There are generally two formats you can spread for your home poker game — a tournament or a cash game. Let's look at each and then give you some things to think about as you decide which you want to have.
Tournaments vs. Cash Games
A home poker tournament is different from a cash game. In a cash game players buy in for different amounts of money, and are given chips based on the amount they've chosen. In a tournament, each player buys in for the same amount of money, receiving an equal stack of chips.
In a cash game, chips have a cash value, and players may exchange them for cash when they leave the game. In cash games, the amount you win or lose is determined by how much more money or less money you have when you cash out than the total amount for which you bought in.
In tournaments, the amount you win or lose is determined by where you finish in the tournament, with the person ending up with all the chips receiving the most money, and the players who last the longest receiving money in increasing amounts based on how long they last.
In a cash games, players may leave at any time (unless there is some house rule against leaving too soon). Meanwhile in a tournament you do not leave until you have either lost all your chips or when you end up as the winner with all the chips.
The technical distinctions between tournaments and cash games are easy enough to follow. But how do you decide whether to host a tournament or a cash game? Here are a few things to consider.
Tournaments are generally better for shorter bankrolls
If you have a group of players with shallow pockets, you can easily enjoy a poker tournament. Realize that you can charge any amount and then provide everyone with an equal stack of any amount.
If a $1.00 tournament is your speed, charge a buck for each player to enter the tournament. Then if you want to give everyone 30,000 in tournament chips to start as they do in the World Series of Poker Main Event, go right ahead. Why not? Everyone can act like a super high roller for next-to-nothing.
Buying in for small, "micro" amounts in cash games is a little tougher to do, and not nearly as exciting. Sure, you could have everyone buy in for $1.00. But then you're literally playing for pennies. That may feel a little less than fun for some of you.
Tournaments are generally better if you have beginners in the group
Since with tournaments you can limit the amount at risk, and since everyone starts with the same stack, a new player need not feel intimidated by the size of the stake nor the fact that others may be starting with an amount much greater than they are (as happens in cash games).
With so little money at stake, the small buy-in tournament can be more of a learning opportunity for new players.
Cash games are better if there's nothing else to do and you want a long evening
The problem with a tournament is that once you are knocked out, you really have nothing to do. One way of addressing this is to allow rebuys or reentries. That allows players to get back into the tournament by buying more chips once they get knocked out.
But the rebuys and reentries have to stop eventually. As soon as they do, you run the risk of folks busting out and having nothing to do until the tournament ends.
Cash games don't have that problem. Players can continue to buy more chips if they wish to stay longer. True, they may run out of money or otherwise not want to spend more money. But at least they have the option of continuing if they want to keep playing.
Cash games are better if players want to arrive at different times
While it's possible to have some players arrive late to a tournament, for the most part, you need to have an established starting time. Similarly, tournaments also have the practical requirement of keeping players at the table until they lose all their chips. Players really can't leave early.
If you have a crowd of players who want to come and go as they please, it only makes sense to spread a cash game.
Tournaments vs. Cash Games: You Can Do Both
Some try for the best of both worlds, by scheduling both a cash game and a tournament on the same night. This is generally done by having a tournament scheduled first, with cash games starting as soon as there are a few folks knocked out of the tournament.
Doing this provides one advantage of the tournament — that is, limiting the amount of money that people have to risk to be part of the evening. But then it tacks on a cash game afterwards, to keep the evening going for those who wish to continue to play (and who are willing to invest a little more).
The positive side of this is that players who get eliminated don't have to wait until the end of the tournament before they can play poker again. The downside is that you might not be able to get a cash game going if the other players who are knocked out early have no interest in playing one. You might wait for a critical mass of players only to be disappointed.
Similarly, some home games start with a cash game for those who arrive first, then have a tournament go off at a pre-scheduled time, and then continue to have a cash game when players start to get knocked out of a tournament. That procedure has the same advantages and disadvantages as the option stated above.
Tournaments and cash games each have something to recommend them when hosting your home game.
But one final word of advice — whatever you decide is best for your home game, make sure that the players know what it's going to be ahead of time. We poker players tend to be pig-headed and argumentative. If the host doesn't present a clear format in advance, you could spend most of your poker night debating about what exactly the format is going to be. And that's a disaster!
Ashley Adams has been playing poker for 50 years and writing about it since 2000. He is the author of hundreds of articles and two books, Winning 7-Card Stud (Kensington 2003) and Winning No-Limit Hold'em (Lighthouse 2012). He is also the host of poker radio show House of Cards. See www.houseofcardsradio.com for broadcast times, stations, and podcasts.