Ok, ok, forgive me for the cheese-ball satellite joke in the title, I couldn’t help myself. I’ll make it up to you with some solid poker satellite strategy to help you increase that bottom line and get into the events you want to play that your wallet might not be on-board with.
Why should you listen to me? Well I’m a writer on the internet and everything on the internet is true so I must be an expert.
Kidding. In truth though, satellite tournaments have always been my bread and butter and have not just been how I got into larger events but also how I made most of my profit back in the online glory days under my handle jaspuduf.
My best satellite year I won:
- 7 $12k main event packages
- 6 $8- $10k packages to other events
- 2 $25k high roller seats
Please don’t think I’m a tool or trying to brag or anything by sharing this; I simply want to add a bit of credibility to my internet words.
Let’s launch this article with the absolute basics so we’re all on the same page.
What is a Satellite Poker Tournament?
A satellite poker tournament is a qualifying event to another, usually larger buy-in event. In non-dictionary speak, this means that it is a smaller buy-in event that the winner gets a ticket or entry into a larger buy-in event.
Example: 10 people want to play a $1000 event but they all only have $100. The 10 of them buy into a tournament and the winner takes the compiled $1000 and plays the bigger event. The other 9 people are sad, but we don’t care because we read this article and we will be the winner :-D.
Differences Compared to Normal Tournaments
Aren’t these just the same as normal tournaments except you get entry tickets instead of money?
Negative. This is probably the biggest problem most people have when they build their strategy out for satellite tournaments.
Many people pay no specific attention to the different nuances of the satellite. Good for us though, we are going to go over those nuances today and also how we can functionally exploit those nuances to our advantage.
Everyone who wins a satellite tournament is an equal winner.
Let’s say for example, you are playing in a $100 buy-in satellite tournament where the winner receives a $1000 buy-in ticket to an event. Let’s say the tournament gets 100 entries (and there is no rake for sake of simplicity). That means the prize pool is $10,000 dollars. In a normal tournament, first would probably get $4-5k, second would get maybe $2k and third would take the rest.
In a satellite tournament though, the maximum you can win is the entry fee for the bigger event. This means that first place in our make believe satellite will win a $1000 ticket. 2nd-10th will also win the EXACT same prize. I’m sorry for beating this into your head but it is so important to realize that 10th place and 1st place are identical.
What does this mean to us? A lot. The important take away is that you don’t need to win all the chips to win this tournament. All you have to do is squeak into the top 10 with at least 1 chip, and you get the same prize as the guy or gal with 1,000,000 chips.
This becomes increasingly important as you get closer to the bubble. If you have a ton of chips and there are 11 people left, there is absolutely no reason to get into a marginal situation or a coin-flip with the person in second place because that’s what you would normally do in a regular tournament.
I can’t tell you the amount of times that the guy in second place has shoved in a satellite on the bubble and I was chip leader and snap folded monster hands like AK. Would I call in a normal tournament? Almost certainly. But in the satellite format, we don’t have to win all the chips. In most of those situations, I rolled my eyes, chucked my hand in the muck and 2 or 3 hands later 11th place went out and we were all winners. THE SAME AMOUNT WINNERS.
Medium sized chip stacks cash with a lower frequency.
In a normal poker tournament, the medium level stacks tend to coast into the money with a lot more frequency than in satellite tournaments. This is purely an anecdotal observation but one that comes from playing thousands of satellites.
Why is this? In a normal tournament on the bubble, you have more clashes between big stacks and more risk-seeking medium stacks. The reason is because the difference between not cashing and cashing is significantly lower.
In a normal $100, 100 person tournament, 10th might get $200 instead of $0 for not cashing whereas in the satellite tournament 10th would get $1000 instead of $0 for cashing. There is also a significant incentive to try and win all the chips, or at least make it to top 3 where the prizes start to inflate. This 5x difference in payout and higher payouts to the winner significantly alters the way people will play.
To understand this point about medium sized stacks being at a higher risk than it may seem, we need to look at the mindset of big, little, and medium stacks on the bubble of a satellite tournament:
- Big stacks are typically aggressive in small pots but highly risk averse in big pots on the bubble. This means they will bust significantly less than they might in a normal tournament.
- Medium stacks typically lockdown as they assume the bigger stacks will take care of the little stacks and they’ll cruise in.
- Short stacks are typically aware that they need to make some sort of move if they are going to survive into the cash. In the older days, little stacks would lock down absurdly but I think they have evolved a bit realizing the bubble is typically a bit longer than they always expect it to be. They will be more likely to get all their chips in because they know they have to.
The common outcome here is this. The rich/big stacks get richer and the small stacks are usually able to chip up and before you know it they become the new middle stacks and the old middle stacks are now the short stacks.
If you’re a medium stack, be aware that the bubble is probably going to be considerably longer than you think it is going to be. Yes, you should still avoid unnecessary risk but realize you may still need to acquire some more chips to be able to stay a medium stack. Don’t be afraid to open some pots and mix it up a little in good spots.
Pay attention to when the blinds will jump, how the other short stacks are doing, and look for opportunities to pick up easy chips from those other medium stacks that are terrified to bubble and have locked down. As a medium stack, picking on other medium stacks is an absolute rock-star strategy to employ because a lot of them are already counting their chickens before they hatch. Seeing the panic set in on a medium stack who has been stalling when they realize they’ve become a short stack by doing nothing on the bubble is a sick and twisted fun moment.
Learn to Predict the Bubble Length of Satellite Tournaments
The real art of crushing satellite tournament comes with being able to predict the bubble length and alter your strategy accordingly. Think of how easy life would be if you were able to somehow know exactly how many hands the bubble would be every time. Due to the fact that’s not possible, we can do our best to estimate the length and alter our strategy accordingly.
Type and Size of Tournament
This one is fairly simple. The larger the tournament/more tables/more players, the shorter the bubble is going to be. If you are playing a single table tournament, the bubble person can ONLY come from your table.
If you’re playing in a satellite giving away 100 seats though, there are a lot more people to bust and a lot more hands to bust them. This 100 seat bubble will, on average, be significantly shorter. There is no real formula here but if you start paying attention to how the size affects the bubble length, you will start to quickly get a feel for it.
If you’re playing in a $10 tournament for a $100 seat vs. you’re playing in a $500 tournament for a $25,000 seat, you can probably logically assume how this will affect the bubble length. Typically, the larger the prize (in overall size and multiple to the buy-in), the longer the bubble will be.
It’s important to note that these are just guidelines to try and predict the bubble length and are not set in stone. One of the $25k seats I won, I think the bubble was one hand. Conversely, I’ve played in some small satellites where I wanted to run my head through a wall because the bubble just would not burst.
When you feel like the bubble is going to be a lot longer, adjust accordingly depending on your stack size.
- If you’re short stacked, know you are going to have to chip up to make it
- If you’re a medium stack, don’t fall into the trap of playing too loose and slipping down to a short stack
- Big stacks should stay on the gas until something changes while also avoiding potentially large conflicts
If you feel like the bubble is going to be a short one, adjust accordingly depending on your stack size.
- Short stacks should be a bit more risk averse and keep an eye on the smaller stacks. If you’re the shortest, you’ll likely have to chip up to make it. Don’t let yourself get so short that you lose all fold equity unless you absolutely think someone is going to bust very soon
- Medium stacks can be a bit more risk averse as well but should still look for small pot shots to chip up
- Big stacks should be very risk-averse to big pots but should up the gas pedal on the medium stacks and shorter stacks that are clearly trying to blind in
The Overall Point
Satellite tournaments are about adapting. The player who is able to adapt to the changing conditions best will be the player that crushes satellite tournaments. Focus on your stack size, know the blind/payout structures ahead of time, and be able to identify the weaker opponents that are letting fear dictate their play.
Play fearlessly but not wreck-less. Just remember to constantly be reevaluating the things we’ve gone over here and do so more often as the bubble gets closer.
(Serious about improving your poker game? Check out the Upswing Lab! Doug Polk and Ryan Fee collaborated on this A to Z poker training course and the great reviews keep rolling in!)
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