How to satellite in to a major poker tournament

If you want to win life changing money without risking big bucks it’s time to start playing satellites – here are our six essential tips

Satellites were invented by poker pro and cardroom manager Eric Drache, who wanted to enable more players to participate in the World Series of Poker. Back then they were generally $1,000 one-table winner-take-all affairs.

Nowadays hundreds of satellites go off every day online. They’re insanely popular, and just about every Sunday a satellite winner turns a few dollars into thousands by making a deep run in a Sunday Major. And with most online poker rooms currently running satellites to major live events, there’s never been a better time to give them a go. Here then are our top tips for success.

1. Satellite selection

As with standard MTTs, the type of satellite you play is to some extent down to personal choice and how willing you are to gamble. However, when choosing between different satellite structures, the key consideration is the entrants-to-seats ratio.

Like coconuts, satellites come in all shapes and sizes. There are satellites that will pay one seat for every three entrants and others that pay one seat for every 200. Sometimes you don’t have a choice, as often there will only be one weekly online final to a live event, but for many events you’ll have several routes to choose from.

In our experience a satellite that awards one seat for every six to ten entrants is the best fit. This offers the best return on time and money invested, the best balance of skill and luck and is in line with most regular MTT payout structures. Satellites that fall within these boundaries might include a $39 freezeout to a $215 event or an $8 or $11 rebuy.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t step outside of these boundaries but be aware that it’s tough enough to cash in a tournament where the payout is 10% of the field, let alone a satellite where one in 40 wins a seat.

2. Preservation not accumulation

‘Tight is right’ is the mantra during the beginning stages of satellites. Gambling with speculative hands that flop well may be a viable tactic in a regular tournament that has a top-heavy payout structure, but in a flat payout structure like a satellite there’s no need. You’re really hoping to cooler someone or get it in as a huge favourite – think overpair vs underpair or A-K vs A-Q.

Play is definitely more akin to the early stages of a sit-and-go than a deepstack cash game. Of course in a rebuy satellite you can loosen up, as you have the rebuy safety net, but that should only be your Plan B. It will seem weak, but open-folding small pairs and trapping hands, especially in early position, is the best way to stay out of trouble.

3. Don’t worry about getting short

As you approach the end of a satellite that awards multiple seats, almost every stack will be in short-stack territory. At this stage a ten big blind stack could well be monstrous and a stack of three big blinds could be enough to get the big blind to fold his hand.

We’ve seen players fold from the big blind for less than half a big blind more because of the damage it would do to their stack and because there were shorter stacks at risk of elimination. As such, there’s no need to panic and shove under the gun with 7BB because you think you’ll have no fold equity should the blinds pass through you.

4. Stalling

This is not shady or unethical, it’s just smart satellite poker. When you reach the endgame of a satellite, stalling so that a blind increase will significantly hurt an opponent, or force him all-in, could mean the difference between you getting a seat and not. If you stand to benefit, you should take the maximum time possible and leverage the upcoming blind increases to your advantage. Use your timebank if you have one.

It’s also wise to keep all the other tables open when playing hand-for-hand, to spot players who might be hurt by a bit of well-timed stalling. For instance, let’s say the blinds are 10,000/20,000/a2,000. They’re rising to 15,000/30,000/a3,000 in three minutes and there is a player two seats to the left of the big blind on 50,000. By stalling and making the blinds increase before he pays them you can force him all-in and hopefully get one step closer to winning the seat.

5. Avoid showdowns

Obviously this is easier said than done, but unless the satellite only awards one seat you’re not going to need all the chips to win your ticket. In an ideal world you’d go through an entire satellite without going to showdown once, and just winning enough pots pre or postflop to keep ahead of the rising blinds and antes. It may be stating the obvious, but if you go to showdown you’ve got to have the best hand to win the pot, which isn’t going to happen 100% of the time, or even close to it.

Obviously if you’ve got the nuts you welcome a showdown, but in the mid to late stages of satellites where much of the poker is preflop, it’s important to call tighter. Getting into marginal equity spots really only benefits the other players in the satellite.

Here’s an example. There are five players remaining in a satellite to the PokerStars Sunday Million. First to third win $215. Fourth and fifth receive absolutely nothing. The chipstacks are as follows – with their current tournament equity in brackets:

Player 1: 15,000 ($156.07)
Player 2: 12,000 ($138.40)
Player 3: 8,000 ($104.41)
Player 4: 10,000 ($123.06)
Player 5: 10,000 ($123.06)

Now let’s imagine in this scenario that Player 4 shoves all-in preflop and Player 5 calls and wins to eliminate Player 4. The situation now looks like this:

Player 1: 15,000 ($174.68)
Player 2: 12,000 ($158.98)
Player 3: 8,000 ($121.13)
Player 5: 20,000 ($190)

So, by calling all-in Player 5 risked $123 worth of equity to gain $66, meaning he had to be a 65% favourite against Player 4’s range to make this a profitable call. The remaining $57 of equity has been distributed to Players 1 to 3, who simply folded.

6. Endgame strategy

We’re going to break this down into a few sections, as it’s that important. We define the endgame as the point at which no one is yet able to simply fold his or her way to a seat, but that point is not too far off. A simple example would be a satellite that awards ten seats and has 20-25 players remaining. There’s no magic formula to work out when you should fold A-Q, but there are several factors that can help you maximise your chances in the endgame.

At this point, open up all the remaining tables and keep a keen eye on the lobby to keep abreast of how many players remain, where you currently rank and when the blinds go up. Also be aware of how many players will be at the table as the bubble approaches. For instance, if a satellite pays 10 seats, then on the actual bubble play will be six-handed on one table and five-handed on the other, meaning the blinds and antes will come round that much quicker.

a) Endgame as a big stack

As one of the chip leaders you’ve got it relatively easy: maintaining your chipstack should be enough. As play nits up you’ll often get walks in the big blind, but aside from that try to pick on the medium stacks who aren’t yet desperate and will need the goods to call. Ideally you’d like to see zero flops and zero showdowns during the endgame. Also don’t be afraid to play pots against fellow big stacks if you have them covered, but beware of tangling with the short stacks who have little to lose, as they can often dent your stack and your chances.

b) Endgame as a medium stack

If you’re one of the medium stacks you’re in a delicate position. Winning a pot or two with an uncontested shove can turn you into a big stack (as can one double-up), but one ill-timed move can see you out the door and cursing your lack of patience. This fear of busting is very real, as you can realistically stay in the middle of the pack for the entire endgame period and win a seat.

Yes you’d be hugging the bubble, but you’d still, crucially, ship that seat. Standard strategy thus suggests that you should go after other medium stacks. Ideally you want to shove into other medium stacks from the button or small blind when it’s folded to you. Your position rather than cards matter more here. Obviously you’d rather have T-9 than T-3, but if it’s folded to you in late position and you pass there are precious chips going to other mid or short stacks.

Pay special attention to the blind increases and figure out if you’ll still have fold equity should the blinds and antes pass through you, or if they’ll increase before they pass through you. Getting your chips across the line first rather than calling is key in the endgame, regardless of your stack size, but it matters most when you’re a medium stack.

c) Endgame as a short stack

Okay, the vultures are circling, but the good news is you’ve still got a chance of winning a seat. Your best hope of chipping up is shoving into medium stacks who can’t afford to call without good holdings, despite the generous pot odds they’ll be getting.

Position when choosing to shove is crucial, and if you find yourself in a good spot you should just shove your entire range. It’s preferable to shove any two cards into a mid-stacked big blind than attempt to get A-7o through from early position.

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