How to play poker satellites at different stages

Poker satellite strategy

If you are not new to playing poker, then you've probably heard of satellite tournaments. These are qualifying events that grant no money but tickets to more expensive online and offline tournaments.

Such qualifiers have gained a lot of popularity, as they provide an opportunity to play tournaments that you can’t afford to join – that is pay a direct buy-in. The most popular events have a wide grid of satellites, which attracts recreational players.

For example, players can qualify for the regular tournament Sunday Million at PokerStars with a $1 000 000 guarantee for as little as $1.10, although the direct buy-in is $109.

For many players, especially for beginners, the $109 entry fee is too high therefore they prefer to play satellites in the hope to win an entry to a more expensive event.

In this article, you will get acquainted with the strategy of playing satellite tournaments at the early, middle and late stages as well as on the bubble, taking into account the level of blinds, stack sizes and other factors.

How to play satellites at different stages

Poker satellite strategy differs from playing traditional SNG and MTT tournaments. These qualifying events may provide a few tickets of identical value at once, meaning that it is not necessary to become the first – it is enough to get into the prize zone. 

This fact has a profound effect on the strategy of playing satellites on the bubble. Another feature is that the overall level of participants in qualifiers is lower than in standard poker tournaments.

Early stage of the satellite

Early stage is the best time to collect information about your rivals: identify weak players and dangerous opponents, focusing on major characteristics of their play. This will be the most useful for playing middle and late stages, especially if anyone of them is short-stacked.

Also, it’s important to use your position at the table correctly. In early position, for example, it is advisable to narrow the range of hands you enter the game with, while in late position, you should expand it.

Positions

For instance, in early position, it is better to fold a pair of nines. In late position, on the other hand, you can easily play the pair of nines if no one raised before you.

As far as the playing style is concerned, you should play tight. That’s why it is necessary to limit the range of starting hands as much as possible. You can enter the game with QQ, KK, AA as well as with aces with a strong kicker. One should be extremely cautious entering the game with pocket pairs from 88 to JJ and connectors.

In addition to premium hands, you can play almost all suited connectors and suited aces, but everything depends on a particular situation. If you see that your opponents have launched a war of raises and reraises, then you can use a wider range of hands, as, most likely, you are playing with inexperienced maniacs.

At the early stage of a satellite, a player’s main task is to maintain chips rather than double their stack. In order to double the stack, you need to choose only such spots that give you very high chances of winning the pot thanks to cards, not bluffing.

Aces

In turbo satellites, however, very tight tactics can lead to a quick loss of stack because blinds are growing fast. Therefore, playing qualifiers of this format, it is recommended to slightly expand the range of starting hands already at the early stage and try to exploit tight players.

Amassing a big stack at the early stage is necessary because this will give you a significant edge over your opponents at the next phases of the satellite:

  • you will be fully prepared to rounds when the blinds start to rise sharply;
  • having a good stack, you will be able to vie at those stages, when mostly strong and thoughtful opponents are left in the game.

Middle stage of the satellite

During the middle stage, a player should start increasing their stack. In so doing, you first need to take into account the stack sizes of opponents who are involved in the hand. At this point, the most dangerous opponents can be those with a short stack because they can call any bet at any time. Also, such opponents can go all-in with a medium-strength starting hand or when they hit the flop having any cards (for example, a player has 2-9 and the flop is 2-K-A).

Those with medium to large stacks have a good chance of reaching the bubble. Therefore, they play more carefully at this stage of the satellite tournament, but you should focus on them. Against opponents with large stacks, it is easier to play a good starting hand as well as apply bluffing.

Read also: Poker satellite strategy

Loose players usually survive to the middle stage. They are able to reach this stage solely thanks to luck by increasing their stack in the early stage of the satellite. Having identified such opponents, you can easily boost your stack by winning their chips, using standard poker techniques. Moreover, very tight players who only enter the game with premium starting hands can "give" you their chips – it is quite easy to predict their actions. You can also steal their blinds without much trouble.

Middle stage – it is the right time to actively attack those players who were sighted in frequent folding at the early stage. Apply bluffing and light 3bet on the flop. The potential winning is big enough to call your opponents’ all-ins and raises more loosely.

Poker satellites

It should be mention that most satellites are held in the "rebuy" format, meaning that these qualifying events provide players with the possibility to purchase additional chips. At the first stage, unlimited rebuys can be allowed, but only one "add-on" is available after the rebuy period ends.

There are players who will rebuy any number of times in the hope to win a ticket. That’s the wrong move. You don't need to do this, because any action must be justifiable – you risk investing more money than you can get from the tournament you are qualifying for. Do not invest an amount greater than 25% of the entry fee for the main tournament. For example, if the event costs $100, then $25 is your maximum to spend for rebuys in a satellite to it.

You should steal blinds only from medium and large stacks, other players will actively defend due to increased blinds and their small stack, which could lead to an extremely difficult postflop.

Late stage of the satellite

At the late stage, you should not limit yourself to observing the game only at your own table. Through the tournament lobby, it is necessary to constantly monitor how many opponents remain at the adjacent tables. You also need to track your position in relation to the prizes.

If a player has a large or medium stack and is already among the candidates for tickets, then they need to narrow the range of starting hands as much as possible. At the same time, the player should stick to a waiting strategy, that is, wait for opponents with short stacks to be eliminated from the tournament. Then, the bubble bursts and the prize zone begins. 

Bubble poker

Let’s consider an example. Suppose Hero takes part in a satellite that grants 10 tickets to a bigger tournament. It is a bubble stage, and 12 participants left in the game. Hero reached this stage with a medium stack. There are also a few short-stacked opponents – they are in the so-called "red zone".

An opponent with a very large stack goes all-in on the preflop. All other players fold. Hero holds a pair of aces. How should Hero act in such a situation: play call or fold?

To fold cards will be a correct decision. In this case, Hero's aces have about an 85% chance of winning against a random hand. If Hero folds, then the probability that they will enter the prize zone is close to 100%, since during the next few hands one of the short stacks will surely be knocked out of the game. That is, risking your entire stack, even with a pocket pair of aces, is not worth it at this stage.

If your stack fails to ensure getting into the prize zone and you are below the prize places, then you need to pay attention to opponents who are in a similar situation or close to it. The game tactics should be aimed at ensuring that such opponents leave the game before you, thus increasing your chances of getting a prize.

Success

To achieve this goal, you can use a common technique – play for time and make decisions in the last seconds of extra time. In this case, more hands are played at other tables, and players with small stacks post blinds more often.

As a result, such players can be busted out of the tournament faster. At the same time, you can build up your stack at the expense of opponents with medium stacks. Such opponents usually save every chip because they fear being in a situation similar to yours.

Having a short stack, you should play carefully against chip leaders who have a lot of chips. Even an all-in can be an insignificant bet for them – they can call a player with a middle hand without much hesitation.

The short stacks are more likely to bust out. They have no choice but to fight, and your stack is already big, so let them figure out among themselves who will go to the main tournament from this satellite. If you enter the game, there is a possibility of bad beats, which means that your stack will decrease and the threat of being eliminated will grow. And if you win, almost nothing will change – you have already secured your seat in the main tournament.

Conclusion 

Poker satellites are a great chance to qualify for expensive online and offline events. Buy-ins to these events cost a pretty penny, but satellite tournaments are a cheaper way to play them.

Playing at different stages has different strategies. At the beginning of the qualifier, it is advisable to play tight to maintain as many poker chips as possible, while at the middle stage – you should actively attack opponents who folded a lot during the first phase to boost your stack in order to be able to survive the bubble and vie at the next stage.

Late stage is considered the most important phase in a satellite, as even a little mistake can cost you everything. The main difference from standard tournaments is that if you have a large stack, then you should completely stop playing.​

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Cardmates journalist, news editor and translator since 2018. Specialization: poker news and review of events.
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