WHERE'S THE MONEY AT?
That's the first question people always ask me, and when it comes to poker tournaments, the answer is simple: the money's in the satellites. Why? Because they attract the dreamers, the gamblers, the lottery players, the big prize chasers - not the full-time grinders who know exactly what they're doing and make very few mistakes.
As we learned from Sklansky's theory of poker, every time our opponent makes a mistake we gain, and vice versa. Satellites (especially the later steps) are rich with players who are playing way out of their comfort zone, battling in out in unfamiliar territory, and this leads to lots of mistakes - and lots of money for you.
The payout structure is also very unique in satellites and therefore demands a unique style of poker - a style of play that is the complete opposite of the one these recreational shooters like to play as their default go-to game.
SURVIVAL TRUMPS FIRST PLACE
Unlike a conventional tournament, you don’t have to snag first place to win a satellite. In fact, the person who places first gets exactly the same prize as the person who finishes second or third or eighth (depending on how many seats the satellite is giving away). Satellite players win as long as they get a seat.
Racing to land in first place in a satellite is as useless as speeding to catch a red light, so don’t focus on first – focus on surviving.
DIFFERENT OBJECTIVE = DIFFERENT STYLE OF PLAY
One of the most famous examples of just how different your strategy is going to be is explained by Bernard Lee in his notoriously debated (and ultimately spot-on) article for ESPN where he championed the mucking of pocket Aces in satellite play.
Yep. You read that right: he wants you to throw away every poker players most coveted hole cards. It seems counter-intuitive. You only land this jewel of a hand about 0.45% of the time – this jewel of a hand that has around 81% chances of winning – and he wants you to fold it. In a game of imperfect information, he wants you to muck a solid chance at winning.
Yes, he does. And so do I. You only have a chance of winning. There is still about a 19% chance your opponent could make their hand on the board, and considering you don’t need to be first place to win, there is no point in you taking that chance. Remember, you only need to survive to snag a guaranteed prize. Sometimes your chances of winning a seat are already much higher than 80%.
Let’s look at an example:
You are in second place with 50 big blinds and first place has 60 big blinds. The other eight players have 5 big blinds each, and nine people receive seats. What are your odds of getting a seat by just folding every hand and staying out of trouble? I'm not a math guy, but I can tell you the answer is pretty damn close to 99.99%.
When you already have enough chips to cash, lock up the prize, why would you take a 19% risk of ruin? A 19% chance of getting nothing?
It doesn’t make sense. Moral objections aside, it’s kind of like cheating on your wife because you have a shot at hooking up with a hot new co-worker. You may get away with it, but if you don’t, you’re left with nothing.
STAY ALERT, STAY SAFE
This is the guiding principle in all poker play really, but it is never more necessary or nuanced than in satellite play.
Now, the precise strategy you are going to employ will vary slightly depending on the stage of the event and the size of your stack, and I’m going to break this down for you now.
EARLY STAGE STRATEGY
The early stages of satellite play are best thought of as when the big blinds are around 5% of the starting stack size. So, if the starting stack size is 5,000, then the latest early stage of the satellite would be 250 BB. Now, you'll probably notice all sorts of playing strategies at this stage in the game, but I urge you to keep your eyes on the prize. Sure, you've got a hefty stack, but you know what they say: it ain't the size of the boat, it's the motion of the ocean, and when you’re playing a satellite, you’re navigating dicey waters, my friend.
Opt for a tight aggressive play and focus on chip accumulation. Avoid taking on heavy loses this early in the game. If you're short-stacked here, you're chances of scoring a seat are slim. Even calculated risks are still risks.
This said, this is the time you will want to play those premium hands, like A-A, but remain calm and focus on getting as many of your opponents' chips as you can. Don't get too aggressive and scare them off by re-raising pot-sized bets, but don't limp either. You'll only get a fraction of possible winnings.
Daniel Negrenanu’s famously made ‘small ball’ strategy is really at the heart of much good satellite play and is a solid tactic to employ in the early stages of the game. ‘Small balling’ involves betting smaller (around 2-2.5BB) and aiming to keep pots small to minimize your risk. It relies on the fact that most players won’t make all-in bluffs when confronted with a relatively miniscule pot, which allows you to slowly build your stack.
The early stages of the tournament are also when you want to hone in on your opponents. Let them spill the beans on how hard they worked to get here, or how they already scored a seat to the main event. This will give you valuable intel into how they might be playing. If they already have a seat guaranteed, they're more likely to take risks. If everything is riding on this satellite, they are going to be super tight. Use this information against them without divulging anything yourself.
If there is a re-buy option, beware of opponents who play with the feckless abandon of a 16 year old with keys to the liquor cabinet. The knowledge that they can get back in the game if they bust out means they can often trend toward the maniacal.
Also don’t attack really nitty players’ opens because when they open, they probably have a good enough hand to call. Focus on shoving over the people who you know open a wide range of hands, and are willing to go for steals . They'll fold to your shoves enough, and if they call, well, if you were short, having a 40% chance to double up and get in seat scoring position really isn’t all that bad of a proposition, is it?
One more thing about early stage play: Try to identify what level your opponents are on. Are they aware of their position, your position, or simply their cards? And if they're only thinking about their cards, what constitutes a playable hand for them? A strong top tier hand, or simply two cards that look pretty together? Players are notorious for overvaluing small pairs and small suited connectors/gappers especially at the low limits, I call this being seduced by suitedness.
Don’t fall for pair-pressure!
Just cause everyone else is playing them, doesn't mean it's profitable. Don't fall into the allure of the cool crowd who are looking for any excuse to get in the action, and participate in the party - that's not what poker is about. It's more about patience and knowing when it's your time to step into the dance circle. But don't stay too long: allow everyone their turn in the flow.
Well happy day, you've made it and will be happy to see about a third - or even a half - of your competition has been decimated at this point. You'll know you're in the mid-stage of play because the BB is at first larger than that 5% of the starting stack. Here's the sobering news: how well you do here will determine whether or not you snag your seat.
In the middle stages of the event, you're all about keeping your chip stack alive long enough to take you past the bubble burst. Don't be a hero. Don't make it your mission to take out that annoying bastard who won't shut they hell up and is enjoying an irritatingly good string of luck. Concentrate on saving your own ass.
Now, what's also important to note during this stage is that you have to adjust your play a bit more based on your stack size.
I dig Bernard Lee's guidelines, so I'm going to paraphrase them here and add a little of my own insight:
BIG STACK: MORE THAN 25 BB
DON'T: Risk your chips. Keep it right and tight.
DON'T: Attack short-stacks. Desperation is as unsavoury as the thought of your Dad in a g-string, so don't force the shorties to go all-in with any two cards.
DO: Exploit your opponents' weakness, like any tells, particularly against players to your left when they are the blinds.
DO: Build your empire carefully. Rome wasn't built in a day either. And learn from the mistakes of Rome and don't get power hungry. Limit risk. You don't need to take down the entire table. Remember: you just need to survive.
MEDIUM STACK: 13BB TO 24BB
DON'T: Take major risks. Only play hands you'd shove all-in with. If you can’t accept that you can’t be in the thick of things to survive, then play another type of poker.
DO: Fold. For the love of God, FOLD the hell outta your hand if you're not willing to risk your entire stack. Even if you raise 2 BB and are re-raised, having to fold then could cost you almost the same as a whole round of antes and blinds.
And, as Lee says,
With the blind levels in a satellite often only 20 to 30 minutes, one orbit could take an entire level. This, if you lose one of your raises, those chips could be the equivalent of surviving one more level. In the end, this could be the difference between winning a seat or not."
As Lee also points out, an exception can be made when you are in late position and the players to the left are medium stacks. If the action folds to you here, raise the blinds. Yes, losing a raise is a level lost, but scoring the blinds and antes is a level gained, so when you can safely do so, do it.
SHORT STACK: LESS THAN 12BB
DON'T: Over-think it. Your only real options here are to fold or go all-in.
DON'T: Forget to use your fold equity. This is what lets you convincingly shove all-in with any two cards.
DO: 3-bet over a raise when you've got the goods to snag blinds and antes.
DO: Have a look at Lee's formula for determining if you have fold equity (below).
First, calculate the Starting Pot Size (SPS), which is equal to the blinds plus antes.
This calculation is critical for this short stack strategy. Begin calculating when you have approximately 12BB remaining. Then utilize the following steps to determine your action:
- Count your chip stack from the button position.
- Determine SPS
- Subtract SPS from your current chip stack
- Does your amount of remaining chips have enough Fold Equity (can you make the stacks behind you fold which often requires a bet of at least 5BB to 6BB)?
- If YES, continue to wait for solid cards (e.g. a hand that you are prepared to go all-in, with a slightly broader range as you are short stacked) and repeat step #3. If NO, go to step #6.
- Push all-in the first opportunity you have to open the pot in order to utilize your fold equity before it disappears. Remember, it is very hard to call an all-in bet with a weak hand and your opponents want to survive as well (Note: Do not do this if someone has raised in front of you).
"When pushing all-in during this situation with any two cards, make sure that you look at your cards carefully. You want to act as if you are looking down at two Aces so you do not give away any tells of weakness.
Genius. Moving on.
LATE STAGE STRATEGY
Here you’ll be using the same strategies as mid-stage play, except hyperbolized. Keep on keeping conservative, big stacks. Really conservative. Don’t even play that A-A. You’re seat is as good as guaranteed by this point in the game. Medium stacks, your mission is to steal blinds and antes when you can, but kept it tight. Short stacks, you know the drill: either go all-in or fold – and remember, while you can go all-in with any two cards, you can’t necessarily call with them.
No matter where you are, and regardless of your stack size, you are always going to want to keep your eyes on the bubble. Knowing when the bubble is going to burst will give you an idea of how long (and how many BBs) you need to hang on for.
Calculating when the bubble will burst is pretty straightforward. (Again, while using my own examples, I am paraphrasing the genius of Bernard Lee here, so if you like what he has to say as much as I do, you can read more in Excelling At No-Limit Hold’em.) The first thing you need to know is that the average stack size at the end of a satellite will be about 10BB. Next, you multiply the number of starting chips by the number of entries need for a seat and then divide by that 10.
Here’s what that formula looks like:
(# of Entries Needed for Seat x Starting Stack) / 10 = Big Blind of Final Level
So, for example, if the buy-in for a $45 satellite is $5, then they are giving away 1 seat for every 9 players. Let’s say the chip starting size is 1500. You then take this information and plug it into the formula:
(9 x 1500) / 10 = 1350BB
Bingo. You now know the big blind level at the bubble burst will be around 1350 BB. All you need to do is make sure you can maintain that stack size, and you’re golden. There’s a seat with your name on it.
This calculation is important because people – especially those with shorter stacks - can be overly quick to think they have a seat 'locked up' when in reality there is still some play to be had. Players paid, players until the money bubble, average stack, blind level, short-handedness of the table; they all factor into the outcome. Getting a feel for this comes with experience, but being aware of the idea in and of itself is a big advantage over first time satellite players (even if you excel well in other formats of Hold’em).
Another way to get a bird’s eye view of how things are shaping up is to watch the lobbies. Obviously, this is only applicable to online events, but the lobby is where all the information is regarding stack size. You’ll see how short the shorties are, how big the biggies are, where you fall in the pack, when blinds will be going up, etc. And if you really want to maximize your chances of winning the seat, also open any other tables remaining so you can see what’s going down out of your immediate domain. A spot that was a clear shove can turn into a snap fold if the last player needed to bust goes out - and remember, when two players bust at hand-for-hand the one who started the hand with the smaller stack is the bubble boy, hence making watching the action everywhere of utmost importance.
TYING IT UP
If you go against the natural strategic flow of the game, odds are it's not going to work out for you. OK, it may work out in the short run, but eventually it will catch up to you, like eating bad food may not bother you at all right now, but slowly and subtly, it's having effects that you'll be feeling later.
Remember that satellites are a game all their own. Big shoves which are +EV in normal tournaments, or +chip EV as we say, are not always worth taking in satellites because part of the expectation in the +EV comes when you win an all-in confrontation (whether you were ahead, flipping or behind) and “all-in” is not what you want to be saying when you already have enough chips to win a seat.
If you’re itching to sign up for a satellite, sign up at 888.com and if you’re looking for more in-depth strategy on satellites to bolster your game and help you snag a seat in the event of your dreams, pick up my MTT Strategy Guide, which includes an entire section on satellite play. It’s a small investment for a massive pay-off.
Photo Credit: Play Among Friends Paf | Flickr