The generally accepted maxim when ranking the best tournament poker sites is that bigger is better. Large, high-traffic poker sites indeed tend to have the most tournament selection. The more active players there are, the easier it is to find large tournaments at any time of day. However, basing your decision entirely on traffic ignores several other important factors that players should consider.
Let’s begin with a quick look at the best poker sites for tournaments and then discuss the details below.
Any page-ranking poker tournament sites would be remiss in failing to mention the giant of them all: PokerStars. PokerStars has been the go-to site for tournaments for years now. It is the biggest poker site of them all and is usually home to the largest guaranteed prize pool events on the internet. No other poker site has sent more players to the WSOP or created more overnight millionaires than PokerStars.
The odds are pretty decent that you’ll find yourself at PokerStars are some point or another. It’s just too big a poker site to ignore forever. However, I wouldn’t consider PokerStars to be the end-all, be-all of poker tournaments. There are plenty of other sites with their own competitive advantages. It would be worth your while to look into a couple of alternatives and keep an account open at one or two other sites. At the very least, doing so will give you access to that many more tournaments every week.
Trying to rank anything as “the best” will always be a bit of an exercise in subjectivity. Some of it depends on what you are looking for in particular. For example, big prize pools are always nice, but they don’t help much if you’re on a strict budget and can’t pony up a $215 entry fee to take a seat.
If you’re not a high-volume player, the other poker sites on this page will treat you just as well. In fact, I like the above poker sites even more than PokerStars as far as software and softness go. These PokerStars alternatives offer fast, leaner software and are full of inexperienced players. Generally, I’ve found the tournaments at these other sites to be softer and easier to cash in.
Tournaments come in many different shapes and sizes these days. You’ll find tournaments for Texas Holdem, Omaha, 7 Card Stud, and many others. Breaking it down even further, you’ll find standard freezeouts, guaranteed tournaments, satellites, rebuys, and more for each game type. Some tournaments progress very quickly while others progress slowly, giving you more time to work.
You can read more about the most common tournament formats (and see more suggestions) on the following pages:
Tournaments that award free entry to larger events.
The biggest poker tournaments in the world award life-changing amounts of money to those who finish well. A perfect example of this is the World Series of Poker Main Event with first-place prizes that regularly top $10 million.
We all dream of winning a big one, but there’s just one inconvenient fact: the biggest prize pool tournaments have the highest buy-in fees. Going back to our WSOP example, the cost of entry to that one is a cool $10,000.
Well, there is some good news. Many of the people you see competing in major tournaments on TV did not actually get there by paying the normal entry fee. In many cases, people win their seats for a fraction of the cost by playing in online satellite tournaments.
Where Can I Find Satellites Online?
Everywhere. Every poker site on the planet hosts satellite tournaments every day of the week. Satellites are super-popular and easy to organize. Plus, they serve as useful “feeders” into the bigger events that most people couldn’t normally afford. Satellites give more people a chance to play and help funnel money into bigger events.
How Satellite Tournaments Work
A satellite tournament awards entry into larger tournaments instead of traditional cash prizes. Satellites to big events always attract a lot of attention because they give everyday people a shot at competing for serious money in a bigger event.
Chris Moneymaker serves as the classic example of satellite tournament success. In 2003, he played in a $39 satellite tournament online and won it. Instead of a cash prize, Chris was given free airfare, accommodations, and entry to that year’s WSOP in Las Vegas. He won the WSOP main event and ended up taking home the $2.5 million first-place prize, creating an online poker “boom” in the process!
Two-and-a-half million might not sound like much in comparison to today’s WSOP prizes, but that was before the online poker boom (which we now attribute partially to the “Moneymaker Effect”). WSOP prize pools surged every year after thanks to widespread interest in online satellite tournaments.
Not All Satellites are for Live Events
Satellite tournaments come in all shapes and sizes. Some send you to major land-based events but many others award entry to larger online tournaments.
If you’re not keen on competing against hundreds of people for a single seat but don’t have the money to throw at a high buy-in satellite, step tournaments may be a better option.
Step or “tiered” satellites are hosted as single-table tournaments with roughly 5-6 different tiers. Each tier awards free entry to the next level up, and you can win your way through the levels until you reach the highest level and compete at a single table for free entry to the main event.
In most cases, step satellites also offer consolation prizes to those who finish in 2nd or 3rd place. Sometimes you’ll get a second chance to play at the same level or be knocked down a level.
Satellites are the best way for average players to earn a shot at the biggest prizes in poker. Thousands of people have competed in the WSOP through satellites since Chris Moneymaker took the Main Event all the way back in 2003 (he qualified through a $39 online event). It’s something you can do right now with the computer or mobile device you’re using to read these words.
Simply winning a seat is an accomplishment in its own right. You’ll have the trip of a lifetime and play poker with some of the best players in the world. Plus, you’ll have a great story to tell even if you don’t win. Speaking of winning, this year’s WSOP Main Event is projected to offer payouts to the top 1,000 places with no prize smaller than $15,000.
How WSOP Qualifiers Work
WSOP qualifiers play just like any other tournament with one exception. Instead of competing for cash, you’ll be competing for a prize package that includes travel, hotel, your $10,000 entry fee, and maybe a little extra spending money. If you take first place in a qualifier, you’ll be sent to Las Vegas free of charge.
Poker sites can afford to offer all this money because WSOP satellites attract lots of interest. The buy-ins for a single tournament are used to pay for the entire prize package, usually valued at around $12,000. So if you play in a $200 qualifier, one prize package will be awarded for every 60 or so participants.
Likewise, a $100 qualifier would award one WSOP trip for every 120 participants. It all comes down to how much the tournament costs and how many people sign up. Cheaper satellites are more affordable but pit you against a greater number of opponents, while more expensive satellites are easier to win.
You can also play in much cheaper pre-qualifiers. Pre-qualifiers are basically just satellites into bigger poker tournaments.
The World Series of Poker is far from the only poker event that spurs online satellites. If you play at the right poker sites, you’ll find qualifiers for a whole plethora of major land-based and online events. One of the more popular of these is the European version of the WSOP.
The WSOPE (World Series of Poker Europe) is hosted in a different European city every two years. It used to be an annual event, but organizers now alternate each year between an Asian and European WSOP. In both cases, you’ll find plenty of satellites in the months leading up to the big event.
Sit and Go Tournaments
Poker SNG tournaments are not scheduled; they begin once enough players have paid the buy-in. SNGs can be hosted as single-table tournaments or multi-table events.
The best poker sites for sit-and-go tournaments (SNGs) are those with the greatest amount of traffic. Because SNGs only happen once enough players have paid for a seat, you need a certain level of traffic to support a healthy sit-n-go ecosystem. The more players there are, the faster the tournaments fill at all stakes.
Beyond that, it’s also worth considering the skill of the competition, variety in tournament types, and rake. Altogether, these factors make it a pretty straightforward job to recommend the top poker sites for SNGs.
How SNGs Work
What makes SNGs different than standard multi-table tournaments (MTTs) is that SNGs don’t start at a set time. Instead, they start as soon as every open seat has been claimed. In the case of a standard 9-person SNG, the tournament begins once nine people have paid the buy-in to join the tournament.
The tournament then progresses in a normal fashion with slowly increasing blinds until only one player remains standing. Payouts for a standard single table tournament give about 50% of the prize pool to first place, 30% to second place, and 20% to second place. For example, a $20 SNG with 9 players would have a total prize pool of $180. The payouts would work out to something like this:
- 1st Place: $90
- 2nd Place: $54
- 3rd Place: $36
Types of Poker SNG Tournaments
The widespread popularity of SNGs has led poker sites to introduce all manner of variants to keep things further interesting. Let’s take a look at some types of SNGs that you’re likely to encounter.
Single table tournaments (STTs)
This is the most basic, traditional type of tournament we think of when we hear the phrase “sit and go.” You square off against 9 or 10 opponents and play until one person has all the chips.
Multi table SNGs
These are just like regular SNGs but with more seats. Multi-table SNGs can have seats for 18, 27, 45 or even 180 players.
The blinds move at a faster pace in turbos – perfect if you’re short on time or specialize in late-game strategy.
You pay the normal entry fee, and the prize pool is randomly selected. You usually end up playing for a standard prize pool, but it’s possible to play for double, triple, or even 2,000 times the normal prize pool. An extra fee is tacked on to the buy-in to pay for the occasional large prize pool.
Some tournaments are specially marked as “jackpot” SNGs. They work like normal SNGs but promise huge payouts if you win multiple tournaments in a row. Oftentimes, there is a progressive jackpot that grows over time until one player takes first place in 4, 5, or 6 tournaments in a row.
Instead of winning cash, you are given an entry to a larger buy-in tournament with a significantly larger prize pool. Satellites make bigger tournaments that are otherwise affordable more accessible to everyone.
Steps are similar to satellites but with more steps between the “first” and “last” tournament. You start at the bottom in a low buy-in tournament and then work your way up through the levels if you place well. Oftentimes, the prizes work out so that the first place finisher moves up a level, second place gets to try again, and third place moves down a level. You can buy in directly at any level.
The final tournament is normally a large buy-in single table event with a large prize on offer. Sometimes it’s a simple cash prize worth several thousand dollars, and others it might be a paid trip to a major land-based tournament.
Shorthanded and Heads-Up
These are standard SNGs but with fewer people. It’s common to see heads-up, 4-person and 6-person tournaments in this category.
Double or Nothing
A double or nothing tournament flattens the payout structure so that the top 50% of the field gets double their buy-in. For example, a $10 double-up SNG with 10 people would award $20 to 1st through 5th place.
Double or Nothings end as soon as half the players have been knocked out.
Bounty poker tournaments work just like any other tournament type with one twist: some or all of the players have additional bounties placed on their heads. Whenever you knock out a player with a bounty, that money is credited directly to your account. Bounties are paid instantly, no matter how you perform in the overall tournament.
The majority of bounty tournaments place a fixed bounty on the head of every player. This is paid for by designating a portion of each player’s buy-in to the bounty fee. As you knock players out, you collect bounties and get paid.
Some tournaments place bounties on specific players only. This is common in tournaments with poker site representatives or celebrity poker players. In these, the poker site usually pays the bounty fee as an incentive for people to join the tournament and attempt to knock out the pros.
Tournaments that cost nothing to enter but still offer real money prizes.
Poker sites are always hosting freerolls to generate interest, attract signups and reward loyal players. Freerolls are a major step up from play money tournaments in one key detail: you can actually win real money.
The basic idea is simple. You pay no entry fee and then compete against other people for real cash prizes. If you’re limited on funds or would like to polish your tournament skills for cheap, freeroll tournaments are the way to go.
Some poker freerolls award prizes that you can parlay into serious cash. It’s fairly common for poker sites to host promotions in which they hold freeroll satellite tournaments that award free seats to bigger, paid events.
There’s an almost endless variety when you consider all possible configurations of tournament rules and payouts. Even tournaments in which half the field gets paid double their buy-in or a third of the field are paid three times their buy-in. You can also expect to see frequent satellite tournaments in which the top prize is a paid trip to compete in a major land-based event such as the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.
Level of Competition
Some poker tournament sites are undeniably softer than others in terms of the skill of the average player. There is a correlation between the size of the poker site and the level of competition in my experience. The larger a poker site, the more likely it is that you will run into skilled players.
The reason for this relationship is simple. Large poker sites are where the grinders go. Imagine you’re a skilled player who relies on poker to pay the bills. You would undoubtedly be drawn to the large sites where a new tournament is kicking off every few seconds. Large sites offer the volume that makes it possible to multi-table tournaments day in and day out.
Dedicated grinders avoid smaller sites, and the general level of skill is lower as a result. If you don’t need to be in a new tournament every few minutes, a small-to-medium poker site may actually be the best fit for your needs. Conversely, you’ll want to go with a larger site if you plan to play multiple tournaments a day.
However, there eventually comes the point of diminishing returns when we talk about small poker sites. Some poker sites are so small that it’s hard to find enough tournaments to keep even the most casual players satisfied. You’ll need to balance your desire for soft competition with the frequency of tournaments. You can read more about these topics on the following pages.
- High Traffic Sites: The largest poker sites ranked in order of average traffic numbers
- Small Poker Sites: A ranking of small-to-medium poker sites
- Loose Poker Sites: Poker sites ranked by the general level of competition
The key advantage tournaments have over cash games is that your total risk and potential reward are completely manageable. You know exactly how much money you will risk (the buy-in) and how much money you stand to win (the first place prize). You can decide ahead of time how much money you’re willing to risk – once you pay your buy-in, that’s it. You can now focus your efforts on winning cash.
The biggest prize pools are always found at the biggest poker sites. A large player pool results in more people able and willing to pay the buy-in and push the prize pool up. If your primary concern is maximizing your potential, a big poker site is ideal.
The one thing to keep in mind is that large tournaments are significantly more difficult to cash. Just take a look at PokerStars, where tournaments sometimes exceed 6,000 players. That’s a crazy number of people you’re going to have to outlast, and chips you’re going to have to collect even to get a whiff of the money. While winning a big tournament is a lovely feeling, it’s not going to happen very often.
By contrast, smaller tournaments are easier to win. The big drawback is that the prizes aren’t as impressive. You will win more often but for less money. Neither format is “better” than the other. Both have their pros and cons. To a point, choosing the best poker tournament site is subjective. The most important thing you can do is only stick with well-known and reputable poker sites.