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Andy Holt’s Guide to Satellite Poker Tournaments

Andy Holt has been a member of FTR since August of 2005. Andy was kind enough to put together a strategy guide for satellite poker tournaments below. Visit our poker forum to read more from Andy!

Andy’s Satellite MiniGuide

I was browsing through FTR’s archives and, to my surprise, found no real discussion of the strategy involved in satellite play. This obviously concerns me, because satellite play can be extremely profitable and is one of poker’s “hidden treasures” that we can all enjoy. I say this because it seems like satellites are passed over by many skilled players who may not see it as a good investment of their time. Since I consider myself a satellite specialist, having qualified my way into tons of major online events, I wholeheartedly believe that it’s a great investment to learn how to consistently beat satellites. I have a few ideas and strategies that everyone can use to play satellites profitably. Let’s get started.

First and foremost, you have to think beyond the short-term. If you can regularly beat satellites, then it’s silly to think of it this way. Here’s an easy example: Trying to limit yourself to ONLY 3 buy-ins to a $22+2 satellite SNG to the Bodog 100k, which is $72, is a bad idea. Even though spending much more than that is actually more than the buy-in into the event itself, if you feel that you have an edge and you feel comfortable playing, then actual results should not determine how many you play. You simply can’t be limiting yourself and giving up a good thing just because you didn’t win one right away. This is a mistake that I see many players make that really limits their potential.

One of the great things about satellites is that they allow you to play in tournaments that your bankroll can’t normally afford. If you have $3000 and you want to play in the PokerStars 500k, you simply can’t directly buy in if you’re focusing on the long term. This means that you’re also playing out of your comfort zone, with more pressure to perform well in the face of skilled opposition. This can do wonders for your tournament game, and your general poker game as well. Playing in big buy-in events before your bankroll is ready can be extremely rewarding just because of the invaluable experience you gain playing against tougher competition.

First, let’s go over the biggest and most important difference between satellites and normal tournaments. The payout is the same for however many players earn seats at the end. You are no longer playing with a win in mind, but a goal of being one of several who make the payout structure. You won’t make many of the moves you might make late in a regular tourney, because they are too risky for you to be able to make profitably. You simply can’t play them like a normal tournament. A primitive but clear-cut example of this would be the following…

It’s late in a satellite tournament and there are 11 players left, 5 earn seats to the Four Queens Classic in Las Vegas. You’re six-handed and on the button with AK suited. Your stack is at around 22,000 chips, slightly above average in relation to everyone else. Looks like a good opportunity to get some chips when all of a sudden the player first to act goes all-in for the remainder of his stack, about 18,000 chips. You’re contemplating a call, when much to your surprise, the big stack directly to your left calls. This faces you with an even tougher decision to call the all-in. Can you get away from AK suited for what will likely be your stack and tournament life?

Well, if you’re unsure, then you need to evaluate the situation. First, AKs has roughly 50% equity preflop against any two other random hands. Of course, you know that these two players don’t have “random” hands and that at least the big stack has shown significant strength by calling the all-in. The short stack may be moving in with trash for whatever reason. He may have a big pair like AA or KK, or he could have a medium pair like 99. You could put him on a lot of hands depending on what you have seen him do up to this point. The big stack may be calling with a pair or two big cards, but not many other hands are possible unless he’s totally psychotic, which we can rule out. Furthermore, you know the big stack feels like he can cruise into the payouts and make a seat without confrontation, so he would have to have a real hand to call here. First, let’s make some assumptions.

Let’s assume the player UTG moved all-in with a pair of tens. This is a hand where many players prefer to get it all-in preflop and take down blinds, with a lot of equity if someone indeed looks them up. We could assume that big stack calls with AQs, a hand strong enough for him to call; feeling like it’s in his best interest to take another player out and move closer to the payout structure. Since you have AKs, you have big stack dominated and at worst a coin flip against the player UTG. Not bad, right?

Let’s run these three specific hands through Pokerstove to find your preflop equity.

equity (%) win (%) tie (%)

Hand 1: 35.6363 % 35.08% 00.56% { AcKc }

Hand 2: 40.8051 % 40.72% 00.08% { ThTs }

Hand 3: 23.5585 % 23.00% 00.56% { AdQd }

Looks like you’re around 35% to win the hand. While an Ace or a King can triple your stack, it’s just not worth it at this point. The risk that you take of course is eliminating yourself from the payout structure. This may be worth it in a freezeout when you’re playing to make first, and while it’s certainly a good idea to try to triple up late so you can make first place and a lot more prize money, it’s just not worth it when you’re playing for the same prize money as everyone else. With only 11 players left, and 5 seats, it’s like a game of musical chairs. You need to remain in the game so you can claim one of those seats. Survival is more important than accumulation late in a satellite tournament. Some would even argue that this is present throughout the entire tournament. This argument is certainly plausible when we look at situations like this. 35% is simply not enough equity to call when your tournament is on the line and there is no more payout for first than for anyone else. This is a state of mind that many players in satellites don’t understand or fail to employ, and one that I use and exploit frequently. You just have to look at it from a different perspective than a normal tournament setting.

EARLY GAME

Lower-level satellites typically have fishier players than normal, at least toward the very beginning. It’s not uncommon to see half to two-thirds of the field bust during the first few blind levels. This might just be because everyone wants to accumulate or go home (Rippy-style), but it’s usually not entirely the case. Usually, there are a few boneheads in there calling all-ins with KT, or moving all-in against shown strength with a straight draw and at best 8 outs. That’s good; you want these players sitting with you. They’re your ticket to going deep in the satellite. But many of them bust out early, so how can you benefit from them if they’re not around?

Since it’s early on in the tournament, and there are still a lot of fish giving action, what style of play should you adopt? Should you try to get out of the way of these donkeys and not play too many hands? Should you try and outplay everyone and get their chips the old-fashioned way, by seeing a lot of flops and taking down pots? Maybe you’d prefer to just move all-in with a middle pair and try to double up early.

Well, the answer is usually to take as many flops as you can when it’s still early, but not to risk too many of your chips in the process. A good example of this cautious style is last night when I was playing a satellite to the Party 500K Guaranteed. It’s the first blind level and I’m in late position with AQ. Two limpers, I raise to 5x the BB, and the small blind quickly moves all-in and everyone else folds. The action is up to me. What should I do?

This wasn’t what I had planned. I just wanted to take the lead preflop with what likely was the best hand! I could still have the best hand judging by how this guy played. He had just doubled up with KJ from another donk with 55 all-in preflop. I put him on a wide range of hands at least. This guy’s all-in move was enough to make me fold AQ. In a freezeout, I would have called against a donkish player with the same read. If I was able to put him on a variety of trash, then I could call with faith that I might have him dominated, and I’m of the mind that accumulation beats survival in a normal tournament setting. But when it’s a satellite, and the same donkish player makes a reraise early for all of my chips, why risk it with AQ? I only have 100 or so chips invested here, why risk the rest of my stack? I’m not playing to make first, I’m playing for a chance to make the payout structure, which was about 1/10th of the tournament field. Early risks for my stack just weren’t in my best interest. I would rather get into a situation where I know I have the best of it, with AA, KK or QQ and sometimes JJ preflop. That’s it.

I think many of you will find that risks are all relative to rewards in poker. We can take big risks early on in regular tourneys profitably, because the tournament significantly rewards only those who make the very tippy-top of the payout structure. We avoid these risks early on in satellite tourneys, because we have a greater chance of being rewarded by simply surviving long enough to make the payout structure. That’s why we need to be sure we have the best of it before making a big move that may eliminate us from the satellite. The reward of having a big stack early is not significant enough in a satellite to justify going all-in when you’re unsure whether you have the best of it or not. You have to take a lot of flops and make sure you can show down a better hand before you mix it up with the fish. Hopefully this strategy makes good sense to you. On to the middle game…

MIDDLE GAME

Satellites normally start tightening down and just “playing poker” after the first hour, sometimes after about an hour and a half. The crazies have either been knocked out or are sitting on big stacks. After employing the correct strategy for the early game, you should be somewhere in the middle, sometimes a big stack and sometimes a normal stack, very rarely a short stack. Now is the time to tap into your NL Hold’em skills and play positional, postflop poker and just play your normal strong tournament game. Now is the time to take necessary risks, and try and take pots down if you’re pretty sure you’re best. An example would be the following hand:

It’s an hour and a half into a PokerStars satellite to the Sunday 500k Guaranteed, blinds are 75-150. A player in MP opens for 3xBB, 450 chips. His stack and yours are around the same amount, about 4000. You’re in the cutoff, and you look down at two tens. You elect to call, and it’s heads up to the flop. The flop comes out 6-7-8, with two diamonds. The MP player bets around half the pot, let’s say 600 chips, and you have a decision to make. What should you do?

Well, it looks like you have to take a risk here. You may or may not have the best hand. He’s showing strength before and after the flop, so he could have you beaten with a higher pair or a set, or he could just have two overcards; it’s hard to tell. This is a situation where you must take a necessary risk. There are now around 1800 chips in the pot, so it’s worth taking down at this point. You should raise to around 2.5x his bet and try to take it down. If reraised all-in, you usually have to call because the pot is so big.

The middle game is the only time in a satellite when you can take these necessary risks. The reason why is simple – because you’re trying to get in a position to outplay everyone else in the endgame, and you need chips to survive the harsh blinds and inevitable clashes to come. It’s worth it to take these risks, and it’s better now more than ever because everyone is still willing to play with you. In the early game or endgame, most of your opponents would not have made a continuation-style bet on that last hand. The satellite becomes a lot more like a normal tournament in the middle game, and if you’re a strong tourney player already, you’re at a great advantage at this point, perhaps greater than at any other point in the satellite. You have to accumulate chips more than you have to survive in the middle game, and it’s when many of your busts should be happening if you’re playing a lot of satellites.

END GAME

Your goal now is simple – win one of those coveted seats. You have no doubt realized that everyone else has the same goal in mind. Now is the time when a satellite gets the most different from other tournament settings.

You’re going to need to be active, regardless of your stack size. The biggest mistake that players in satellites make is not playing nearly enough hands near the end. Ultimately, the more active you are, the more you can profit from others’ mistakes in the end game. Truth is, nobody really wants to get involved with a speculative hand. It’s a very uncomfortable situation if you play the conservative, safe way, and this strategy leads to failure. Blinds are going to be too big for you to handle, and if they aren’t, then consider yourself extremely lucky. If it’s nearing the end of a satellite and blinds have made it so your M is around 15-20, then by all means, you must become a rock. But usually, only the big stacks have Ms above 15, and you need to play extremely active in order to have a shot. You simply have to maintain 1 blind steal per orbit, if not more. This is not a suggestion, it is a requirement. If reraised, cut your losses and get out unless you have a good enough hand to play. If reraised in the endgame situation, then you’re probably not ahead, because most players are turtling and don’t want to play without QQ or better.

Along these same lines, if you notice that a player has adopted the same strategy as you and keeps raising with position and showing strength whenever it’s folded to him, you have to exploit him as well, especially if he sits a few seats to your right and keeps raising while you’re in a blind. Believe it or not, he’s not looking to see a flop usually, and if you throw in a large raise, he’s probably going to be smart and fold. This certainly will not hold true for a lot of tournament situations. Sometimes a player will call with a mediocre hand just to see you take an early exit, but in a satellite, that’s almost never the case. In satellite play, the other players are uncomfortably looking to sneak in without a fight. This is the biggest weakness you can exploit, and it’s fairly easy to see why.

Once you’re nearing the bubble, the biggest mistake is NOT losing chips through ill-timed aggression; it’s losing your stack because you didn’t play a hand for 4-5 orbits. Believe me, the button moves pretty quickly around the table when almost all the play is preflop. You’re going to get blinded off a lot quicker at this stage, even in hand-for-hand play. You can’t rely on everyone else to donk out and hand you a seat on a silver platter. NL Hold’em, as we all know, is a very unforgiving game. You need to punish them for not thinking that you deserve the seat, by pounding on their blinds and making them nervous.

You may have noticed that I haven’t really included opponents’ stack sizes in this discussion of the end game. Why not?

Well, in my experience with satellites, it’s just as beneficial to take shots at bigger stacks as it is with medium stacks. The short-stacked players are going to move all in at some point, but they shouldn’t be able to hurt you as much, so go ahead and hammer at them too.

The big stacks think they have the seat in the bag. That may be true, in fact, that’s the case with many big stacks, so what can you do? You can take their blinds as they watch and wait. They shouldn’t mind much, they’re not looking to lose any chips (except the blinds and antes) the majority of the time. They’re turtling down more than anyone else, so go ahead and take shots at them. In a normal MTT, I try to respect big stacks a lot more and pretty much stay away from their blinds unless they’re supertight or sitting out. In a satellite, big stacks and their blinds give me salvation.

Adopting an active strategy in the endgame will work more often than not. If you’re fortunate enough to have a lot of chips when the tournament approaches the bubble, then an active strategy makes you nearly invincible. Generally as a bigger stack, you should try to eliminate short stacks when given the opportunity. Hopefully there will be a couple others with plenty of chips on your table who feel the same way.

SOME OTHER THOUGHTS

Satellites cater to weak players who want to have a chance at some big money. Your primary goal is to figure out what these weak players are thinking and exploit them. You will get donked out on a lot; your QQ will lose to A7 all-in preflop, probably more than once. Don’t lose hope. Satellites are one of the most lucrative situations in all of poker. Over time, as you become a dangerous satellite player, you will start racking up seats left and right, and you will be able to play in tourneys that your bankroll can’t afford yet, and have a shot at tournaments that pay over 3 years’ salary to the winner. The rewards are well worth the extra time it takes to learn, adapt and beat satellites. Even if you don’t win the bigger tournament, the experience of playing in it will improve your tournament game enough so that you can beat your normal scene that much easier.

It frustrates me when players say satellites are a waste of time. They aren’t a waste of time, because even if your bankroll is seven figures and you’re one of the strongest online players in the world, you can still play satellites to major events and save a lot of dough. The bottom line is, satellites are easier to play and place in than normal MTTs, as long as you play the right way. They are way easier to beat, just because a good player can adopt a more formulaic approach than other tournaments and see better results. As a tournament player, I have seen better results in satellites than I have in any other form of tourney. In satellites, strong players have a bigger edge than usual, and luck is less of a factor.

I hope you enjoyed reading this guide as much as I did writing it. I’ll update it with time, and add to it as I see fit. Now get out there and win some seats!

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