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A poker tournament consists of a group of people playing poker until one player wins everyone's money.

To start, players buy into the tournament by paying the buy-in and any possible additional fees and then proceed to the tournament zone at the designated time. Each player begins with a fixed amount of tournament chips, which represent the "money" to be gambled. In a freezeout tournament, these chips represent all the money the player may gamble; once they run out, they are eliminated. As players are eliminated, players are moved around and tables are broken to ensure that everyone is playing with roughly the same number of players. For example, in a hundred-player hold'em tournament, play would likely begin with ten tables; once ten players are eliminated, a table is taken out and its players are spread amongst the remaining tables.

To make sure players continue to be knocked out, the blinds and antes increase regularly throughout the tournament. For example, in a no-limit hold 'em tournament where everyone starts with $1,000 in chips, the blinds may start at $5-$10, then increase to $10-$20, $15-$30, $20-$40, $30-$60, and so on. In major tournaments, the price of poker may increase only every 90 or 120 minutes, though in low buy-in tournaments 30 minutes is more common. Play continues, with breaks if necessary, until only one player remains.

Most tournaments pay out about ten percent of its field. The winner may receive 30%, the runner-up 16%, third place 10%, and so on down the line, until the last player paid gets only a little more than the buy-in.

While freezeout tournaments are the most common, other formats exist. Rebuy tournaments allow players to buy more chips early on in a tournament, if they meet certain criteria. For example, a tournament may allow players to rebuy in the first two hours of a tournament as long as they have fewer chips than they started with. Rebuys tournaments often also allow add-ons—purchasing additional chips at the end of the rebuy period, no matter a player's chip count.

Shootout tournaments do not redistribute players or break up tables. For example, if a hold 'em shootout begins with 100 players at ten tables, each table would play down to a winner, and each of these winners meet at a final table to play down to the ultimate winner.

Poker Tournament buy-ins vary greatly. Buy-ins may be as low as $0 (these are known as freerolls) or $1 on the Internet and as high as $25,000 in high-stakes casinos. At the World Series of Poker, buy-ins range from $1,000 for the ladies only event to $10,000 for the world championship events and even $50,000 for the world championship H.O.R.S.E. event. Any tournament with a buy-in of at least $1,000 is considered notable, and any with a buy-in of $5,000 is considered a major tournament.