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Freeroll Tournaments — Part I

Answers to some basic questions

by Bob Ciaffone |  Published: May 06, 2011


Bob CiaffoneThis is the first of a series of columns on no-limit hold’em freeroll tournaments. I am happy to have the help of Jim Brier, who is my co-author of Middle Limit Holdem Poker, in discussing this subject. We work well together. Jim has a lot of experience playing in freeroll tournaments. (I have a lot of general poker experience, especially in no-limit hold’em.) We intend to give you a lot of ideas about a type of poker that is seldom discussed but has its own special requirements that make you adjust your play. We will focus on the freeroll tournaments that are run by cardrooms in Las Vegas.

In this initial column, we will answer some basic questions concerning these tournaments. Subsequent columns will consist of actual tournament hands, so that you can become familiar with proper strategy.

What is a freeroll tournament? It’s a tournament in which those who enter do not have to pay a buy-in/entry fee. The prize pool is funded entirely by the poker room. Most freeroll tournaments exist as a way for the house to show its appreciation to regular customers for their patronage, and keep them in the fold.

How do players qualify for a freeroll, and how many enter? Players have to play a certain number of hours in cash games over a specified period of time. For example, one poker room in Las Vegas requires eight hours of cash-game play each week to play in its weekly freeroll. Another requires 20 hours per week. Some rooms have monthly or quarterly freerolls. The number of players can range from 20 to more than 100.

How big are the prize pools? The prize pools can range from $1,000 to several hundred thousand. Weekly freerolls usually range from $1,000 to $3,000. Monthly and quarterly freerolls can be much higher. Our columns will focus on weekly freerolls, since they are the most prevalent. However, the strategies also apply to the bigger freerolls.

What is the payout structure? In almost every Las Vegas freeroll that Jim Brier has played, the prize pool was chopped up once the number of players remaining got down to somewhere between 10 and 20. The reason the players chop is that the blinds are so high relative to everyone’s chip stack that players feel more comfortable just splitting the prize pool equally among themselves. This turns out to be a key consideration in formulating a strategy for playing in these kinds of tournaments.

What about starting stacks, blinds and ante structures, and playing time at each level? Starting stacks can vary from 1,000 to 3,000 (and occasionally higher). In some rooms, for $5 or $10, a player can purchase an additional 1,000-2,000 in chips. It is not required for a player to purchase these additional chips. Blinds usually start at something like 25-50 and double at subsequent levels. In some freerolls, an ante is added once the fourth or fifth level is reached. Playing time at each level can be anywhere from 10 minutes to 30 minutes.

Would some of the more popular tournament books be applicable? The problem is that many of the more popular tournament books deal mainly with slow-structured tournaments, like those found at the World Series of Poker. In those tournaments, the starting stacks are much bigger, the blinds and antes increase slowly, and the playing time at each level is 40 minutes or longer. The strategies for these lengthy tournaments are inappropriate for the fast-paced freeroll tournaments to be discussed. Among other reasons, one can hardly expect to accumulate enough chips to be comfortable after a few levels, because there is insufficient time available to do so.

Are freerolls basically all luck? No, because there are strategies you can employ that will increase your winning chances. Over the past three years, Jim has played in about 100 freerolls and cashed in almost 40 of them. One of the reasons for this is that he doesn’t play what many call “survival poker.” Another reason is that many of his opponents qualify for the freerolls by playing limit poker. Their knowledge of limit poker is not only irrelevant, but actually dangerous, when applied to a no-limit freeroll.

What is the best approach for these tournaments? You should aggressively try to accumulate chips until the point where the players will agree to chop up the prize pool. This means taking risks and possibly busting out early in the tournament. The idea is to make a lot of moves and take shots, rather than just wait for good cards. “Fold equity,” which comes only from betting or raising, is a major factor in these tournaments.

Preflop, it usually means open-raising or folding, rather than open-limping. When you open from late position, it must be for a raise. You don’t want players to get good pot odds, and call and take a flop. You should tend to reraise a preflop raiser, not simply cold-call, if you like your hand and/or your position. On the flop, you should oftentimes play a big draw as if it were the nuts. A flush draw with a straight draw is a through ticket; you should go all in if the pot size is a significant percentage of your stack. You will usually win the pot right away. Otherwise, see it as an opportunity to double your stack. In a cash game, a common and expensive mistake that players make is losing their stack on one-pair hands post-flop. But in freeroll tournaments, you need to be willing to go broke with top pair if, by winning, you can significantly increase your stack. Post-flop, the pot odds have to be balanced by the opportunities to double or triple your stack and significantly increase your likelihood of getting to the chop.

Can you give an example of risky play resulting in success? Jim was in a freeroll with a stack of 7,000 when the average stack was around 15,000. He had a suited ace and limped in behind two other players. The flop was K-Q-9 with two of his suit, giving him the nut-flush draw with an ace overcard. The big blind went all in with a smaller stack. The next player went all in with a stack equal to his. The other player folded. At this point, there was 12,000 in the pot. Jim had nine outs to the nut flush, which he probably would need to win. With two cards to come, he was about a 2-1 underdog to make his hand by the river. The pot odds were less than this. Furthermore, he was getting no implied odds (additional chips won if he made his hand), since he would be all in. By cash-game criteria, he should fold. Nevertheless, he called, because winning would give him a chip stack of almost 20,000, which would likely enable him to reach the money.

Otherwise, the blinds would go up to 400-800 on the next hand, and he would have hardly any chance to get to the chop. He called, and rivered the winning flush. A few rounds later, he chopped up the $2,000 prize pool with 19 other players.

What should be your playing philosophy? The bottom line is that you must aim to be a chip accumulator, not just a player who’s trying to get a clear advantage before risking any chips. To play solidly is to run the risk of committing the cardinal sin of tournament poker — blinding off your stack. The blinds get so high so quickly in a freeroll tournament that you easily can get into a situation where you have to either gamble with somewhat the worst of it or get put out of the tournament without gambling at all. Having some chance is better than having no chance. ♠

Bob Ciaffone has authored four poker books, Middle Limit Holdem Poker, Pot-limit and No-limit Poker, Improve Your Poker, and Omaha Poker. All can be ordered (autographed to you) from Bob by e-mail: Free U.S. shipping to Card Player readers. Ciaffone is available for poker lessons at a reasonable rate. His website is, where you can get his rulebook, Robert’s Rules of Poker, for free. Bob also has a website called