In a typical tournament, a player pays a fixed entry fee (called a buy-in) and receives, in return, a certain quantity of in-game currency, called play money, invariably represented in the form of poker chips. Typically, the amount of play money given each player is an integer multiple of the buy-in. Only this in-game "play" money can be used in the game, real money cannot. Additionally, real and play money cannot be interchanged at any time. Some tournaments, however, offer the option of a re-buy or buy-back; this gives players the option of purchasing more chips. In some cases, re-buys are conditional (for example, offered only to players low on or out of chips) but in others they are unconditional, or offered to all players. When a player has no chips remaining (and has exhausted or declined all re-buy options, if any are available) he or she is eliminated from the tournament. In most tournaments, the number of players at each table is kept even by moving players, either by switching one player or (as the field shrinks) taking an entire table out of play and distributing its players amongst the remaining tables. A few tournaments, called shoot-outs, do not do this; instead, the last player (sometimes the last two or more players) at a table moves on to a second or third round, akin to a single-elimination tournament found in other games.

The prizes for winning are usually derived from the entry fees, though outside funds may be entered as well. For example, some invitational tournaments do not have entry fees and fund their prize pools with sponsorship revenue and/or gate receipts from spectators. (These tournaments are referred to as freerolls.) Play continues, in most tournaments, until all but one player is eliminated, though in some tournament situations, especially informal ones, players have the option of ending by consensus.

Players are ranked in reverse chronological order — the last person in the game earns 1st place, the second-to-last earns 2nd, and so on. This ranking of players by elimination is unique amongst games, and also precludes the possibility of a tie for first place, since one player alone must have all the chips to end the tournament. (Ties are possible for all other places, though they are rare since the sole tiebreaker is the number of chips one has at the start of the hand in which one is eliminated.)

Sometimes tournaments end by mutual consensus of the remaining players. For example, in a ten-person, $5 game, there may be two players remaining with $29 and $21, respectively, worth of chips. Rather than risk losing their winning, as one of them would if the game were continued, these two players may be allowed to split the prize proportional to their in-game currency (or however they agree).

Prizes are awarded to the winning players in one of three ways:

  • Fixed: Each placing corresponds to a certain payoff. For example, a ten-person, $20 buy-in tournament might award $100 to the first-place player, $60 for second-place, $40 for third, and nothing for lower places.
  • Proportional: Payouts are determined according to a percentage-based scale. The percentages are determined based upon the number of participants and will increase payout positions as participation increases. As a rule, roughly one player in ten will 'cash', or make a high enough place to earn money. These scales are very top-heavy, with the top three players usually winning more than the rest of the paid players combined.

Tournaments can be open or invitational. The World Series of Poker, whose Main Event (a $10,000 buy-in no limit Texas Hold 'Em tournament) is considered the most prestigious of all poker tournaments, is open.

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