A Guide to Running Your Own Poker Tournament

By Randy Ray
Published on May 14, 2018
Poker Night, Hand Holding Money, Poker Chips and Playing Cards, and Poker Tournament

Many experienced poker players have a good idea of how tournaments run. After all, they’ve experienced the seat assignments, buy-in levels, and varying rules from one tourney to the next.

But running a poker tournament involves more nuances than the average player realizes. This is especially true if you’re trying to stage an official-feeling tourney for your buddies and acquaintances.

You must consider many factors if you want to run the best poker tournament possible. And if you’re holding a charity poker event, you’ll need to take additional considerations into account.

I’m going to discuss how you can set up and run a poker tournament. This guide will especially be helpful to anybody who’s holding a home-based tourney for serious poker-playing friends.

I’ll also discuss additional points that you must know if you’re going to run a charity poker tournament.

Invite Players to Your Poker Tournament and Consider the Security

The first thing you need to do is make sure that you have enough players to hold a poker tournament. You also must decide how big the event will be.

Any group of buddies can hold a small sit and go with 4-5 players. But you’ll want more participants if you’re envisioning a grand event.

I suggest recruiting anywhere from 10-20 players if you’re aiming for a high-caliber home tournament.

You should also consider other factors when deciding how many players to invite, including the buy-in size and what type of people will be playing.

These factors go together because you don’t want to hold a $500 buy-in home tournament and invite players who’ll be telling everybody they know. This creates security issues and can lead to the game being robbed.

This sounds extreme, but home poker robberies do happen when the wrong people catch wind that there’s a large prize pool involved.

Most home poker tournaments don’t have buy-ins worth more than $50 to $100. But if you’re hosting a high-stakes event, you should consider hiring security.

This also seems extreme, but it’s a good precaution when you’re holding a larger tournament with big buy-ins involved.

I recommended inviting as many high-character individuals as you can.  Some players tend to get out of hand and cause controversy during a poker tourney.

You’ve likely seen World Series of Poker clips where . The good news for WSOP officials is that they have plenty of security in case anything goes too far.

This is enough deterrent to keep WSOP players in line. But the same instances can lead to fights in a home game where there’s no security personnel to back up the tournament director.

This is another area where hiring one or two security guards can help. Security ensures that you don’t have to deal with unreasonable, drunken players yourself.

Get Everything You Need for the Poker Tournament

You need the right supplies to hold a good poker tournament. And the better the supplies you get, the more official your tourney will feel.

Here are the main items that you want:

  • Poker chips
  • Chip trays
  • Poker tables
  • Timer for blind levels

You may have some of these poker supplies already. But here are additional considerations regarding each item before staging a tournament.

Poker Chips

The last thing you want to do is go to the trouble of setting up a poker tournament only to be short on chips.

You’ll need up to 75 chips per player, meaning you want 750 chips for a 10-player event, to be safe. Increase this to a 20-player tournament, and you’ll want up to 1,500 chips.

It costs $40 to $100 to purchase a set of 500 quality clay chips. You’ll need to spend anywhere from $80 to $200 on chips for a tournament with 10-20 players.

You can always buy the cheaper plastic chips. But you need to consider that these will make your poker tourney feel less authentic.

Also keep in mind that you need 4-5 different colors of chips for smaller tournaments. You should have more lower-denomination chips than high denominations.

Here are chip colors and their denominations:

  • White $1
  • Red $5
  • Blue $10
  • Green $25
  • Black $100
  • Purple $500
  • Yellow $1,000
  • Pink $5,000

Chip Trays

One the most overlooked aspects of holding a poker tournament is chip trays. You don’t necessarily need trays, but they make life easier for both you and the players.

A chip tray simplifies handing out the chips at the beginning of a tournament. And these trays also make it easier for players to transport their chips when they move to a different table.

Poker Table(s)

Chances are that you won’t buy regulation poker tables for a home-based tournament. These run anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000 and take up around 60 square feet.

But you’ll have enough room for regulation tables if you’re holding a poker event in a warehouse or similarly large setting.

You can also find lower-quality, small tables for a cheaper price. But make sure that you have enough tables to comfortably seat everybody in tournament.

Card Decks and Shuffling Machine

Don’t use old card decks in your poker tournament. You’re at a higher risk of having cards that are bent or torn, which can give certain players an advantage if they notice which card values are worn.

You should buy at least one new deck for each table. You might even consider having two decks, because this can speed up play.

The reason why is because one deck can be in play while the next dealer will be shuffling their deck on the side.

An even better option is to buy a card shuffler. This handles all the shuffling for your tournament and reduces the chances that any card sharps will stack the deck.


You need to time the blind levels (discussed later) so that you know when the blinds should increase.

You can use something as simple as a smartphone-based stopwatch or tournament software that handles blind-level timing and other functions.

Tournament Structure and Rules

Your poker tournament must have a structure and set of rules that everybody knows ahead of time. This eliminates confusion and potential arguments that can arise if players feel that they’re being treated unfairly.

The structure includes the buy-in, starting chip stacks, starting blinds, how quickly blind levels increase, and the prize pool distribution. You also need to let players know beforehand what type of tournament they’re playing, whether it be a freeze-out or rebuy event.

You can find official poker tournament rules online. And you can also use the advice below on the main rules and structure elements.

Tournament Buy-In

It’s important to consider the type of people you’re inviting to a poker tournament before determining the buy-in.

Casual poker players won’t be interested in a $1,000 buy-in event. They’ll instead be thinking along the lines of a $10 or $20 entry fee.

Serious poker players, on the other hand, won’t see such a low buy-in as being worth their time. They’ll be interested in buy-ins from $100 and up.

Always make sure that everybody pays their buy-in before they enter the tournament.

You risk angering other players by giving special treatment to certain people. I’ve been involved in tourneys when somebody says that they’ll pay the winner later, but it takes weeks for them to do so. The best way to handle this is by declaring that buy-ins must be paid before the tournament starts.

The only exception is if somebody has a friend pay them, and they show up later. At least in this case, you have the money upfront, and the player’s tardiness isn’t affecting anything.

Starting Chip Stacks

You don’t have to follow a rigid structure when setting starting chips stacks. This can be anywhere from $100 to $10,000.

But you do need to consider how many people are playing, how many chips you have, and the blind levels. A good rule of thumb is to make sure that everybody has at least 100 big blinds.

Here’s an example:

  • Players start with $2,000 chips
  • 2,000 / 100 = 20
  • The starting blind level should be $10/$20

Another good practice is to ensure that every player has at least 20 chips of the smallest denomination. This helps ensure that players don’t have to trade up denominations just so somebody can make lower bets.

Starting Blinds

Starting blinds is another area that gives the tournament director some flexibility. But generally, the starting big blind should be worth 1% of a player’s starting chip stack.

For example, the starting big blind would be $50 if everybody began with a $5,000 chip stack. You can make these even smaller in a deep-stacked event.

Some players may complain about a low starting blind level because this makes the tournament lasts longer. You can consider changing this in future tourneys, but don’t alter blind levels after you’ve already set the rules and explained them.

Length of Blind Levels

A blind level is the length of time that the blinds remain at a certain value before increasing. These are used to speed up poker tournaments and ensure that they don’t drag on forever.

How long you set your levels for depends upon how many players are participating. An event with eight players could feature 12-minute blind levels, while a 20-player armament could have 20-minute levels.

You should also consider the crowd that’ll be playing in the tournament when creating the blind structure.

A group of experienced poker players will want longer blind levels so that they can use their skill to win. In contrast, recreational players will enjoy the higher luck aspect of shorter blind levels.

The latter group also appreciates when a poker tournament ends within 2-4 hours. Therefore, you don’t want to put a group of 20 casual players through 30-minute levels.

Tournament Type

The two most common poker tournament formats include freeze-outs and rebuys.

A freeze-out means that you’re officially eliminated from the tournament when all your chips are gone. But rebuy events allow you to buy back into a tournament once you’ve busted out.

The tournament director must set a rebuy limit and determine the point where rebuys are no longer allowed. For example, you can allow 2 rebuys up to the third blind level.

Many rebuy tournaments also include an add-on option, where you can add chips at the end of the rebuy period. Adding onto your stack usually costs the same amount as the original tournament buy-in.

Whether you hold a freeze-out or rebuy tournament will also depend upon the crowd.

Many serious players are comfortable with spending extra money on rebuys. But the average casual player is more comfortable in a freeze-out, where players with larger bankrolls don’t have an extra advantage through multiple rebuys and add-ons.

Tournament Prize Pool

A standard poker tournament only pays 10%-20% of the field. And the largest payouts are concentrated at the top of a prize pool.

Here’s an example:

  • $1,000 prize pool with 10 players
  • $500 to first place
  • $300 to second place
  • $200 to third place

The prize pool distribution can be adjusted based on the consensus in your poker circle.

Some players like seeing the prize pool more spread out, such as a tournament that pays the top 25%-30% of finishers. Recreational players may even join an event where the top 50% win double their buy-in.

Other Considerations for Running a Poker Tournament

You’ll get a good idea of how to run a poker tournament using the advice above. But it’s also good to know smaller details that can make your tournament run more smoothly.

Extra points that you want to consider include seat assignments, moving players from table to table, handling the bubble, coloring up chips, and using software.

Seat Assignment

The goal of poker tournament seat assignment is to ensure that every player is in a random seat. You don’t want players selecting their own seats, because they’ll look for the weakest opponents and sit to their left.

As I covered earlier, you should also ensure that everybody has enough room at tables. It’s better to give players too much room than not enough.

Consolidating Tables

Holding a tournament with more than 10 players means that you’ll need multiple tables. And these tables must be combined at some point as more players are knocked out of the event.

Here’s an example:

  • Tournament begins with 20 players
  • Your tables seat 5 players each
  • Table 1 has 4 players
  • Table 2 has 3 players
  • Table 3 has 4 players
  • Table 4 has 3 players
  • You combine tables 2 and 4
  • You can combine tables 1 and 3 when there are only six total players between them

Managing the Tournament Bubble

A common scenario in multi-table home poker tournaments involves players stalling on the bubble. They do this to slow down play at their table so that somebody at the other table will bust first.

A good way to handle this is by making sure that hands run in sync at both tables. You may have one table play a hand, then have the other play a hand.

You continue in this manner until the bubble bursts and you’re in the prize money. This ensures that hands run equally at both tables and nobody gains an advantage.

Just make sure that every player knows ahead of time how the bubble will be handled.

Chip Coloring Up

Coloring up is the process of exchanging low-denomination chips for high-denomination chips. The reason for this is that the blinds will eventually reach a level where you no longer need smaller chips.

Here’s an example:

  • The blinds have changed to $100/$200
  • You no longer need the $25 green chips
  • Players exchange their $25 chips for $100 black chips

Poker Tournament Management Software

You can manually do everything in this guide and likely run a solid poker tournament. But you can make your life even easier by using tournament management software.

These programs perform functions like timing blind levels, increasing the blinds, assigning seats, and notifying you when a table should be combined.

You can find poker tournament management software through a simple Bing or Google search. Searching for the software online allows you to compare programs and see which one has the features you want.

Once you buy a program, link it up to a TV monitor so that everybody can see information like the blind levels and tournament clock.

Know the Laws If You’re a Holding a Charity Poker Tournament

Many charity organizations hold gambling-related functions to raise funds for their cause. And poker tournaments are one of the most popular forms of charity gambling.

The only catch is that some states and local governments don’t allow charities to benefit from poker tournaments. Therefore, it’s important to know the laws regarding charity gambling in your city and state.

In many cases, you’re fine if you know your state’s laws. And you can research charity gambling laws for any US state here.

Even if your state allows charity poker tourneys, you’ll need to fill out the necessary paperwork to obtain licensing. Many states that allow charity gambling have a special division that handles this sector.

Therefore, you can find the necessary forms and licensing information on their website. Once your charity is approved to hold poker tournaments, you’ll be able to legally use these events as fundraisers.

Also note that every state has boundaries on legal charity poker tournaments. For example, most don’t allow you to hold a tourney with a prize pool worth more than $10,000.


Much like a becoming a better poker player, being a good tournament director takes practice and experience.

You’ll find smaller issues that arise when you hold tourneys. And if you plan on staging more poker tournaments, you’ll should take notes on these issues and prepare for them in the future.

What I’ve provided here gives you a solid framework for holding your first few poker tourneys. But you’ll develop mastery by holding more and more events.

Also note that you won’t always be the most popular person in the room when supervising a poker tournament. The larger the event, the more likely it is that someone will become upset about one or more matters.

A good way to reduce the chances of this happening is to invite quality individuals who are respectful at the poker table. Of course, it also helps when you lay out the rules and structure beforehand so that nobody can argue that you’re making up rules on the spot.

Holding a poker tournament isn’t easy in the beginning. But you may find this to be a fun and rewarding experience that makes you want to stage even more tournaments in the future.

A Guide to Running Your Own Poker Tournament
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A Guide to Running Your Own Poker Tournament
This post features practical advice on running your own poker tournament even if you have no experience with such events. Continue reading for guidance and advice.
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Simon | 20 Aug 2018
Thanks for the article, can I ask you a question about blinds and timings... Firstly, is it correct to say in Online sit n gos, typically a hand needs to be completed before the next blind period starts? I guess I'm wondering if the blind times are eg 5 mins, there's 6 players and everyone takes 1 min on their hand, does the hand essentially play out and maybe takes eg 7 mins, at which point blind round 2 starts / the next 5 mins period begins? Sexondly, would you advise this for a home game to stop arguments eg with amateur shufflers and general chit chat, with eg 10 min blinds not many hands get played? Would you recommend the last hand in that period should be at least played out, and then the next blind period starts? Many thanks
Kevin Y. | 31 Jul 2018
Thank you so much for the great article. A buddy and I are looking to host a tournament and this gave us a solid place to start.
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