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Three Strategies for Approaching Freeroll Tournaments

  • Robert WoolleyRobert Woolley
Three Strategies for Dealing With Freeroll Tournaments


  • Learn the pros and cons of freeroll tournaments sometimes offered by live poker rooms as promotions.

  • Is it worth putting in the hours at the cash tables to qualify for a freeroll tournament? It depends.

Today I’m returning to my occasional looks at correct strategies to take advantage of the various kinds of promotions that poker rooms sometimes offer. Having talked before about “splash pot” and “aces cracked” promotions and high-hand bonuses, today I want to discuss another popular kind of promotion — the freeroll tournament.

The basic idea is that the poker room tracks your hours over the course of some period of time. This is most often done over the course of a month, but I’ve seen places do it by week, and at least one that did it for a whole year. Everybody who puts in some set number of hours playing cash games during the specified time period then wins a free entry into a tournament, with cash prizes for the top finishers.

In some casinos, it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. That is, you either qualify or you don’t, and every qualifier starts the tournament with the same chip stack. In others, it’s a graduated reward, and you get more starting tournament chips the more hours you have played.

The advantage of such a promotion to a player is obvious — you get a shot at some “free” money. That’s in scare quotes because in reality the money is just being redistributed to the players, after having been taken from them by way of an extra tax on every pot.

The disadvantages may be less obvious, but they’re just as real.

One thing worth noting is how this kind of promotion almost exclusively targets locals. Tourists who are in town for just a few days will almost never qualify — and even if they do, they probably won’t be around when it’s time for the tournament. As a result, freeroll tournaments transfer money from tourists to local players.

Keep in mind also that freeroll promotions are justly notorious for attracting hordes of the nittiest players in the city. Retirees with no other time commitments plop themselves down at a poker table and read a book, watch sports, play video games, or browse the internet while there’s a poker game going on under their noses. They fold for hours at a time, playing only their premium hands as they rack up enough hours to qualify for the freeroll. They also take long, frequent breaks from the game, leaving it short-handed.

Some other potential disadvantages associated with freerolls can include:

  • They cause you to commit your playing hours to one poker room when others are available, which means that sometimes you can’t go where the best action is. This likely cuts your maximum hourly rate of profits.
  • If you are better at cash games and don’t play tournaments well, you’re at a disadvantage for winning your fair share of the money back in the freeroll.
  • Trying to meet the required number of hours can also make you pressure yourself to play even when you’re tired, out of sorts, or off your A-game. If it does, you’re very likely to lose a lot more during the cash games than you’ll ever make back in the tournament.

Also worth noting with regard to freerolls is how many casinos run the tournaments not with graduated payouts, but with all who make the money getting equal pay — call it a mandatory, multi-way chop as soon as the bubble bursts. That means that neither the most skilled tournament players nor the biggest stacks are proportionately rewarded.

So how should you approach such a promotion? Let me suggest three justifiable general strategies.

1. Given the severe disadvantages noted above, you can just stay as far away from that poker room as you can. In fact, I heartily endorse doing so.

2. Take the promotion as icing on the cake. That is, make your usual decisions about when and where to play as if the freeroll were not a consideration. If after doing so it looks like you can qualify with only fairly minor stretches of your endurance, or with only a session or two at a nittier game than you could otherwise choose, then go for it.

3. Make a serious effort to qualify for the tournament only if all of the following describe you:

  • You can put in the time without playing when you’re not at your best, and without sacrificing all the other commitments you have in your life.
  • You’ll be available for the tournament.
  • You play tournaments at least as well as the others who will be in it.
  • You’re good at beating tight, nitty, and sometimes short-handed cash games.
  • Your other poker cash-game options are not meaningfully better during the qualifying period.

When I lived in Las Vegas, I mostly followed strategy No. 2 — that is, viewing the freeroll as a bonus that had no effect on my usual playing habits and preferences. Occasionally, however, a poker room would offer a freeroll sufficiently juicy to make it worthwhile to turn to strategy No. 3 temporarily.

For the most part, however, I think freeroll tournaments as a reward for cash-game hours are a bad deal for both tourists and locals. They’re a bad deal for tourists because part of the pots you win is being held back as prize money in a tournament you effectively can’t enter. They’re a bad deal for locals because you end up in lousy cash games for a whole lot of hours, when you could make more money — and have much more fun — elsewhere, assuming you have a choice of more than one poker room.

Robert Woolley lives in Asheville, NC. He spent several years in Las Vegas and chronicled his life in poker on the “Poker Grump” blog.

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