OK, you've seen the game on television, maybe even played a few hands or more yourself and you like what you see. You may even have decided which game of poker you would like to play, say possibly no limit holdem. So now it's time to get serious and start playing. There is still at least one more important decision you need to make. What version of my chosen game is best for me?
There are basically three different ways you can play any poker game. There are cash games where the chips in play correspond exactly to real money all the time. A one dollar chip is cashable for one dollar and a five dollar bet represents five of your hard-earned dollars. There are also two varieties of tournament games. In a tournament game, you pay an entrance fee in cash and for that fee you receive tournament chips that have no cash value. Cash prizes are awarded on a sliding scale for finishing highly in the tournament. You can either play a tournament with lots and lots of players, called a multi table tournament, or MTT, or you can play with only one table (usually nine or ten handed) called a single table tournament, or SNG.
A cash game is always going on. There are no set start times and rarely does the game break up. As players go broke or leave the game they are usually quickly replaced by new players waiting to get in. You may enter or leave a cash game as you wish. You may also sit out for a round or two with no penalty to your chip stack. You are free to cash out when you want or buy more chips as well.
An MTT has a set starting time and a SNG starts when they get a full table. When a player loses all their chips, or busts out, they are out of the tournament. Some MTTs allow a player to pay another buy in and get a new stack of chips equal to what they started with. These special games are called rebuy tournaments. In a tournament you must play until the end or sit out. If you sit out, they will collect your blinds and antes and fold your hands until you are out of chips or you return. The total amount of all the buy ins, or prize pool, is divided up among the top percentage of finishers with the most going to the winner.
So which way is best for you? There are a few things you should consider when making this decision. Let's consider them one at a time. Speaking of time, let's start with that one. How much time can you usually devote to a poker session? MTTs can sometimes run for five hours or more and sometimes even a SNG can last an hour or so. Unless you have that much uninterrupted time to play, there is no point to even starting one of these tournaments. On the other hand, tournaments with low buy ins can often provide hours of game play with very low risk.
The next question is about your money goals. Cash games can often provide slower but more steady streams of income for top players. Even top tournament players can go through extended dry spells without even a small cash. On the other hand, one lucky session in a cash game may net you a few extra dollars, but one lucky tournament can bring the winner a huge payday.
Although many players will play more than one variation of poker, tournament play and cash game play require slightly different skills to master. It's not as if you cannot play the occasional SNG or MTT if you are primarily a cash game player, but it does help to specialize. So one good place to start is by trying out each version and seeing which one you like best. Like anything else, poker is played best by those who enjoy playing it. Do not neglect the power that comes from loving what you do.
There are also some hybrid tournament games that are becoming popular lately. Instead of all SNGs being one table games, there are now SNGs that start with anywhere between two and twenty tables. This is a good way to get the MTT experience without having to set aside five or more hours of your time to play.
So ask yourself some questions and try out a few games and you can find your own spot in our ever expanding poker universe. Then, when you know what it is you would like to do, you can start working on those poker skills that will most help you in your chosen game.