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One of the most intriguing features of a poker tournament is having multiple tables playing simultaneously. As players are eliminated from the tournament, the average number of players per table decreases. As this continues, tables of fewer players merge together. Eventually, the remaining players are sitting at one table – the final table. As opposed to a regular ring game, tournament poker allows you to have as many players as you can fit in your home. If the number of players is too high to fit at one table – as it sometimes happens in ring games – you simply introduce multiple tables to fit the crowd.

The first thing to determine is how many players there will be per table, and by extension, how many tables you’ll need. Determining how many players you want per table is a balance between too few and too many. If you have too few players at each table, then pots will not be big enough to keep it interesting. However, if you have too many players at each table, you quickly lose control. And when you lose control, the game is slow-moving and frustrating for the serious players. Casinos have as many as eleven players per table, but they also have a house dealer, cameras all over the place, and a stronger etiquette. Think of your tournament more akin to a ‘poker party’, where not everybody might be respectful of good form.

Determine your ideal number of players per table. This becomes your player per table multiple. From there, it’s straightforward to divide that multiple into the number of players that show up for the game, giving you the number of tables that will start off the tournament. It’s important to bear in mind that only rarely will it work out perfectly for you. You have to believe that your multiple is not likely to fit perfectly into the number of players that show up. If, for example, you want six players per table and twelve players show up, that’s two tables of six players – pretty easy. If thirteen players happened to show up however, you’re still likely to have two tables; one with six players and the other with seven players. If fifteen players happened to show up, you have a choice to make. You’ll either have two tables of seven and eight players, or you’ll have three tables of five players. Such situations when hosting a tournament will require thinking on your feet, as your invitees will be looking to you for a quick decision on how to settle it. In a perfect world, you’d know in advance the exact number of players that will be showing up. It rarely works that way.

Seating Arrangement

So now, you have all of your invitees and a certain number of tables. The first thing you want to determine is seating order. It is good form to randomize where each participant will be seated as opposed to letting participants choose their own seats. This isn’t just a matter of cheat protection, it’s good etiquette. You don’t have any of the security of a casino, and there should be no objections to randomizing the seating order.

It’s easy enough to cut out a bunch of small pieces of paper and have your participants draw by random. Assign a number to each table and establish which seat at each table is “seat #1”. On each small piece of paper, write down first the number of the table followed by the seat number. Every table-seat combination should have a respective piece of paper in the hat. Following the draw, everybody has their designated seat.

Merging the Tables

As players are eliminated from the tournament, the number of tables will gradually be reduced. Obviously, the reason for this is because there will be fewer players in the game and a smaller average number of players per table. For example, when the number of players at a given table is as low as three or four, it doesn’t make sense that they continue to play without merging them with another group of players at another table. Ideally, you want to maintain that multiple of players per table that you set out at the beginning. It won’t always work perfectly, but you can keep your tables evenly numbered enough that when there’s only a few left, they can be merged at the one final table.

Keep a count on the number of players at each table. When any one table has two more players than any other table, a player is going to be moving from the more populated table to the less populated table. To determine which player is moving, there are two options, both of them choosing the player at random. The first option is that each player at the table rolls a six-sided die. Whoever rolls the lowest number moves over to the less populated table. The second option is that each player cut a card from the deck. Whoever cuts the lowest card moves over to the less populated table.

Whichever option you choose, you might also consider the following stipulation. When determining which player moves over to the less populated table, there are two players that should be omitted from the ‘draw’; in other words, two players who are definitely not moving over to the less populated table. Those players are the one with the biggest bankroll and the one with the lowest bankroll. The reason that we would omit these two players from possibly moving to the less populated table is not immediately obvious. In the case of the player with the lowest bankroll, it is unfair to the less populated table to receive a new player that has so few chips. In an effort to keep even not just the number of players but the amount of chips over multiple tables, it is a disservice to the less populated table to receive the player with the least number of chips. In the case of the player with the biggest bankroll, it is unfair to the more populated table to lose their ‘cash cow’. If that player lost the draw and had to move to the less populated table, he takes with him a substantial sum of money. In an effort to balance the amount of chips across multiple tables, there is big shift in the balance when the cash cow moves to the less populated table. In many instances, it leaves the more populated table with very little money left to fight for. If that player took half of the table’s money with him, the remaining players are left to fight for the other half. Not very enticing. And not very fair when you think that the less populated table now has a disproportionate amount of the tournament’s money. You could bet that the tournament’s winner is going to be somebody from that table, as opposed to the one left fighting for scraps.


The description above helps you keep the same number of tables evenly populated. However, you will want to identify the number of players that will prompt re-seating at a fewer number of tables. For instance, if you have 30 players seated at 3 tables, you may identify that when there are only 20 players left, those 20 players will be re-seated at TWO tables from the original three tables. And that, when there are only 10 players left, those players will merge at the final table and play until it's over.

The key is to determine the number of players that will prompt re-seating at a fewer number of tables. You can determine and announce this at the tournament's beginning.
Final table strategy

For tournament players there is a useful idea worth knowing about that is often referred to as the “ten-to-one rule.” I’m not sure exactly where the idea originated, but I first learned of its existence through the Harrington On Hold’em book series by Dan Harrington and Bill Robertie. The concept applies to late tournament game play and is a fairly simple one.

The basis of the concept is rooted in the way cash prizes are awarded in tournaments and the pay jumps that occur after the money bubble bursts. Tournament payout structures are generally top-heavy, meaning that there is often a significant change in prize amounts the later the tourney is, especially at the final table.

With this notion in mind, the ten-to-one rule suggests that if you find yourself deep in a tournament and have at least 10 times the amount of chips that your opponent has, you should set your opponent all in with any two cards.

This is a recommended strategy for two different reasons. One is the fact that you could potentially eliminate your opponent if he calls and loses the hand. Secondly, there exists a strong possibility that the player will fold, allowing you to drag in another pot and pad your stack.

Let’s take a look at an example of the ten-to-one rule in action.

Say you’re at the final table of an event and just eight players remain. Blinds are 1,000/2,000 and you’re sitting pretty on a stack of 210,000. You are in the small blind and action folds around to you, and you look down to see an ugly {7-Diamonds}{2-Clubs}. Meanwhile your opponent is in the big blind and has just 20,000 in chips. Since pay jumps are most noticeable at the final table, the clear move here should be to set your opponent all in.

This is, of course, an aggressive action. Poker tends to favor aggressive actions because your opponent always has the option of letting go of his cards, allowing you to win the pot right away. At this stage in the game, your opponent will be trying to find a hand with which it seems worthy enough to risk his tournament life. If he looks down and sees a particularly weak hand — for example, {10-Clubs}{4-Spades} — there’s a solid chance your opponent will toss his cards into the muck and you’ll pick up a pot, leaving him even shorter than before.

Of course such won’t always be the result. Sometimes your opponent will wake up with a strong hand and will be more than happy to call your shove. The beauty in this play, however, is that regardless of the strength of your opponent’s starting hand, he still will have to survive the five community cards in order to stay alive.

Let’s say you put an opponent all in with the aforementioned seven-deuce and he snaps you off, rolling over {A-Spades}{K-Hearts}. Sure, it looks like you are in a disgusting position, but in actuality your meager preflop hand will still take down this pot about 33% of the time.

Ultimately with this move you are risking a minimal portion of your stack with the hopes of either winning a small pot or eliminating a player and moving up the pay ladder. But remember, it’s called the “ten-to-one rule” — in other words, for this to be a clear option, you need to have a large chip advantage over your opponent to perform the move.
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