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Why You Shouldn’t Play Online Poker Freeroll Tournaments

By Randy Ray
Published on August 25, 2018
Freeroll Poker Tournaments Red No Sign

If you’re new to the world of online poker or simply enjoy playing within your limits, the concept of a freeroll tournament simply seems too good to be true.

And that’s because it is…

For those that don’t know, a freeroll tournament is one which doesn’t require an entry fee of any sort in order to play. That’s right, free poker – so what’s not to love?

Well, poker is a game that fundamentally revolves around the concept of risk and reward. And with no skin the game, as gamblers are prone to say, playing a freeroll tournament is a far cry from real poker.

Just ask Chad Holloway, a longtime veteran of the poker media industry who isn’t a slouch on the felt in any respect. Holloway bagged a gold bracelet at the 2013 World Series of Poker (WSOP), and he’s accumulated more than $163,000 in live tournament earnings – all while playing part-time.

Writing in a guide on how to beat freeroll tournaments, Holloway penned the following passage which speaks to the heart of why these special events aren’t exactly poker as you might know it.

“With many inexperienced players and nothing to lose, the first few minutes sees a large chunk of the field go out with crazy hands and all-in preflop action. So sit tight initially.

That doesn’t mean you can wait too long – we said ‘first few minutes’ not ‘first few levels.’

The all-in craziness isn’t defined by blind levels, but by a lot of players in small poker freerolls who are looking to accumulate a big stack early or just go out.

Don’t bother trying to play ‘real poker’ in the first few minutes; just fold everything bar big pairs, and spring into action when things calm down.”

Just like Holloway says, freeroll poker and real poker are two completely different pursuits. Without their own money on the line, your opponents can simply click buttons and get their chips in holding any two cards, turning the pure strategy game of Texas Hold’em into nothing but a crapshoot.

You’ll find dozens of daily freeroll tournaments littering the schedules of your favorite online poker rooms, which can make the events seem like an attractive option. And for players who find their bankroll tapped out at the moment, getting an hour or two of tournament play in free of charge makes perfect sense – at first glance, anyway.

But in reality, freeroll tournaments just aren’t worth your time or effort. Read on to learn why entering freeroll events is a mistake, complete with advice from successful pros like Chris “Jesus” Ferguson and Chris Moorman, along with Holloway.

Your Opponents Hardly Ever Take Them Seriously

Way back in 2006, decorated pro and six-time WSOP bracelet winner Chris “Jesus” Ferguson embarked on the adventure of a poker player’s lifetime.

Even though he had plenty of money in the bank, Ferguson challenged himself to generate a bankroll of $10,000 on Full Tilt Poker – all while beginning with exactly $0.00 in his online account.

Naturally, the only way to turn nothing into something in the poker economy is through freerolls, so Ferguson dove headlong into the strange world of no-cost tournaments.

But even while he was surrounded by lesser-skilled opponents, Ferguson struggled to gain traction at first, and all for one simple reason – his opponents weren’t taking the game nearly as seriously as he was.

Here’s how he described the situation in 2014.

“One of the funny things about the challenge is that people would see me playing a freeroll and think I was fooling around. Are you kidding me?

I was taking those freerolls dead seriously because getting money out of them was an essential part of the challenge.

I was sweating on the other side praying, ‘Please fold, please fold!’”

While Ferguson was anxiously sweating every flop and fold, his opponents were simply splashing around and having fun. And while that’s all well and good if you’re playing for entertainment purposes only, serious poker improvement inherently requires serious opposition.

You can’t explore different strategies in your own game when the rest of the table isn’t thinking strategically in the slightest. Just imagine trying to run a carefully constructed bluff through on the river, knowing your opponent only has bottom pair and a missed draw.

That player should fold to your pressure play on fifth street – and if they had even a dollar on the line, they probably would. Instead, they happily click the “CALL” button, secure in the knowledge that winning or losing doesn’t really matter to them at all.

Scenarios like this are all too common at the freeroll tables, which Holloway alluded to in his warning on not worrying about playing “real poker.”

Freeroll “Strategy” Can Wreak Havoc on Your Game

Consult any poker strategy guidebook, and you’ll likely come across several pages devoted to patience.

The players who can rein in that natural temptation to play poor hands – especially when the dealer doesn’t seem capable of delivering premium cards their way – are best equipped to survive the gauntlet that is tournament play.

Here’s what Holloway had to say about freeroll strategy when he wrote a guide on the subject for 888 Poker.

“Always be prepared to make huge raises and all-in pushes with hands like A-A and K-K, almost regardless of position.

One of two things will usually happen. Either inexperienced players will give you action by calling with any Ace, any pair, or even any two suited cards. Secondly, a player with a similar level of experience as you may share the opinion that a tournament without a buy-in allows for a greater amount of gamble, and therefore make the call with a low pair, a big Ace like A-K or A-Q, or even something like K-Q or K-J!

Yes, everyone might fold, but if you do catch someone with a playable hand you’re in a great spot to double through. If the action is short-handed or the blinds really small then a big raise, rather than an all-in move, is a better approach.”

And while that all may be well and good in the freeroll world, playing like that in a real tournament is a recipe for disaster.

Unfortunately, most players aren’t as capable of “switching gears” as they’d like to think, so freerolls can definitely develop several bad habits.

From semi-bluff shoving every draw you flop to calling big river bets down light assuming your opponent is bluffing – these freeroll-inspired leaks can severely impact your ability to eke out a profit in the paid entry tourneys.

If your goal is to return to the real money games at some point, it’s best to avoid freerolls entirely and work on improving your genuine poker strategies.

They Aren’t Lucrative in Any Sense of the Word

One of the main reasons serious players dabble in freeroll tournaments is the prospect of winning something for nothing.

Remember, we’re not talking about play money poker here, and most freerolls offer prize pools in the $100 neighborhood. Using the typical poker tournament payout structure, which sees the winners claim 10% of the prize pool, you may be competing for a cool $10.

And hey, that’s nothing to scoff at when your bankroll is bust and belly-up. Whenever you can score an infusion of funds without making a deposit from your bank account, you’re already winning.

That $10 prize is good throughout the rest of the poker room, so you can make like Ferguson and transition into to micro-stakes cash games and tournaments from there.

But one thing to keep in mind about freerolls is that the “big bucks” are only claimed by the winner. The runner-up in a $100 freeroll might win $5, while the first player out at the final table usually gets $1.

Notch a “min-cash” by barely making the money, however, and your reward is nothing but a few pennies – not even enough to enter the lowest non-freeroll event on the board.

That was Ferguson’s experience, anyhow, as he recounted during a 2014 interview.

“I basically broke even on (cash games) and made about $22 from freerolls.

I cashed in about one in 10, at about an hour and a half for each, which works out at $0.14 an hour or something stupid, but that wasn’t the point.”

Yes, you read that correctly…

Ferguson – a world-class poker pro who was taking the games as seriously as he could – only managed to squeeze out 14 cents per hour while grinding freerolls.

Let’s take a bold leap and assume you’re not as talented of a poker player as the 2000 WSOP Main Event World Champion. If you were even 1/3 as skilled as he is, you might expect to earn a nickel per hour playing freerolls.

In order to get $1.10 in your account – the typical low-point for online tournament entry fees – you’d need to play (and win) for 22 hours.

If spending nearly a full day of your life chasing a measly buck sounds like fun, by all means, take your shot at the freeroll festivities. But if you’re like the rest of us, you’ll probably want to play poker games that offer legitimate compensation for your time, effort, and good luck.

The Environment Is Toxic and Irritating

Back in the heyday of the online poker boom, chat box intimidation was a serious issue.

The technology back then didn’t allow for chat to be turned off or muted, so players were forced to endure a stream of invective – for winning and for losing.

Put a bad beat on a player, and you’d get harangued and harassed for being a “fish,” a “donkey,” a “luckbox” – or worse. Conversely, if you continually played high-level poker and won your pots using skillful calls, bets, and bluffs, the game’s losers had no compunction about calling you out as a bully.

All in all, the chat box turned most online poker tournaments into a toxic cesspool of juvenile banter and bickering between opponents.

Thankfully, the environment has been largely cleaned up at the standard entry tables – but freerolls are another story.

Check out what Holloway wrote about the chat box nuisance in his freeroll tournament guide.

“You’d be hard pushed to find any other instance in the world of online poker where the chatbox gets abused more than during a poker freeroll tournament.

With the standard of most players being relatively low, you’ll bear witness to an endless run of bad beat stories that disgruntled punters will have trouble letting go of.

Of course, you’ll have noticed that most of these tales are not unlucky, but in fact the result of poor play. The trick is not to tell them that, no matter how tempting it is.”

Holloway wasn’t focused on harassment so much as bad beat stories, but his point is clear – chat boxes in the freeroll arena are like the comments section on YouTube. Everybody has something to say, but nobody’s saying a damned thing worth listening to.

Spare yourself the grief and aggravation by avoiding freeroll tournaments and their poisonous chat rooms altogether.

They Make You Rush to Get Registered

This criticism is a bit of nitpick, but when you open up your favorite online poker room’s lobby and see an attractive freeroll on the board, you’d better hurry.

These events are the bread and butter for players who have long since gone broke playing real games. And believe it or not, most poker rooms are filled with long-term losing players who have nothing better to do than fire away at the freeroll menu.

As such, when the site opens a new freeroll for registration, the tournament typically reaches capacity in a matter of moments. And even though we’re talking about freerolls that seat 3,000 players in most cases – it doesn’t matter in the slightest.

As soon as the green light goes up to enter, the event will be jam-packed and filled up within minutes.

This is what Greenstein had to say about the mounting frustration that comes with such a short window of opportunity.

“If you didn’t sign up within the first 90 seconds of registration opening the tournament would fill up and you’d have to wait until the next one, so I’d set an alarm clock to remind me.”

Remember, most sites run a daily freeroll, so you’ll only have one shot every 24 hours to get in the game. Miss it, and you’ll be sitting on the sidelines that day, with nothing to do but sweat the action from afar.

That’s no way to play poker, especially online where bankrolled players have dozens – or even hundreds – of tournaments to choose from during the course of a day.

Conclusion

Freeroll tournaments seem like they should have a place in the poker economy, and indeed, they do for many people. But by and large, these players are folks who have long since given up on the prospects of playing for real money.

Sure, they may score a few bucks here and there, but for the most part, freeroll regulars are akin to the railbirds you see along the major live tournament circuit. They’re spectators, stuck on the fringes of a game they love, but lacking the ability and the bankroll to play for keeps.

If you’re still serious about improving your poker skills while having fun at the tables, ditch the freerolls altogether and start grinding the lowest stakes.

A tiny $20 deposit is enough to play 18 of those $1.10 tournaments, and know this – even for a single dollar, the poker played there is leaps and bounds better than what you’ll find on the freerolls.

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Why You Shouldn't Play Online Poker Freeroll Tournaments
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Why You Shouldn't Play Online Poker Freeroll Tournaments
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Here we tell you why you should avoid online poker freeroll tournaments. We suggest ditching the freerolls and start grinding the lowest stakes.
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