Satellite Tournament Strategy

Satellite tournaments award tickets to other larger poker tournaments and so offer players the chance to play in a bigger tournament for a fraction of the cost. They come in both Sit N Go and MTT format and due to the unusual payout structure there are some interesting deviations from normal tournament strategy.

Single table winner take all satellites

SNG satellites to big MTTs are very common and usually award 1 seat to the winner with no other places receiving a prize. For example a tournament with a $1000 buy-in may have 10 man $100 satellites that award one seat in the $1000 tournament.

The strategy for beating these satellites obviously revolves around playing for first. There is no point in squeaking into second or third so ICM goes out the window. If you find yourself in a situation where you think your hand has an equity advantage over your opponents range you should take the risk just as you would in a cash game.

Multi-table satellites

Satellite tournaments with more than one table often award more than one seat to the main tournament. The standard of play in these satellites is often very weak so they can be a good investment for a decent player.

During the early stages you should play just as you would in a normal tournament. Reasonably tight aggressive play will serve you well as you just try to chip up slowly.

The real differences in satellite tournament strategy come when you start to get deep and come towards the bubble. When you get to the bubble in MTT satellites your main focus should be survival. Going into the money with the biggest stack will get you the same prize as going into the money with the shortest stack so you should pay close attention to your opponents stack sizes as well as your own when making bubble decisions. Survival is key not chip accumulation.

If you are chip leader and are very close to the prizes you should avoid getting involved at all. You are almost guaranteed a ticket and winning more chips will give you very little additional equity. Because of this large gap between risk and reward you need to be a huge favourite to justify putting your chips at risk.

This can lead to an interesting situation where folding premium hands pre-flop can be correct. You know for a fact that you are way ahead of your opponents range but the equity you can gain by winning the hand simply isn’t worth the risk.

Let’s look at this example where you are chip leader in a satellite with 7 players remaining and 5 seats awarded and chip stacks as follows:

Player 1 (SB): 10k

You (BB): 23k

Player 3: 7k

Player 4: 16k

Player 5: 10k

Player 6: 11k

Player 7: 11k

The blinds are at 500/1000 with 100 antes. It folds to player 6 who shoves all-in for 11k, player 7 calls for his 11k and it is folded to you with pocket kings staring back at you. Should you call? No!

Most people would make the call here which is a mistake. You are all but guaranteed a seat already so winning more chips will give you very little extra equity in the tournament. If you simply fold one player will be eliminated and you will be in first position with just one more player to go. If you call and lose you will be right down in the battle for the last bubble spot with 12k, which you could have avoided by folding.

Given the risk reward ratio here, what should you do with pocket aces? It might make you feel sick to fold a hand that you know for a fact is ahead but letting aces go here is not a bad play.

Calculating your chip goal

It is useful to know what the average number of chips will be when the money hits. To calculate it you simply divide all the chips in play by the number of seats awarded. The total number of chips in play can be calculated by multiplying the starting stack by the number of entrants.

Once your stack hits this number you should avoid anything that is anywhere near a close decision. Your goal now should be to maintain your stack with a steal here and there while avoiding big pots with all but the largest of advantages.

Satellite strategy summary

The competition in satellites is often very soft due to the lower buy-ins, smaller satellites which feed into larger ones, free entries and tournament tokens that many sites like to give away in promotions. Recreational players also fail to adjust to the unique strategy adjustments needed on the bubble due to the flat payout structure, and continue to play satellites as they would play any other tournament. This means that a good player can have a decent edge in satellites and win entry to large tournaments for a fraction of the normal cost.

For more strategy tips, check out the rest of our Online Poker Strategy Guide.