Big poker tournaments offer a chance to win life-changing money, but top events can be a bit out of the price range of an average player. This is exactly why poker satellite tournaments exist, allowing players to win their seats in the more expensive event for just a fraction of the price.
Back in the day, Chris Moneymaker won an online satellite and went on to win the WSOP Main Event, launching the entire Poker Boom and having a massive impact on the game as we know it today.
These days, online and live poker satellites to almost any major tournament out there can be found with ease, and you can win seats in massive $10,000 events for as little as $5.
But while poker satellites offer a great opportunity, they are also very challenging, as they require you to play a unique poker strategy that is often quite a bit different from the one you may be used to.
For that reason, we are going to explain exactly how satellite tournaments work, what to look out for, and what strategies to apply to give yourself the best shot at winning that coveted seat.
Poker Satellites Explained
A poker satellite idea is quite simple – players buy-in for a percentage of the price of the tournament they wish to play, and the money is accumulated into a prize pool. For each X players in the satellite, a Y number of players qualify for the event.
For example, imagine there is a $1,000 buy-in event at a casino near your home, but that price is simply not one you wish to pay.
In the days leading up to the tournament, the casino will likely throw some $100 satellites, where one player will get to play the event for every 10 players who buy into the satellite.
Of course, the exact buy-in prices for both the Main Event and the satellite will differ a bit, depending on tournament and staff fees, but the concept will remain the same.
It is also worth noting that online poker sites often offer what is known as “step satellites,” which are lower buy-in satellite tournaments that will lead you into the main satellite.
For instance, in the example above, you may be able to play a Step Satellite for $10, which will award the winners a seat into the $100 satellite, where seats into the $1,000 event are given away.
The important thing to keep in mind about satellite tournaments is that, unlike regular poker tournaments, satellites award all the winners with the exact same prize.
For example, if the $100 satellite got a total of 100 runners, then the top 10 placed players would receive a $1,000 entry into the event, while everyone else would walk away with nothing.
This means that the jump from 11th to 10th place is worth $1,000, but there is no need to concern yourself with further play once the ticket is guaranteed.
Since satellite tournaments end before all players are eliminated, there are often very intricate strategies that come into play, as your equity in different spots changes quite a bit depending on stack sizes, the number of seats awarded, and more.
After satelliting into the WSOP Main Event, Chris Moneymaker changed
the game forever by winning poker’s biggest tournament.
Upsides of Poker Satellites
Poker satellites have become extremely popular ever since the early days of online poker, as they provide a real chance to play in major poker tournaments at a significantly reduced price.
Whether you are looking to play some Sunday majors on your favorite poker site or qualify for the next step of that big poker tour happening in your city, there will be plenty of opportunities to satellite your way into them.
Poker satellites offer a few major upsides, which include:
- Cheap way into major tournaments
- Soft playing fields
- No need for late game play
Cheap Way Into Major Tournaments
The biggest upside of having access to poker satellites is the fact you get to invest a very small amount of money for a potentially massive return.
For instance, if you are looking to play a major $10k live tournament, you may be able to do so while only investing $22 or $55 to start with.
Playing step satellites and trying to win your way into the event is a fantastic way to take a shot without breaking your bankroll.
While the $10k price may be way out of your price range, taking a few shots in the Step Satellites will give you a reasonable chance at success while costing you very little in terms of real money spent.
Soft Playing Fields
Typically speaking, satellites tend to attract both pros and recreational players, but the recs outweigh the pros in them by quite a bit.
Especially when it comes to playing for live tournament seats, a bunch of locals from the city where the event is happening are going to be in there looking to win their seats.
These players will not be playing like the pros you may see in other tournaments and may, in fact, be very bad at poker on a fundamental level. Even online poker satellites tend to be quite soft, but those played at the actual casinos are almost always the softest games around.
So, if you were planning on taking a trip out to a live event soon, make sure to check out your satellite options and potentially crush your opponents to win a cheap seat.
No Need for Late Game Play
The late stage of a tournament can present some of the most complicated spots in all of tournament poker, as the impact of ICM becomes huge, and each decision could make a difference worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
In satellite tournaments, especially ones with bigger playing fields, there is no late gameplay and no final table play.
Instead, all action comes to a halt once the bubble bursts and all ITM players are awarded their seats in the event they were playing for.
If you are not too confident about your late tournament play, playing satellites could be a great way to give yourself more of an edge and reduce the mental pressure of having to make those tough decisions late in the game.
Satellites offer low stakes poker players a chance to win entry into
prestigious events like the WPT World Championship.
Downsides of Poker Satellites
While poker satellite tournaments definitely present a great opportunity for most players, there are also some negative sides to them.
Unlike regular poker tournaments, you will not actually be playing for the entire prize pool, and the lack of late games can be a disadvantage to the truly skillful players out there.
So, here are a few major disadvantages of poker satellites to look out for:
- Limited winning potential
- Difficult bubble decisions
- Less chance to exploit bad players
Limited Winning Potential
The biggest downside of poker satellites, of course, is the fact you can’t go all the way and win that juicy first-place prize but must instead be satisfied with the same prize everyone else gets.
The maximum prize you can get in a poker satellite is an entry into the tournament in question, and once you get that, the play stops.
Late game tournament play is some of the most exhilarating and, for the best players, also the most profitable period in a tournament, which makes this a major downside for the best players out there.
As your skill level grows, you will notice that you prefer tournaments that pay more up top, not less, and this is where playing in tournaments will become a bit counter-intuitive.
Difficult Bubble Decisions
As the money bubble approaches and you get close to winning your seat in a poker satellite, the decisions you need to start making will change drastically.
You will have very little incentive to try and win more chips once you already have a reasonable stack, as there is no top-place prize to think about.
Instead, it will come down to making a lot of very tight folds and only stealing enough chips to stay afloat as you wait for someone else to bust out.
The bubble phase of a satellite tournament can be extremely frustrating, can last quite long, and is honestly not very fun at all, making it another downside of poker satellites.
Less Chance to Exploit Bad Players
Don’t get us wrong, there is still plenty of space to show off your edge and outplay others in poker satellites, but it’s just reduced compared to typical poker tournaments.
Since all play stops once the money is made, your ability to push people around with a big stack in the final stages of the tournament is greatly hindered.
While you will still be able to make some power plays around the bubble, which is extremely important in satellites, your overall skill edge will be diminished.
This makes satellite tournaments ideal for recreational players looking to get lucky and win a seat but also serious players who are not super confident about their late-game play and who would rather guarantee a win than gamble it all at the final table.
Even if you are an elite poker player, satellite tournaments
can cap your ability to exploit bad players.
Poker Satellite Strategy Explained
Now that you know how poker satellites work and what makes them appealing or unappealing to play, let’s talk about some actual tournament strategies you can apply in-game.
We are going to go over a typical poker satellite step-by-step, explaining each stage of play and the way you should adjust from your typical strategy in satellites. We will start at the very beginning with the early stages of play.
Early Stage in Poker Satellites
When the satellite starts, you will want to play a pretty typical tournament strategy, as there is not yet much ICM to think about. Your goal is to build up a reasonable stack for later play and get into the middle phase of the MTT with a significant amount of chips.
Of course, the final reward is lesser in satellites than it is in regular tournaments, so you should be thinking about this from the very start.
While there is nothing wrong with busting out when you have to, playing a bit more carefully in a satellite makes more sense simply because building a massive stack is worth so much less.
Yet, you will want to take advantage of all the recreational players still in contention in the early stage, which means you may get into some big confrontations very early on.
Middle Stage in Poker Satellites
Once the satellite tournament gets into its later levels and a number of players bust out, you will enter its middle stage. At this point in a poker satellite, you will want to turn the caution on and reduce your risk-taking by quite a bit.
The closer the bubble gets, the less you want to bust out and the more you want to outlast others and survive.
Surviving means stealing blinds from players you can jeopardize while trying to avoid being at risk at all costs.
Of course, if the bubble is still far away, you will also want to take advantage of opportunities to collect chips, but the equity needed to play hands, and especially call all-ins, will increase dramatically.
Late Stage in Poker Satellites
As already mentioned, poker satellites don’t include typical late-stage tournament play, as the money bubble is the final stage of play in them. As the money bubble looms, you will want to pay attention to everyone’s stack size more than anything else, including your own.
Pay attention to the blinds and make sure you have enough chips to stay afloat. If there are many smaller stacks, never risk your tournament life against players with deeper chip stacks.
If you find yourself riding the short stack, you may have no choice but to try and double up. Yet, note that some bad players will put themselves in terrible spots and often bust before the short stack with a very mediocre hand, even near the bubble.
Thus, if you have one of the biggest stacks, you should not push it too much and risk losing those chips. Steal blinds to stay at the top and wait for the smaller stacks to get into confrontations and bust each other out.
Even when you have a big stack in the late stages of a satellite tournament,
it is important to avoid marginal spots.
Final Words on Poker Satellites
Poker satellite tournaments can be incredibly rewarding and can give you a chance to play in poker tournaments you could never have imagined playing otherwise.
Yet, they are usually not the best choice of game for long-term profit, but rather for shot taking and an attempt at getting into that one big event you want to play.
Since satellites eliminate late-game play and limit profit, playing them too much can become quite mundane and will rarely end up with you profiting massively.
The next time there is a big live event you have always dreamt of playing like the WSOP, fire up your favorite poker site and start up some satellites to try and win a cheap seat and enjoy an affordable poker holiday.
If you apply the relatively simple poker satellite strategy we describe here, you will be playing better than a big chunk of the field, which should be enough to give you a great chance at winning your seat.
Make sure to also keep improving your satellite game and enhancing your skills further if you want to be able to satellite into any poker event, anywhere on earth, for just a small percentage of the buy-in price.