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Satellite Tournaments

Satellite Poker Tournament
Satellites are used to transfer large amounts of data to a specific target from a far distance. Satellite tournaments are used to transfer large amounts of poor poker players into larger poker tournaments that would normally be far outside of their bankroll limits.

Now that we have that confusion cleared up, we can begin to explore the phenomenon known as satellite tournaments. Nearly every casino or online poker room around the world offers these types of tournaments, so it is important to gather as much information about them as you can.

Not only are these tournaments a nice breath of fresh air from the usual tournament format, but they give the Average Joe a passageway into the high-stakes poker world. Some satellites award seats into tournaments with buy-ins as high as $25,000, which is simply not affordable for most people.

A great rule of thumb when playing poker tournaments is to play where you have at least 100 buy-ins in your bankroll. This means that for a person to buy into a $25,000 tournament with their own money, they should have at least $2.5 million in their bankroll. Clearly, this eliminates most of the people in the world, but thanks to the existence of satellite tournaments, the idea of getting into such a large event is no longer so far-fetched.

Payouts

The payout structure of these tournaments usually awards one entry to a different poker tournament of higher stakes to each of the top 10% of finishers. This means that if there are ten seats being rewarded, that 10th place will receive the same prize that 1st place does. Sometimes the poker room will guarantee that a certain number of seats will be awarded, which means that even if they do not get enough players to cover the prize pool, they still have to run the satellite.

Any prize money that is left over after seats are rewarded will be distributed among the top finishers in a multi-table tournament style payout structure. For example, let’s assume there are 11 people in a $10 satellite which rewards one seat into a $100 tournament. This means that the winner would receive the seat into the $100 tournament, and second place would receive the leftover $10.

The point in time when there is only one person left to be eliminated before all of the seats are rewarded will be referred to as “the bubble” throughout this article. We will focus on this point in time more intensely in the strategy section, as it is a pivotal part of playing satellites correctly.

Variations

Outside of the usual multi-table tournament satellite with a 10% payout structure, there are a lot of different variations of satellites to be found. Most of these variations will be found on the internet, but occasionally you can find them in brick-and-mortar casinos as well.

Winner-Take-All Satellites

One of the variations of satellites that is quite popular is the winner-take-all satellite. These tournaments are true to their name, and they only pay one person out of the entire field of players.

The biggest perk to this type of satellite is that you only need to pay a small amount relative to the entry fee of the tournament that first place awards an entry to. This allows for an occasional opportunity to play a tournament that is way outside of the player’s bankroll.

Rebuy Satellites

Another popular variation of satellite tournament is one where rebuys are permitted during the first hour. This means that if a player gets knocked out, they can just pay the entry fee one more time and receive a fresh new stack of chips.

These types of satellites usually have an add-on available the first break. This add-on costs the same amount as a rebuy does, but it will usually award more chips than the rebuys do.

This rebuy format can get quite expensive if things do not go your way in the first hour, but the tradeoff is that there are usually a relatively large number of tournament seats being awarded. Rebuy satellites tend to favor those who have large bankrolls, since they can easily afford to rebuy and add on, while some players might just be trying to limp into a victory with only one entry.

If you do not have the proper bankroll to be able to do at least one rebuy and one add-on, you should not be playing rebuy tournaments. This will put you at a sick disadvantage compared to those who can afford them, so it is better to just avoid the situation altogether and go play a different satellite. This is especially true in tournaments where the add-on chip amount is a large multiple of the rebuy chip amount.

Sit and Go Satellites

For those who are in a hurry and only have an hour or so to play a satellite, sit and go satellites are going to be your best choice. They are also ideal for those who are already familiar with sit and go tournament strategies but are not quite comfortable with their multi-table tournament strategies.

Normally, these sit and go satellites will have nine or ten people, depending on the size of the full table. The internet normally features 9-handed tables, while casinos often use 10-handed tables. However, it is not unusual to find sit and go satellites that feature two, four, six, or eight players.

Step Sit and Go Satellites

A slight variation of the sit and go satellite is known as the step sit and go satellite. Normally a player will start at Step #1, which has the lowest buy-in, and if they place in the top two spots, they will move on to Step #2. If a player finishes in the top two spots in Step #2, they will move on to Step #3.

This continues until the 6th or 7th step, where 1st place will normally be awarded a seat into a very expensive tournament. Normally, this tournament will be a $10,000 entry into a European Poker Tour event or the World Series of Poker Main Event.

The coolest thing about this step satellite format is that they do not always just reward the top two finishers. Generally, if a step is promoting the top two finishers, the 3rd and 4th place finishers will receive a re-entry into the same step. Sometimes they even give a tiny bit of money to those who bubble the re-entry payout.

This unique payout structure offers a little bit more room for error when trying to grind your way to the top of the ladder, which makes the adventure a little bit less stressful. It also creates bubble situations when there are still 6 or 7 people left in the sit and go, which makes it more fun than a regular sit and go satellite.

Turbo Satellites

The only difference between turbo satellite tournaments and normal satellite tournaments is that the blind levels increase at a faster rate.

In a normal satellite, the blinds usually increase every 10 or 12 minutes on the internet, and every 30 or 40 minutes in a casino. In a turbo satellite, the blind levels will normally go up every 6 to 8 minutes on the internet, and every 15 or 20 minutes in a casino.

In general, it is a good idea to play fairly tight early in these satellites. Once the blinds go up, you can use your tight to steal much-needed pots to help you stay afloat throughout the bubble stages of the tournament.

Hyper-Turbo Satellites

Hyper-turbo satellites are exactly like turbo satellites, except that the blinds increase even faster. For example, a turbo satellite on the internet will have blind levels that increase every 6 to 8 minutes, but hyper-turbo satellites will raise the blind levels every 2 to 4 minutes.

It is also common to start with fewer chips than usual in this format. For example, an internet poker room such as PokerStars will usually start players with 500 chips in a hyper-turbo satellite, but in a normal satellite, they will start with 1,500 chips. This serves the purpose of making these tournaments go even faster, since each person will be short-stacked at an earlier point than usual.

This format certainly favors those who have little to no free time who just want a quick poker fix. Hyper-turbo satellites also tend to be advantageous for those who know their preflop all-in hand ranges like the back of their hand. We do not recommend this format for the faint of heart, as there will be tons of all-in situations happening from the very beginning of the tournament.

Advantages

Now that you have seen the long list of variations that satellites offer, you might be wondering what the advantages of playing these tournaments might be. After all, it is wise to analyze the advantages of every action you take in life before you go through with them.

The obvious advantage to satellites, which we have already touched upon, is that they allow for a player who cannot currently afford a certain tournament to win entry into that tournament. Is this the only advantage to playing satellites? The answer is no, because there are definitely other reasons to participate in this special tournament format.

A second advantage to playing in satellite tournaments is that you get to take a break from the normal tournament payout structure. It can sometimes become a bit tedious to play tournaments that have the same payout structure all the time. It is also a good idea to stretch your brain out a little bit and make it analyze different variables than you are used to as far as bubble situations go.

Another reason why we love playing satellite tournaments is that they are one of the most easily beatable poker formats that you can find. The fact is that when there is a large number of players in the satellite, there are usually more than ten people who will win a seat. This means that there will be no final table, since the tournament will end before the final table begins. Therefore, satellites are great at shielding those who do not know proper final table strategy from being exposed.

Satellites are not just easier for those who hate final tables, they are also easier for those who know how to bully other players whenever there is a bubble situation. This strategy is extremely effective in satellites because people play even more scared than usual. We will talk more about this in the following section concerning satellite tournament strategy.

Satellite Tournament Strategy

Just like with any other poker format, there are certain strategies that will dominate, and some that will not be very successful. We will now share with you some of our favorite strategies to use that give you the best chance of winning a ticket to your target tournament when playing satellite tournaments.

Early Stages

In order to tackle satellite tournaments, you just need to take things one step at a time. This first step is always going to be the early stages, unless you managed to late-register into a satellite before registration closed. The internet will usually allow late registration for satellites during the first hour of the tournament, while casino satellites usually allow late registration until the first break of the tournament.

We do not recommend registering late to a satellite, as the early stages are extremely important. This is especially true for those who have a huge edge on the field with deeper stacks, since the early stages are the only part of a satellite that involves deep stacks. This also applies to players who may not know their all-in preflop shove ranges very well, so they need to be able to take advantage of the early stages before effective stacks get too short.

Now that we have convinced you to register for satellites on time, what do you do next? Well, as far as strategy is concerned, you will not make many adjustments compared to the early stage strategy of a freezeout tournament. If anything, you should be bluffing slightly less than normal in the early stages, because the players do not yet feel the pressure of the bubble.

For preflop raise sizing in these early stages, we recommend using a strategy that involves strictly min-raising. This is the most effective way to get involved in pots without taking too much risk early on. As soon as your stack gets below 20 big blinds, you might want to start considering whether you want to just shove all-in or not.

We do not recommend going all-in before the flop with any hand if your stack is over 15 big blinds, because this is the point where doing a regular raise becomes more profitable in most situations. One exception to this rule might be if you have a small pair like 3-3 with 19 big blinds on the button and the action folds around to you. In this scenario, it is certainly more profitable to shove all-in, since 3-3 is a very difficult hand to play after the flop with your stack size, and you know that the all-in is mathematically profitable, thanks to the Nash Equilibrium.

Bubble Strategy

The bubble of satellite tournaments is the final stage of the tournament, because once the bubble bursts and everybody wins a seat, the satellite is finished. Every player has the same goal at this point, which is to last long enough to win one of these seats.

If a field pays seats to 10% of players, the bubble is usually considered to begin when there is about 15% of players remaining.  Any time there is only one person left to be knocked out before the tournament is finished, we will refer to this situation as the “stone bubble.”

Due to the fact that everyone who wins a seat receives the same payout, it will be fairly predictable what the strategy of each player will be like. One of the greatest advantages in poker is knowing what your opponent’s strategy will be, so let’s take a look at some common patterns in satellite tournament bubbles that we have found over the years.

Those with big stacks on the bubble will most likely not want to play any big pots, since they already have enough chips to win a seat. They will normally just try to win small pots here and there by bullying other players, or just not play any pots at all. There is no reason for a big stack to take a huge risk, and it would be a silly mistake for them to do so. We will cover this more in our next section about folding pocket aces.

The players with medium stacks on the bubble are the ones who seemingly have a lot to lose. While they are one or two double-ups away from locking up a seat in most cases, they also risk losing all of their chips to blinds and antes if they don’t act quickly.

Some of these medium stacks might incorrectly think that they have a seat locked up, and then they will fold strong hands to any pressure from other players. One of the biggest mistakes that a medium stack can make is to just blind away their stack, but it seems to be one of the most common strategies.

As a way to easily accumulate chips, we recommend targeting the medium stacks who are clearly playing timidly in any bubble situation. These players must be punished for their misperception of how long they can stay alive while waiting for pocket aces.

The players with short stacks under 10 big blinds are the ones in the hot seat in satellite tournament bubble situations. They simply do not have enough chips to just wait around for a big hand, but tons of short stacks will try to use this strategy anyway. Whether you are a big stack or a medium stack, you should target these scared small stacks that seem to be folding everything they get dealt.

The play of a short-stack player is governed mainly by mathematics. If an all-in is profitable and the player does not appear to have the ability to fold until they win a seat, then they need to be taking these all-in spots. Occasionally, this will result in some pretty annoying finishes on the bubble, which will reward you with nothing, but this is a necessary evil that is a big part of tournament poker.

When to Fold Pocket Aces

One situation that comes up quite often in satellite tournaments is when it is correct to fold pocket aces. What!?  Fold the best hand in poker? Please, let us explain.

In no other format of poker is it profitable or correct to fold this hand before the flop comes out. This is because a hand like pocket aces has at least an 80% chance of winning an all-in against any given hand if the money gets all-in before the flop comes. Due to the top-heavy nature of a normal poker tournament’s prizes, any professional player would be happy to get all of their chips in the middle as an 80% favorite at any point in time.

The only reason why folding pocket aces preflop works for satellites is due to the unique payout structure. If there are 30 seats being rewarded in a satellite, the 30th place finisher will receive the same tournament entry as the 1st place finisher does.  In this format, there are going to be some situations where getting all of your money in the middle of the table when you have an 80% chance of winning is not worth the risk. The best way to understand this is to see an example.

Let’s assume that there are only 31 players remaining in a satellite tournament, and you have the 2nd largest stack in the tournament. You are then dealt pocket aces, and the player with the most chips in the tournament, who also happens to be at your table, decides to go all-in before the flop is even dealt.

In any other tournament format, this is going to be an instant call for you with pocket aces. However, with a stack as big as yours in this bubble situation, it is simply not worth taking the risk when you are 100% guaranteed to win a seat already. There is no reason to take a gamble as an 80% favorite in this spot just to win a seat that you already have locked up.

It is important to note that if you were the shortest stack of the tournament in this bubble situation, you would certainly not be folding pocket aces. This fold is a specific instance that is caused by the payout structure mixed with the large chip stack’s risk-reward ratio.

Stalling

Even though it is frowned upon by most people in the poker community, stalling your way to winning a satellite tournament is sometimes a necessity. This is generally a good strategy for the medium-sized stacks to use to coast their way into winning a seat with as little variance as possible.

The only way for this to be an effective strategy is if you know for sure that you can fold your way into a seat. This is sometimes hard to gauge, but over time you will be able to feel when it is time to start stalling with more accuracy.

A great thing to watch for when deciding if it is time to begin stalling is how fast people have been dropping out. Some tournaments are full of people who simply do not care about bubbling, and stalling will be quite effective in these types of fields.

On the flip side, some satellites will have bubble periods that last up to an hour, in which case stalling will not be as effective. Over years of playing satellites, we have noticed a pattern emerge, which shows that the more expensive the tournament is, the longer the bubble periods will take.

We do not recommend the use of this stalling strategy for short stacks who only have enough chips to last through one or two more rounds of blinds and antes. These players will need to be more risk-averse with their short stack, because they essentially have nothing to lose. Therefore, stalling will do nothing but hurt these small stacks, since they need to be accumulating chips to help them stay afloat.

The Wrap-Up

Now that we have explored every aspect of satellites, including their variations, their payout structures, and their strategies, you should feel much more comfortable while playing one of them. They are an extremely profitable and fun format of poker that every player should participate in whenever they get the chance to do so.