Should I be playing large tournaments ie 600 players for a very small buy-in to get more practice or small tables of 6 - 9 player for a slightly larger buy-in?
I advocate starting off with the "smaller tournament" approach to start learning. Most of the money that you make in large-field tournaments will come from the few times you end up placing high at the final table. There is a huge difference in money between going out first at the final table and placing in the top 3. Thus I recommend first developing the skills to ensure that when you get deep into a tournament, you can maximize your chance of winning.
Play at a final table is well-mirrored by play in a single-table tournament (often referred to as a sit-and-go or SNG). Use them as a training ground to master the relevant concepts. Without that mastery, you will be unlikely to master final-table and short-handed situations anywhere near as quickly as SNGs enable, which will slow your growth and may well reduce your overall winning potential.
Definitely start playing SNG's (sit-no-go's). Great way to get used to playing full tables, and is a great emulation of a final table (since you start with 9 and play to the end with one table). Once you become able to consistently cash in SNG's, you can move to 20-40 player tourney's that help you learn how to grind and play with a greater variety of players.
That decision will come down to just a few things. How much money you're willing to risk, and how much time you're willing to invest.
The buy-in is up to you. I'd suggest you consider your ideal conditions like...
- How long can you focus for, to play your "A-Game"?
- How much time are you willing to spend playing? 1 hour? 2? 5?
- What pace do you enjoy? slow, inactive and time to think? fast, active and quick decisions to make?
If your aim is to improve, there really isn't a better substitute than playing low enough stakes for it not to bother you emotionally and simultaneously increase the volume of tournaments you play in. There are always cash-games as an alternative.
A simple tournament example would be a 180-man tournament (9 player tables). The intervals of the blinds are usually between 5-10 minutes per level, and generally this equates to about 3 hours of play, given the starting stacks that are common...if you are good or fortunate enough to win it!
I hope that helps. Good luck.
Most casinos and card rooms have lower attendance, lower buy-in tourneys. They are designed for the newer players. Most of these tournaments however are likely to have a percentage of regulars so you're likely to get a good mix from experienced player down to dead money.
In smaller tourneys what you're looking for is bank-roll management and learning how to deal with different types of players.
As always, the larger the buy-in the better the 'overall' calibre of player is. a $5 buy-in online vs 1500 players is very different from a $40 buy-in against 80 players at a hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.
Personally, I like smaller pickup tourneys (one or two tables) for starting out. You get to practice the game first and deal with table changing effects later.