With all the high buy in poker tournaments in the WSOP, WPT and big online poker rooms, many players enter satellite tournaments with the hopes to win their way into these big events.

What is a Satellite Poker Tournament?

A satellite poker tournament offers seats to a larger tournament as prizes instead of cash pay outs. For example, if the buy in for the larger tournament is $10,000 the number of seats given as prizes will be the total tournament entry fees divided by $10,000. If there is $100,000 in entry fees the tournament will award 10 seats to the $10,000 tournament. The final 10 players will win the same prize.

You can find a few different types of satellite tournaments. The two most common are single table satellites and multi table satellites.

Single table tournaments usually only award one seat in the larger tournament, but they can award two or more. A single table satellite tournament for a $1,000 buy in larger tournament would have an entry fee of $100 plus whatever the vig is the poker room is charging. You might see the fee listed as $100 + $10 or $100 + $15.

Multiple table satellite tournaments divide the prizes like the $100,000 tournament example above. If they have money left over that doesn’t equal another entry the last player eliminated generally wins it as a cash prize.

Understand the Pay Outs

If you want to have the best chance to win a seat in a satellite poker tournament you need to make sure you know exactly where you need to finish. When there are 10 seats being awarded and you are the chip leader with 12 players left you probably shouldn’t play another hand. There’s absolutely no reason to risk any of your chips, even with pocket aces, unless you can’t fold long enough for two more players to be eliminated.

In satellite tournaments you aren’t playing to win. You are only playing to finish high enough to win a seat in the next tournament. It doesn’t matter if you have millions of chips or one chip left, as long as you win a seat.

Basic Satellite Poker Strategy

Knowing how many places win seats to the next level, the first things I do is determine roughly how many chips an average stack will have at that point in the tournament.

You can quickly do this by multiplying the starting chip stack size by the total number of entrants and dividing by the number of places that win a seat. Here is an example.

In a tournament with a starting chip stack size of 1,500 with 103 entrants where 10 players win seats the average chip stack when the play gets to 10 players will be 15,450.

The reason this is important is because it helps you visualize how unimportant small wins are early in the tournament and to see how many times you would need to double up in order to compete.

Of course blinds and smaller pots cause your stack to go up and down but you generally need to double up three to four times in order to reach a comfortable chip level and have a good chance to win a seat.

But when you only have an average chip stack you are also constantly in danger of being eliminated.

Advanced Satellite Poker Strategy

Playing winning satellite poker strategy is a fine line between being too patient and being too reckless. Early in the tournament it’s generally a good idea to be patient and look for opportunities to use your strongest hands to double up when possible.

As the tournament progresses you can usually loosen up a little and take advantage of the players who are playing too tight. Stealing blinds and small pots in the middle and late stages of a tournament can start adding to your stack quickly.

You need to be aware of your opponent’s stack sizes so you can avoid confrontations with players who are pot committed when you are trying to steal. For example, if a player only has 500 behind and already has 300 or more in the pot it may be difficult to get them to fold. You don’t want to force them to play unless you’re fairly sure you have the best hand.

Of course this can work to your advantage when there are only a few players left before the seats are awarded. The lowest stacks are trying to hang on until someone else busts out so you can pressure them.

Should You Play Satellite Tournaments or Buy In Directly?

If you can afford to buy into a tournament directly should you consider trying to win a seat in a satellite tournament? When you can win a seat in only a few tries it will often cost less than a direct buy in, but you could also hit a run of bad luck that can hurt your bankroll.

Only you can decide the best answer to this question, but here are the general guidelines I use when deciding to try to win a satellite or buy in directly. When I have the time to play multiple satellite tournaments if I need to I’ll generally try to win my seat in a satellite.

My reasoning is if I can’t win a seat in six or seven tries then I probably shouldn’t be playing in the bigger tournament anyway. Of course I’ve also played a few satellites and then bought in directly a few times.

Most satellite tournament structures work at around a 10 to 1 ratio. In other words one out of every 10 entrants wins a seat in the bigger tournament. You can find satellite tournaments with much larger ratios, but I usually avoid them. For example, you might find one that has a $10 entry fee that is awarding seats at a $500 tournament so only one out of every 50 entrants will win a seat. There’s nothing wrong with these types of satellite tournaments but I don’t care for them.


Satellite poker tournaments can be a great way to gain entry into bigger tournaments. Make sure you understand the payout structure and follow the basic and advanced advice listed above and you may find yourself playing in a big tournament before you know it.

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