One of the great things about poker is the possibility of investing a small amount of money in a tournament and walking away with a huge prize.
Over the years, we have witnessed movie-like stories of players qualifying through satellite tournaments for as little as $1 or $2 and winning big events for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
If you hope to be a part of a similar story one day, the first thing you need to do is learn how to play a satellite tournament, and this is exactly what we will cover on this page.
Poker rooms created satellite poker tournaments to allow players with smaller bankrolls to grind their way to bigger buy-in events.
Like other tournaments, satellites have a prize pool, but players who finish in the top spots earn tickets instead of money.
Depending on the tournament, all prizes can come in the form of tickets, or there might be some cash for players who finish in the lowest paying spots.
For example, let’s say a $100 satellite tournament is running, and the first ten spots are guaranteed a ticket to a $1,000 buy-in tournament. In this case, the tournament prize pool of $10,000 is evenly distributed to the first 10 players.
Players’ only goal is to make it into the top 10 spots, and there is no need for them to try and win the tournament as they will not receive anything more for their efforts.
This dynamic is exclusive to satellite tournaments, making them special and unique from a strategic standpoint.
Players who are new to this format and sometimes even experienced grinders struggle in satellite tournaments because they fail to adjust to the prize pool structure of satellite tournaments.
Satellites can run in different formats, so we want to mention some of the most common types available today:
We must also point out that although all of these tournament types exist, some can be much harder to find than others. Therefore, the easiest way to transition to playing satellites is to start with the type of tournament structure you have the most experience with.
However, even though these tournaments have similar names to some regular formats, using the same approach will not be optimal. In other words, if you are crushing freezeout tournaments, it doesn’t mean that you will be winning tickets in freezeout satellites.
Therefore, make sure to understand the necessary strategy adjustments before jumping into these games, not to spew your bankroll.
While satellites are not the most popular type of tournament, they can be very profitable when played correctly.
The main pros of playing satellites are:
There are two main reasons why you will face weaker opposition in satellite tournaments than in other formats.
First, there are fewer players that live off playing satellite tournaments because they are not as interesting as other games. This means that there is a lower threshold you need to overcome in terms of skill to become profitable in this type of game.
The other reason is that there are a lot of recreational players that play satellites, hoping that they will win an entry to higher buy-in events. On average, these players make a lot of mistakes because they are not used to playing this format, and this will significantly improve your bottom line
Satellite Tournament Strategy Is Pretty Straightforward
You have probably heard in other areas of life that the simplest answers tend to be the correct ones. This is exactly the case with satellite tournaments.
One of the reasons why this tournament format has a much simpler approach than others is that all you need to think about is survival in the late stages.
This is in contrast to other formats where you also need to think about winning because most of the money goes to the first-place finisher.
If you are struggling with ICM, we will be happy to inform you that ICM works much differently in satellite tournaments and that it is much easier to calculate correct ICM decisions.
With all this, it might surprise you that so many players struggle with satellite tournaments. The main reason for this is that players who transition from other formats are used to going for the win, leading them to make a lot of bad decisions.
We have all been in situations where our attempts to get into higher stakes failed, and we had to accept the defeat and go back to lower buy-ins. This is one of the most disappointing moments of every poker player's career.
Some poker players never recover from a failed shot attempt because they know they need to work twice as hard to recover each buy-in they lost at the lower stakes, ending in them giving up on their poker career.
While cash game players don’t have a choice and must go through the shot-taking process without shortcuts, satellites are a much easier way for tournament players.
Satellite tournaments allow players to risk much less money to get into high buy-in tournaments while playing against a softer field. They only need to sacrifice a little bit of excitement, which is a small price to pay for getting to the next level.
If you fail, the impact on your bankroll will be the same as if you played regular buy-in tournaments, so you can easily live to fight another day.
Depending on your poker goals, playing satellite tournaments is not all sunshine and rainbows. The main disadvantages of playing them are:
After the guarantee has been reached in regular tournaments, the prize pool increases each time a new player registers.
This increase impacts the prize pool in a couple of ways. Firstly, the rewards for the paid places will increase; secondly, if there are enough entries, the number of paid places will also increase.
So, as there are more entries and the tournament becomes tougher, the prize pool increases accordingly to make up for this.
In satellite tournaments, the situation is a little bit different. The only way that the registration of new players can impact the prize pool is by increasing the number of paid places which means that the existing rewards stay the same.
In other words, you will not be rewarded with a bigger prize because you beat a bigger field.
One of the main reasons why satellite tournaments are not as popular as other tournament formats are that they are less exciting.
If you have played satellites, you know it is hard to resist the feeling that you are only playing a qualification event. Most players allow this feeling to take over and impact how seriously they approach the event.
Fighting for tickets instead of money also takes some of the excitement from the tournament. Just imagine playing a regular tournament where the reward for the 1st place is $1000 and playing a satellite tournament where the reward for the 1st place is a $1000 ticket.
It doesn’t offer the same level of excitement, knowing that winning a tournament is just the first step toward financial gain.
Because satellites can be a bit dull, the players who manage to overcome this feeling and perform to the best of their ability have an even bigger edge over their competition.
Satellites Can Be Time ConsumingThe nature of satellite tournaments requires players to plan their schedules because the last thing you want to do is win a ticket only to find out that you are busy on the day of the tournament and that you will have to choose between playing the event and your other plans.
In practice, it requires twice as much planning as playing in regular tournaments, which can be overwhelming for most new players.
Some poker sites will allow you to exchange the tickets you won for cash. However, if this is not the case, you are left with no choice but to plan ahead.
If you plan to devote time to playing satellite tournaments, the main thing you want to focus on is how to approach different stages of these events.
Just like in other formats, the three distinct stages in satellites are:
The important thing to remember is that even though these stages are the same, your approach to each will be much different in satellite tournaments than in other formats.
This is because the payout structure is flat, and players are not incentivized to fight for 1st place.
The dynamics in the early stages of satellite tournaments are very similar to those in other tournaments, and your approach should be almost the same.
Try to build your stacks as much as possible without getting into big pots with weak holdings.
This stage will feature many recreational players, and you should take advantage of this by waiting for them to make mistakes rather than trying to force pots. If you give them the opportunity, they will often give away their chips by overplaying their hands.
Depending on the structure of the satellite, one or two double-ups in this stage can almost guarantee you one of the top spots. It is very important to be aware of this and switch gears if it happens.
Depending on the size of the field, in some satellite tournaments, the middle stages can overlap with the late stages. The bigger the field, the bigger the chance that the event will have a middle stage.
With this said, depending on how small the field is, the tournament can transition directly from early to late stage. These factors make the middle stages pretty tricky to play.
You need to pay attention to several factors, including how close is the bubble and how many chips you will need to get in the paying spots.
If you make a wrong prediction about either of these, it will negatively impact your overall approach because you will play too passively or too aggressively.
Playing too aggressively will result in you getting into spots where you have more to lose than you have to win, and playing passive will result in you missing good opportunities to chip up.
All of this can be overwhelming if you are new to satellites, so our advice is to use the average stack in the tournament as a guide.
If you have a stack that is much bigger than the average stack in the tournament, you can slow down and be more passive, but if your stack is lower than the average stack, it might be time to start fighting for some pots.
Finally, the most important stage of satellite tournaments is the late stage or the bubble. This stage is much more important in satellites than in any other tournament format because the rewards are much higher.
For example, if you play a $109 freezeout tournament, the reward for getting into the money might be around $210 -$230, which is approximately two times the buy-in.
In satellite tournaments, however, the reward for getting into the money in the tournament with the same buying can be around $1000 - $1100, which is ten times more than the buy-in.
At this tournament stage, you should have much more accurate information about what is needed to get into the money based on the number of players and the size of their stacks.
Based on this information, you might need to make some counterintuitive decisions like folding premium hands or going all in with marginal holdings.
For example, let’s say you are playing in a tournament where the top 3 spots get paid, and there are 4 players left.
The stack sizes are following:
Because there is a high chance that Player 2 or Player 3 will go out before you based on their chip stacks, you should at no point get involved in pots with Player 1. Instead, you should play passively and wait for good hands to play against Player 2 and Player 3.
You should fold your entire range against an all-in from Player 1 because you have everything to lose and not much to gain.
And when we say everything, we mean everything.
For example. Player 3 folds, Player 2 folds, Player 1 goes all-in, and you have Aces.
The right move in this situation is to fold. Why? Because the only thing you can win is chips you probably won’t need, and if you get unlucky, it will cost you your tournament life.
The same goes the other way around. If you are in the position of Player 1, you should use your stack to push around other players at the table and chip up additionally.
However, if you are in the position of Player 2 or Player 3, the situation is not that straightforward, and you will have to widen your range, or else you will blind out. This means that luck will have a pretty big impact on your result in the event.
Consider these factors the next time you sit down to play satellite tournaments, and you will be a step ahead of most of your opponents.
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