but if you tell people ahead of time about the structure, it is up to them to play accordingly. In that scenario, with 2000 in chips and a 1 hour desired time limit, I would set blinds at 25/50, 50/100, 100/200, 200/400, 300/600 and 400/800 with 10 minute blind levels. I would also tell everyone to pay attention so we can get as many hands in as possible given the time constraints. Admittedly, this structure will really last slightly more than 1 hour, depending on the play, but it won't get much farther because at the 1 hr mark, you are playing 500/1000 with only 12,000 chips in play.

Oh yeah, chips in play. I've discussed stack sizes compared to the big blind, which is key to figure out when players will sincerely begin dropping out of the tournament. Sure, some guy may bust in the first 5 mins with KK v. AA, but you can almost guarantee bust outs to begin seriously accumulating when the BB reaches 1/10th of the starting stacks. To determine the end of the tournament, just figure out when the total number of chips reaches is only 20x the BB. So, for a 10-person table with 2k in chips, there are 20,000 chips in play. When blinds reach 500/1000, if there are more than two players left, then each player has on average less than 10x the BB and someone is busting really soon, even if they are all even with ~6.5k stacks. Likewise, if they are heads-up, the game should not last longer than perhaps one more blind period because the blinds will force the action.

This isn't rocket science, but as I said earlier, it is a bit of an art. I could offer a generic structure, but truthfully, you can find that online by searching for "homegame tournament structure." These are the considerations you can use when tweaking a structure or determining how someone else's structure will affect the play.

Quick recap:

One last example to demonstrate. Johnny Poker wants to throw a home game. He gets 18 people to RSVP. The game is supposed to start at 2pm on a Sunday, but Johnny has to get everyone out of his house by 9pm because his wife is on the rag and giving him shit about his poker habit. The only way we can save Johnny from a trip to the pokey for knocking out his yapping harpy of a wife is to help him with his structure. Johnny has ample chips that he purchased for way over market price at the beginning of the poker boom (and now sell for peanuts).

With 18 players, and a 6 hour time limit, I would want players to start dropping out several hours into the game. You want players to feel like they are getting some play for their money. Let's use a 5000 starting stack, since there is the psychological component of giving players more chips (as opposed to 2k). Don't believe me? Check some casinos out. At Showboat in AC, they offer a few different buy-in tournaments. Some tourneys have 10k chips, whereas others have significantly less...but the 10k chip tournaments usually start at a higher blind level. In other words, there is no benefit to the higher starting stack aside from the psychology of the players. 10k for $120 instead of that stupid 4k for $75. SUCKERS! Yeah, not so much.

With 5k stacks, I want to reach blinds of around 250/500 in about 2 hours, to start weeding out players. Since we usually don't have that blind level, we'll try to make the 300/600 level somewhere near the 2.5 hour mark. Remember, once players bust, the average chip stack will increase, so if a bunch bust at that 2.5 mark, the other players will have cushion for several more blind levels. That's why we need to consider the total chips in play. With 5k stacks and 18 players, there are 90,000 chips in play. Divide that by 20 and we get 4500. So, to really end the game, we need blinds to reach about 2000/4000. The game will definitely end by 3000/6000.

We've set some water marks. We want to hit 300/600 at about 2.5 hours, and 2000/4000 at around 5 hours (leaving Johnny time to clean up before the wife gets home). Let's see what I come up with:

25/50 <--Standard Start 50/100 100/200 200/400 300/600 This is the standard starting structure. If we give each level 30 minutes, we will reach the end of the 600 level at about the 2.5 mark. That's a bit too fast, so let's add one of those extra middle levels.

25/50 <-- Standard Start 50/100 100/200 150/300 200/400 300/600 <--Starts at 2.5 hours into the tournament. Ends at 3 hours into the tournament. Now we are talking. We start the 300/600 level at 2.5 hours into the tournament exactly, using the 30 minute levels. I chose 30 minutes after I chose my levels, in order to reach the 2.5 hour goal. If we wanted to finish faster, I would spead up the blind levels or drop levels altogether. Now let's look at the second half of the tournament, when we begin to whittle down players we only have 4.5 hours to get rid of everyone.

400/800 <-- Standard next step after 300/600
1500/3000 <--Some people skip this level, but I believe, personally, that it is too much to jump from 1k/2k to 2k/4k.

Give each of these levels 30 minutes and you'll reach the 3000/6000 level at the 6.5 hour mark and complete it before moving to 4000/8000 at the 7 hour mark. This is cutting it close, so you may want to ditch the 500/1000 level, but realistically, the game will be over by the beginning of the 3000/6000 level.

Naturally, there are many variables to consider, like late starts due to late players or breaks, but if you start with the ideas I set up, you will make sure that your tournament is not over too fast or too slow. I also did not include antes, which naturally speed up the bust-out process. Frankly, though, I do not recommend antes for home games. If you want to speed up the action, just increase the blinds or decrease the speed of the blind levels (prior to the tournament). And remember, there will probably be at least one person doubting your structure. That's fine, but don't doubt yourself. Once you start putting it up for a vote, nothing will get done. A well run poker homegame should be a benevolent dictatorship. You may take suggestions, but in the end, a strong host/"floor" is needed to ensure that disputes can be resolved if anything comes up.

This was all put together on the fly, so I am very curious if anyone can offer further insight.

Until next time, make mine poker!

posted by Jordan @ 12:02 PM,


At 10:20 PM, Blogger KajaPoker said...

Thanks J. I usually just do the total chips in play/BB to see at what level we reach shovefest mode. Good pointers about some of the other stuff.

At 12:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

1) Jordan, you must not be very far out of law school, because your "Johnny Poker" example reads just like a hypo from an Examples & Explanations text.

2) The advice is pretty spot on. For an example of a good tournament structure, check out the structure at the Showboat (no rebuys) or the Orleans (rebuys). Bad structures: Ceasar's AC, almost any poker room on the strip. The bad (and by bad I mean short) structures tend to increase the blinds by 50-100%, as opposed to 25-33% in the better structures. They also tend to start antes sooner, double antes every level, and/or move antes and blinds up simultaneously.

At 12:58 AM, Blogger Uncle Chuck said...

No further insight necessary... all I ask is the obvious... when is the "smoke break"?

At 10:00 PM, Blogger junkbutton said...

For those that maybe ain't so good with their numbers, the Poker Genie is real handy. You just give it the information (# of players, # of chips, how long you want the tourney to run for, etc.) and it tells you how much to give your players and keeps the time for you. It's real handy...


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