Thinking about trying to satellite your way into a big event on PokerStars? Need a quick primer before you do? You’ve come to the right place.

Satellites are one of the simplest forms of poker. But they are also one the most commonly misunderstood. Barry Carter and Dara O’Kearney, authors of Poker Satellite Strategy, think you can vastly improve your satellite game with just a few adjustments.

The following is an excerpt from Poker Satellite Strategy called “Satellites in 30 Minutes.” To be honest, it will probably take you less time than that to read through. Start reading… and then start reaping the profits by following the authors’ advice.


Satellites in 30 Minutes

The Bubble is All or Nothing

The bubble of a poker tournament is the point where one player is left to bust out before everyone makes the money. You either end the tournament inside the money bubble, or outside of it. This is significant in a regular tournament but in a satellite when the bubble is over the tournament ends. Busting out of a regular tournament on the bubble stings but if you were playing for the win then it’s easy to recover from. Making a mistake on the bubble of a satellite is so much more costly, because there is only one prize you can win and it is usually much bigger than a regular MTT min cash. We will elaborate on this as you read on, but always keep in mind that the nearer you are to the bubble, the more mistakes are magnified.

The Philosophy of Satellites

A non-poker friend once asked me why I seemed to be a much better player in super satellites than “real tournaments”. It seemed pointless to even bring up ICM, so to put it in layman terms. I said that if normal tournaments were war, then satellites were more like the Cold War. Late on in a satellite, you need to display to your opponents that you are willing to engage, while doing everything possible to avoid actual confrontations. Merely understanding that gives you an advantage over opponents who had never heard of mutually assured destruction.

This viewpoint should point you towards your own biggest leaks when it comes to super satellites. Either you are playing like a maniac and playing too many hands (especially calling too much) or everybody knows you are willing to blind yourself out to make the money so you will be seen as a soft target. Neither approach is ideal, so keep this in mind before anything else. You have to appear dangerous, so ideally you’ll have been seen playing aggressively when you get the hands to do so. But you want to avoid confrontation as much as possible. This runs contrary to regular MTTs where you could say that the philosophy of them is to realise your equity, by getting your strong hands paid, as much as possible so you can build a big stack for the final table.

Play Tight and Reduce Variance

The fundamental difference between satellites and regular multi table tournaments is that you are playing for prizes of equal value. That should be obvious, but it is important to repeat – you are playing for prizes of equal value.

There is no difference between the Viktor Blom wannabe who is raising every hand and has accumulated 60% of the chips in play, and the tight player who sneaks over the line with three big blinds. When the tournament is over they have both won a ticket to the same event. In reality, the difference between the two players is that the tight player is going to win more seats over the course of their satellite career.

In a regular MTT it pays to take risks, because the name of the game is finishing as high as possible, where the big prizes are. ICM obviously does play a factor in MTTs but taking calculated risks to build a big stack helps you get to the big money payouts. Calling a raise with a small pair in the hopes of making a set, chasing a draw because you think your opponent will pay you off or making a call with an inferior hand because you are priced in – these are all tactics which will see you bust early from MTTs, but when they pay off they put you in a good position to secure a massive payday.

Playing to min cash is a terrible long term strategy in MTTs but in satellites a min cash is the goal. The number of times you cash is much more important than your ability to crush the field, so that means reducing the number of times you bust by not taking needless risks.

You do have to build a stack to get you to the bubble, but you should look to adopt a tight aggressive strategy and remove any high variance plays from your arsenal. That means once the blinds have started to get big – no set mining with small pairs, no chasing draws with suited connectors, no coin flips and avoid defending with poor holdings because you are priced in. These moves may be ChipEV correct but they reduce your chances of having a survivable stack come bubble time.

Once the blinds are big and the stack sizes become shallow, consider open shoving your strong hands to avoid being reshoved over, even if you have 20 or 30 effective big blinds. If you open to 2.5x big blinds as your standard bet and get shoved on you are going to have to fold so often that this is sure fire way to get blinded down to a micro stack. Generally, you will get a lot more folds when you open shove in a satellite compared to a regular MTT, but that doesn’t mean do it with a wide range. Do it with hands you don’t mind getting called with.

Fold equity is the most important form of equity in a super satellite. You should be looking to give your opponents an opportunity to fold, even when you have a very strong hand. Trapping and inducing is a great strategy when you are trying to win the whole tournament but the more you avoid showdown, the more likely you are to survive to the bubble. If you see players open shoving 30 or 40 big blinds and showing up with strong hands like JJ or AQ, this is actually a sign of a seasoned satellite player. Don’t dismiss them as playing incorrectly – you should be doing the same.

Avoid Calling

By far the biggest errors you will see in satellites, and we will be covering this in depth later, is when players call all-ins too widely. The best way to reduce variance is to dramatically reduce the range you are prepared to call an all-in with when the amount you would stand to lose would hurt you severely or eliminate you. Quite simply you are putting yourself at the mercy of the deck when you call an all-in, and in satellites we want to avoid high variance showdown situations as much as possible.

This is why, when the blinds get big, it is more prudent to open shove a strong range, rather than open raise and then face the prospect of calling a reshove. When you are the first player to go all-in you put the pressure on the other players and most of the satellite savvy regulars will want to avoid a flip too. You give yourself two ways to win when you are the one putting pressure on others by going all-in – you can get them to fold or you can win the hand at showdown if they call. When you are the one facing an all-in call, there is only one way to win and that is to have the best hand at showdown.

This does not mean you should eliminate calling from your range. If you flop a full house and your opponent shoves you obviously will be calling. What this does mean is that, until you have gone through the more in-depth strategy in this book, you should narrow your own calling ranges. Think about what you would normally call with in the same spot in a regular MTT and reduce that by maybe a factor of three. So if you would normally call with 99+ and ATo+, maybe make the equivalent satellite range QQ+ and AKo+.

Don’t get too bogged down in the perfect adjustments at this stage, we are just trying to plug the most obvious leaks between now and when you have completed this book. Until then just think about your calling ranges and tighten them up perhaps to the point where you think you have tightened them up a bit too much. There are spots where folding Aces is correct in satellites so you probably can afford to play tighter than you currently are.

Bully the Players With Everything to Lose

This rule is more of a general guide when you don’t have any reads on the table. Your reads should always supersede any general advice, but until then it is usually better to be aggressive against the players who are currently safe but who wouldn’t be if they lost after calling a shove to you. These players are better to be aggressive against than the small stacks. When it gets near the bubble and players are stalling, everybody knows that unless two cooler hands come up against each other, the small stacks are going to blind out. So while the conventional wisdom would be to shove on the big blind of a small stack in regular MTTs as they desperately cling on to the money, in satellites those players know that nobody else in the tournament is going to do them any favours. In a regular MTT, you can hope for Queens against Ace King on another table, but in a satellite you have to expect one of those hands would fold to avoid a variance war. So for this reason, good short stacks in a satellite will realise they are going to have to gamble to stay in the game at some point. They’ll be hoping to do so by shoving more, but if they wake up with a good hand against a habitual shover they may have to call.

It is much better, therefore, to identify the players at the table who have everything to lose by calling on the bubble. The players who, if they just sat out, would coast to winning their seat. So we are looking for players who have the average stack and in an online tournament it is worth looking at their actual position in the tournament lobby. If they are inside the bubble, especially if they are inside the bubble by more places than there are players left to bust, they are usually going to fold almost everything in the face of a shove. They don’t want to be eliminated for no reason, nor do they want to be reduced to a small stack if they have you covered. If they appear to be stalling a lot anyway, that’s a good sign they don’t want to play any more pots.

Do not adopt this strategy against the players who have a huge stack. The players who could lose several flips in a row and still have an average stack are the same players who may want to end the tournament risk free but in some cases may spite call you.

How to Estimate the Stack you Need

Unlike a normal tournament this is not a game where the goal is to accumulate all the chips. In fact playing in that manner is one of the worst things you can do in satellites. Satellite newbies will often make the mistake of slowing down too early in satellites, and then blinding away, or continuing to build a stack when they might be better advised to sit out and wait for the bubble to burst.

When you enter a satellite the first thing you need to be aware of is what the average stack will be on the bubble. Once you get to the average stack on the bubble, you can slow down and pick your spots more carefully, because while you have an average stack, you can safely bet some players will have very big stacks and way more will have micro stacks fighting for their lives. Once you get to about 70% of the target stack, slow down and don’t take any unnecessary risks.

The simplest way to work out the target stack you’ll need is to see how many buy-ins make up a package you are playing for and multiplying that number by the starting stack. So if you are in a $10 tournament to win a $100 token and the starting stacks are 10,000, that would be 10 players x 10,000 chips = 100,000 target stack. You are aiming for a 100,000 stack on the bubble and once you get to about 70,000 you should prioritise maintaining that stack rather than gambling trying to double up. This calculation is also usually a reliable indicator of what the blind level will be on the bubble. Usually the average stack has ten big blinds on the bubble so in the above example the blind level is likely to be 5,000/10,000.

When to Lock Up

While you should be aiming to get to the target stack, the actual stack you need to get over the line depends on a number of factors, most notably how many seats there are to be won. In general a satellite with five seats on offer will require you to attain a greater target stack than a satellite with 50 seats to be won, because the more players in the satellite there are, the wider the spread of stacks will be.

Once you get closer to the bubble a much simpler way of working out whether you are close to guaranteed a seat is this simple heuristic:

When you are inside the bubble, if there are more people outside the bubble than there are positions between you and the bubble, you usually are guaranteed a seat.

For example, if you are currently 70th of 120 players and 100 players win a seat. In this case, there are 30 players between you and the bubble and a further 20 players outside the bubble. That means that you could blind out and make the money, because those 20 players outside the bubble would need to make a move before you. A further 30 would be in trouble before you.

Your correct strategy in this situation would be to fold every hand, even premium hands like Aces and Kings (unless the person shoving into you has a very small stack which would mean nothing for you to call). The downside of calling and losing is greater than the upside of calling and winning by an order of magnitude. This cannot be stressed enough. Perhaps the most common way new players bubble a satellite starts with them playing a premium hand when they had no reason to. Most satellite bad beat stories start with “I had Aces” when in reality that player should have folded them preflop.

You should also stall every hand when you have a seat locked up, because the fewer hands your table plays during the bubble, the longer you preserve that very safe stack by posting less blinds and antes.

In the same example, if you are 90th of 120 players with 100 seats, the situation is different. You should still be playing extremely tight because you are still likely to make the money, but a slow bubble and a few double ups from shorties could land you in trouble. You should still fold strong hands and avoid confrontation with players who have you covered, but when you get dealt big hands or see spots to bully a very tight player, you should go for it.

If you are outside the bubble you should usually be looking to make a move. If you are 110th of 120 and 100 get a seat, you will blind out before the other players and you cannot assume 10 players will make a horrendous mistake ahead of you. You should be looking at getting your money in wherever you see a profitable spot.

Key Takeaways

  • Avoid calling all-ins
  • Take the lower variance lines
  • Fold equity is the most important form of equity in satellites
  • Work out what the average stack is likely to be on the bubble and tighten up when you get 70% of the way there
  • Lock up when you are inside the bubble by more positions than there are players outside of the bubble

This is an excerpt from the best-selling Poker Satellite Strategy by Dara O’Kearney and Barry Carter, a complete guide to online and live super satellites.

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