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3 Top Tips for Playing in Poker Satellites

October 28, 2019
by PokerStarsSchool

In this poker strategy article we explore three top tips that will help you play better in poker satellites.

Satellites are a fantastic way for players with lower bankrolls to access to major tournaments and make a low risk appearance onto the major tournament circuit. Many players do not approach these events any differently to regular MTTs and as we shall see, this is a big mistake. While failure to adjust is a very common leak, we shall also examine how to treat opponents who adapt too much.

What is the main difference between playing satellites and regular tournaments? It is not that the prizes are tickets to another event rather than a cash; that has no effect on expected value and each ticket has its own monetary worth. The main difference is that, in satellites, the prize pool does not increase incrementally from the start of the pay-out structure to first place. Rather, the top X players all receive the same reward – entry into the bigger event. It is, therefore, not winning that constitutes the goal of satellites, but surviving longer than most of the field. It might be that the top 20 from a field of 300 will earn a ticket and so our goal is to outlast 280 players, even if we have just one chip left when the bubble bursts.

Let’s learn how we can improve our chances of survival.

Make Some Very Tight Folds with a Big Stack Near the Bubble

Perhaps the most extreme adjustments in satellites come in the form of crazy looking hero folds. When you have a large stack relative to the field and the bubble is drawing near, it is almost always correct to avoid tangling with other big stacks at all costs. Let’s imagine the top 10 places will earn a ticket and we are down to 13 players remaining. Our stack sits at 65BB and the average stack is 32BB. A short stack shoves for 15BB from middle position, a 55BB stack shoves on the button and we look down at KK in the SB. In a regular event, this is a snap call as we have excellent equity against many of the hands that BU will choose to shove, for example, TT-QQ and AK.

Stack of PokerStars Chips

The problem with investing most of our stack in a satellite is that we currently have an extremely high chance of cashing, which of course, is the only goal. We might lose this pot something like 33% of the time. Our equity vs. a range such as [TT+ AQs+, AKo] is 66%. Our chances of cashing if we fold here are currently easily 80-90%. Calling reduces our chances to closer to 66% as we are very nearly eliminated should we lose to the other big stack. A call that does this to our chances cannot ever be correct so fold those kings already. If it were earlier in the tournament we would never turn down this opportunity to double up, but at this stage a double up is not helpful enough to make us embrace the risk.

Avoid Being Too Tight with a Small Stack

While the big stack avoids the other big stacks wherever possible, the small stack does not have the same luxury. Even if the bubble is on the horizon, the short stack is a favourite to bust before it arrives. Waiting for medium stacks and other short stacks to bust is actually a very risky strategy under the guise of a conservative one. Imagine the same point in the tournament as in the previous example, only this time, you sit with just 17BB. There is another stack with 12BB, but other than that, no one else has less chips. You need three people to bust here to hit the money, and you know that the larger stacks will be waiting around for you to bust rather than risking their own lives unnecessarily. If you do nothing, you rot away within a few more orbits; the antes are wreaking havoc on your puny stack.

To wait and pray then is to bust because within a few more orbits, your stack will develop two fatal flaws:

  • Firstly, it will become too small to give you a safety net even in the event of a double up. This means doubling up to survive, instead of doubling up to be comfortable. If you can get your 17BB up to 37BB or so by acting sooner rather than later, then you will have a very good chance of cashing.
  • Secondly, your fold equity is currently meaningful. Your 17BB represents a very real threat to your opponents’ stacks. A middle stack will have to think very carefully before calling your shove with any questionable hand. It might be that you can chip up to a healthy enough stack to survive just by people folding to your steals and shoves.

Exploit Opponents who are Controlled by Fear

The most common adjustment around the bubble of a satellite among less experienced players is to let fear take over and become very tight indeed. The finish line is so close and to let the prize slip away now would be heart-breaking. In fact, the fear of losing a big pot is so strong that people are inclined to forget that they are continuously losing small ones, just by posting antes and blinds.

Poker Player allin

Look out for players who are folding every big-blind to a small steal and open the pot very aggressively in late position against them. Moreover, if you have the chips for it, look to 3-Bet others who are attacking these nitty players’ ranges in an exploitative fashion. There will even be some opponents who play a small stack this way, not realising the extent of their desperation. The most common target for relentless bullying, however, is the small-medium stack. He/She has accumulated enough chips to have a very realistic chance of cashing but has too few chips to feel comfortable taking risks. This is your main target. If the short stack is a frightened cornered animal, who might just attack, the short to medium stack is a frightened animal with space to flee. He or she will most likely do just that.


Satellites present the opportunity for a very large edge due to the overly-adaptive and underly-adaptive strategies you will encounter form your opponents. Try to identify those who adjust too much and bully them out of their chips. Meanwhile, look out for players whose survival instinct is not functioning properly and avoid picking fights with them.

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