By now, most poker players know about the importance of satellite tournament qualification.

Satellite events that offer inexpensive entry to major poker tournaments almost seem too good to be true. For a significant discount of 90 percent or more on the standard entrance fee, literally anybody can take their seat at a World Series of Poker (WSOP) or World Poker Tour (WPT) Main Event.

And from there, the sky truly is the limit.

Chris Moneymaker’s miraculous win in the 2003 WSOP Main Event turned his $86 satellite fee into a $2.5 windfall – not to mention the spark that launched a Poker Boom.

More recently, an online qualifier competing on the PartyPoker platform took home over $1.3 million on a meager $5.50 satellite ticket into the MILLION Online Main Event.

Stories of satellite entrants turning their “one time” into life-changing sums are a dime a dozen in the poker world. Accordingly, players of all caliber regularly convene at the satellite tables – either one-table “sit and go’s” or multi-table “mega-satellites” – to try their hand at parlaying a few bucks into a big score.

You’ll find satellites offering entry to your local casino’s seasonal series, to major online circuits like the PokerStars World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP), and of course, the WSOP and WPT centerpieces.

But whichever satellite you choose, knowing how to separate your typical poker strategies from the task at hand is essential to success.

Simply put, satellites offer a completely different gameplay dynamic from your average multi-table tournament.

The prize payouts are flattened, meaning everyone who cashes takes home the same seat. Early levels are defined by aggressive chip chasing, while the latter stages see players clam up in hopes of surviving – the exact opposite of how a standard multi-table tournament plays out.

And you might even see somebody fold pocket Aces face up on the felt before the flop is even dealt. Yes, you read that right… folks are out here folding the rockets to win satellites, and the oddball strategy actually works.

All things considered, satellites are an extremely useful tool within any poker player’s arsenal – but only when you know how to play the game.

To help you improve your understanding of sound satellite strategy, check out the six tips below, each of which comes directly from a respected source within the poker instruction industry:

1 – A Little Small Talk Goes a Long Way

When you first sit down for a satellite poker session, the task at hand – aside from building a chip stack that is – should be research and reconnaissance on your opponents.

That goes for every poker game for that matter, but in the satellite format, learning even a little about an opponent’s situation and status can be crucial.

The reason being, everybody plays satellites for different reasons, and knowing those reasons can give you great insight into how they can be beaten.

Basically, you can lump satellite players into three main groups.

First, you’ll find the pros who grind “sattys” on the regular in between their major tournament days. For this group, each satellite is simply another opportunity to pad their bankroll, so they won’t be all that attached from an emotional perspective.

These players should be approached with caution and avoided when necessary.

Next up are the middle of the road grinders, folks who aren’t exactly pros to be feared, but players who know their stuff nonetheless.

These guys and gals can be seen playing multiple satellites in a row, so they certainly know their way around the table, but they’re far from experts. As such, consider this group to be fair game when it comes to attacking opens and three-betting.

Finally, you’ll invariably come across a certain cross-section of the satellite community who stick out like a sore thumb. These are the players who saved up to take their one shot at a prestigious poker tournament, and for them, the satellite is essentially their Main Event.

Accordingly, this “scared money” can be exploited through relentless aggression.

To find out which players fall into that third category, all it takes is a little small talk.

Try to act the part and talk about how amazing it is to see the WSOP convention halls for the first time. If somebody takes the bait and reciprocates, revealing their own excitement just to be on poker’s grand stage, you can reliably sort them into “shot-taker” territory.

The team at Gripsed Poker – which counts former WSOP Main Event winner Greg Merson as an instructor – captured the effectiveness of this small talk strategy in a post on the best approach to satellite tournaments:

“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.”

Anybody who talks about their first time visiting Vegas, or how they’ve always wanted to play a gold bracelet event, can be targeted in this fashion.

Similarly, players who let their financial status slip – “Man have I been on a downswing, this is my last shot at satelliting in…” – are easy prey.

Once you’ve identified a player who has a significant attachment to this single satellite, the objective is straightforward and simple – exploit their vulnerability.

Whether they’ve waited all year for this one satellite shot, or they’re on the verge of exhausting their bankroll, you can count on opponents in this group to play passively.

They’ll open and fold to three-bets, fire out predictable continuation bets only to retreat at the first raise, and try to check-call their way to the showdown.

At every turn, however, you’ll be waiting to put the hammer down, scooping up the easiest chips imaginable when they inevitably fold.

And hey, it might not always feel good to use a strategy like this, but poker is a zero-sum game – there must be losers to support the winners. If you want to be a winner, picking on the weaker and less experienced players is part and parcel of satellite poker strategy.

2 – Patience Is a Virtue

Moving on to actual gameplay strategy, satellite players must realize that this particular version of a poker tournament creates a unique dynamic.

In a normal tournament format, prizes are paid out according to a progressively escalating table. That is to say, those who just make the money before going bust will double their buy-in, while final table members might make a 20x multiple and the champion capture’s the lion’s share of the prize pool.

Under this format, accumulating more and more chips is the prime directive. Simply surviving might earn you a minimum cash, but to grab the gold and glory at the end, you need to build a bigger and bigger chip stack.

But when you play in a satellite event, the prizes are flattened across the board. In other words, everybody who “wins” the satellite takes home the exact same prize – a seat in the Main Event (or its equivalent cash value).

When you pony up $565 to play a multi-table mega satellite at the WSOP, the end goal is to win a $10,000 seat in the Main Event. Every 20 players putting $500 into the prize pool generates one Main Event seat, so a few hundred players on hand results in a few dozen seats to be claimed.

Here’s the thing though, when the bubble finally bursts to put everyone in the money, you’ll get one of those seats whether you have one chip or one million.

Here’s how the strategy mavens at Poker Listings described this inverse dynamic when it comes to chip accumulation in their satellite strategy primer:

“In a satellite there is no need to have all the chips in play to win, so don’t put yourself in situations where you risk your stack. Instead, play tight, solid, fundamental poker. By playing tight and in position you can minimize the risk to your stack while still accumulating chips. Be patient. Just because you are getting no cards does not mean you need to get involved with garbage.”

What this all boils down to in the long run is a more conservative approach in the early going.

While you might feel comfortable flipping a coin with Ace-King suited in a standard tournament – hoping to double up quickly or go broke trying – risking your entire stack on a 50/50 spot is disastrous in a satellite. There’s just no need to go crazy in the early levels, especially during the pre-ante phase when preflop pots remain meager.

3 – Survival Over Accumulation

This tip piggybacks on the previous advice a bit, but it bears repeating – your job isn’t to build the biggest stack in the room, just one big enough to get you over the finish line.

With that in mind, the middle stages of a satellite can take on a totally different feel when compared to standard tournaments.

In a regular multi-table event with progressive prize payouts, the middle levels are known as “moving time.” This is when shorter stacks will start gambling, getting it in with pocket pairs or premium over-cards hoping to win a flip.

Similarly, the bigger stacks are happy to oblige, risking a small chunk of their chips to eliminate a foe and inch closer to the final table.

Satellite tournaments tend to play out very differently though, thanks to the increased value associated with holding any chips at all.

Remember, you don’t need to have towers when it’s all said and done – a single chip will suffice to earn the seat.

Because of this fact, satellite players in the know will usually adopt a strategy known as “locking down” when they build anything close to an average stack.

A player on lockdown has no problem folding suited connectors, small pocket pairs, and other hands with potential. That’s because these hands, while useful in a standard tournament format, are troublesome for satellite players who want to avoid playing inflated pots.

Tournament reporter Mo Nuwwarah – who writes for PokerNews and plays on the WSOP-Circuit during his downtime – described his own dilemma with survival-based strategy in a recent recap.

Competing in a $250 mega-satellite for a chance to earn his $1,100 entry into the Hammond stop’s Main Event, Nuwwarah was riding a short stack when he woke up with pocket 5s.

A larger stack opened the action for a raise, so Nuwwarah shoved his stack forward hoping for a coin flip at best. Unfortunately for him, the initial raiser had a higher pocket pair, as did a third caller in the hand. No miracles occurred on the board, leaving Nuwwarah to ponder his misstep in a postmortem writeup:

“The important thing to keep in mind for this hand is how different satellites play from regular tournaments. Under normal circumstances at a seven-handed table, Sanders would probably be opening a lot of hands that are flipping against two fives. However, because we are playing a satellite, the situation is quite a bit different. It’s usually correct to play a little tighter in satellites anyway because you aren’t trying to get all of the chips, only to survive long enough to win one of the seats. It makes no difference if you get there with 1,000 big blinds or one.”

Once again, the optimal strategy for this particular satellite spot – and so many others like it – is simply to live and fight another day. Unless you’re desperately short-stacked, there’s just no need to opt for high-risk situations like coin flips, set-mining, and draws.

4 – Make it to the “Magic” Number

For the mathematically inclined players out there, one important aspect of satellite strategy concerns calculating the stack you’ll need to earn a seat.

This is a rough science, so it’s not a guarantee by any means, but you can usually count on this method to work out in the end.

As the satellite progresses, take a moment to figure out what the average stack will look like when the bubble bursts.

To do so, all you need to do is divide the total number of chips in play (the starting chip stack multiplied by total players in the field) by the number of seats which will be awarded in the end.

Here’s an example to make things a little clearer.

You’re in a satellite with 5,000 chips to start and 100 players in the field, putting a total of 500,000 chips in play. This event pays out the top-10 players with a seat, so you’ll divide 500,000 by 10, which comes to 50,000.

This means the average stack when the final 10 players are reached will stand at 50,000 chips. Knowing this magic number, your goal should be to build your stack to 50,000 before packing it in and playing as tight as possible.

You’ve already got the ammunition needed to comfortably earn a seat, so from here on out simply maintaining your current stack is only priority.

Here’s how the Poker Listings crew summed up the magic number scenario in their satellite strategy tutorial:

“Once you hit that magic number, it’s time to coast. Take that ‘tight is right’ motto and live by it. You should be playing in super-rock mode. There is no reason at all to risk a good portion of your chips. If the situation is the least bit marginal, just fold. Attempt to maintain this stack by stealing once an orbit just to keep up with the rising blinds. Regardless of your holdings, don’t get involved in a big pot if you have enough chips to win a seat and it’s late in the tournament.”

5 – Learn How to Fold Monsters Late

One of the age-old conundrums discussed among poker circles asks if it’s ever correct to fold pocket Aces before the flop.

That’s the best possible starting hand in the game, after all, so sliding it into the muck without even seeing the flop doesn’t seem to make much sense.

Well, it makes a ton of sense in a satellite, especially if you’ve already eclipsed that magic number and have no need to take undue risks.

Pocket rockets might look pretty when you squeeze them, and they’re sure to be a heavy favorite against any single hand, but that doesn’t make them an automatic play.

Here’s a fact to consider… even when you have Aces against Kings, the dream scenario in most tournaments, your opponent will still have a 19 percent shot to win the pot.

When you’re approaching a seat that you’ve played long and hard for, and it’s basically in the bag, why would you ever offer an opponent a 1 in 5 chance to end that dream?

In a post from Card Player Lifestyle, poker author Chris Wallace explained why folding pocket Aces should be a no-brainer for satellite players sitting on a stack:

“Have you ever considered folding aces preflop? Not only have I considered it, I have done it on more than one occasion in a satellite and I am sure that it was the correct play. Let me explain why. If you get up from your seat and walk away, you are guaranteed a seat. You have already won the maximum prize… unless you screw it up.”

6 – Bully Short Stacks on the Bubble

Remember earlier when you were advised to target weaker and inexperienced players who put too much stake into a single satellite?

Well, if that approach made you queasy, you probably won’t like this tip either.

When the money bubble draws near, satellite players who have managed to build an above average stack are sitting in the proverbial catbird seat. While everybody else is scrambling to survive, you can sit back and watch them duke it out without risking a chip.

That’s the central premise of the previous tip, anyhow, as skilled players have no problem folding premium hands like pocket Aces or Kings.

But on the bubble, you can also do your part to accelerate the endgame by playing the role of big stack bully.
The folks clinging to a nub on the bubble aren’t looking to push their stack forward anytime soon.

No, they’re watching and waiting for fellow short stacks to do the same – and go bust in the process.

This creates a sort of “chicken” situation, with the short-stacks trying to wait one another out. As you might imagine, this can cause the endgame to stretch out interminably, which threatens your own big stack status as the blinds and antes eat away.

To avoid that fate, and help end things in expedient fashion, it can be helpful to apply constant pressure. You should be raising a short-stacked player’s blinds holding any two cards, comfortable in the knowledge that they’ll be folding all but the best hands.

Upswing Poker – one of the more innovative poker instruction courses on the market these days – offered an insightful take on the importance of bullying short stacks on the satellite bubble:

“As a medium stack, picking on other medium stacks and short stacks is an absolute rock-star strategy to employ because a lot of them are already counting their chickens before they hatch. Seeing the panic set in on a medium stack who has been stalling when they realize they’ve become a short stack by doing nothing on the bubble is a sick and twisted fun moment.”

Sick and twisted aren’t usually positive qualities, but for a poker player looking to win their way into the big time, bullying is often the best way to get there.


Competing in a satellite tournament is a thrilling experience, especially when you outlast the competition to claim a coveted seat. Let’s face it… most of us won’t be able to pay $10,000 cash for a chance to play the WSOP Main Event or a big-time WPT stop.

Thanks to the satellite entry route, however, any player with a few hundred bucks on hand can work their into the big leagues by sheer gumption alone.

Poker has always been hailed as the most egalitarian of games, a pursuit in which height, strength, and other inherent traits can’t separate the haves from the have-nots.

But without satellites, cold hard cash would represent a hurdle too high for most casual players to climb.

Qualifiers solve that dilemma quite cleverly, creating an avenue anybody with a chip and a chair can take advantage of – provided they play according to proper satellite strategy.

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