Satellites: The Hardest Way to Make the Easiest Living

Satellites: The Hardest Way to Make the Easiest Living

Poker has been famously described as "a hard way to make an easy living." This description is especially true of satellites and survivor tournaments. In a satellite, each winner gets the same prize — a seat into a higher buy in tournament. A survivor tournament is essentially a cash satellite where each winner gets paid the same dollar amount.

For the sake of simplicity, I will use the term satellite to denote both of these tournament types. My experience is mainly in cash survivors, but most of my comments also apply to regular satellites.

Here is why I believe these tournaments are the ultimate example of poker's paradoxical nature.

What Makes Satellites Hard?

We all know how stressful it is to be a short stack on the bubble of a tournament hoping to somehow make the money. We don't always make it, but when we do, we usually lock up a min-cash worth somewhere between 1-3x the buy-in at most. There won't be a major swing to your bankroll whether you miss or make this small amount of money.

In a satellite, however, that so-called "min-cash" is often worth ten buy-ins or more which makes bubbling much more devastating.

Additionally, winding up as a short stack on the bubble of a tournament is often a worst case scenario that we seek to avoid. In a satellite on the other hand, being in this position is essentially your goal. There is no extra prize money awarded to the player who cashes with the most chips, so inherently that person has often taken on some uncompensated risk in order to build that big stack.

In fact, if you think about it, in satellites the player who is able to cash with the shortest stack is essentially the "winner" in the sense that his compensation is the highest on a per chip basis, because he is paid the same as the chip leader even though his stack size is much shorter.

Good players understand this and seek to avoid undue risk when playing satellites. They try to build their stacks gradually. This involves playing a relatively low variance style where you seek to put less money into the pot when you are unsure you have the best hand.

Playing such a style means defending the big blind a lot tighter, playing draws a lot less aggressively, and shoving from early position with a stronger range, consisting primarily of ace and broadway combos that are both called less often and have more equity when called than smaller cards.

Generally, you don't want to play big pots postflop unless you have big made hands and utilizing fold equity preflop is much better than calling even when you suspect that you have the best hand.

If you are able to chip up gradually without a ton of risk, eventually you will build up to a stack that can comfortably attempt to fold into the money. This stack size is a function of the number of spots being paid. In games where roughly 1/10 of the field is being paid, you need around 10 starting stacks. If 1/20 of the field is being paid, you need around 20 starting stacks.

Once you reach your goal, you should play even tighter than before. The idea is to maintain that stack size with very little risk. As you approach the bubble, hopefully you will have kept your stack afloat. If so, your goal should be to blind off gradually while hoping to outlast the shorter stacks and unskilled big stacks on the bubble. This leads to lots of min-cashes which are terrific. And lots of bubbles which are, well, horrific.

What Makes Satellites Easy?

As we've discussed, the correct strategy is pretty simple. You play tight, gradually build up to a cashing stack, and then gradually start to play tighter and tighter hopefully to the point where you are such a lock to cash that you should open-fold A-A preflop.

Once you've mastered this simple strategy, you will have a massive edge on almost everyone in the field. Very few of the fun players will be able to open-fold A-A when it's called for, and very few of the good MTT players will be able to slow down once they've reached a cashing stack. That aggression is what brought them so much success in tournaments and many of them do not have the ability to switch gears.

For example, I once played a "5K Survivor" tournament at the Wynn. It paid $5,000 to 17 spots, and with 19 players left I was roughly tied with a few other short stacks.

At my table was a recent WSOP Main Event November Niner, a very competent MTT player and used his skills to build up a nice stack on this bubble. With only two spots left to bust before the money and maybe six shorter stacks, he could have easily folded his way into the cash.

Instead, the aggression that brought him MTT success was still on display. Twice in two orbits, he shoved from UTG with his roughly 20-big blind stack into maybe four shorter stacks and one or two guys with stacks similar in size to his. This may be defensible with some hands in a regular MTT format, but here I am sure it was a mistake even with a hand as strong as J-J given that the field was likely to make calling mistakes.

He then shoved all in a third time from under the gun, and the table folded around to me in the small blind where I'd been dealt A-K with around 10 BBs left in my stack. Even though I suspected that he was shoving too wide, this was an easy fold because I had at least one of the other stacks covered and was tied with another two of them.

It would have been a disaster for me to call against any shoving range when I was in good position to outlast the shortest stack and also expected one of the stacks with which I was tied to make a mistake soon — like calling with A-K in this spot, for example.

Alas for me, two hands later I shoved A-J from the cutoff and was called by A-K on the button. I busted two spots from the $5,000 mincash.

I believe that most good MTT players would have been too aggressive with the November Niner's stack and I believe almost any other person in that tournament would have called the shove with A-K. The field's proclivity to make these mistakes is what makes it so easy to make a living playing satellites.


The super flat payout structures in satellites combined with the fact that very few people know how to play them correctly are what make them the hardest way to make the easiest living.

It's not very hard to do well in them, and when it works out, it is wonderful. When it doesn't, you have to deal with some of the biggest bubbles you will ever face.

Of all the poker formats, I believe these tournaments require you to have the thickest skin. But having the rare opportunity to be among the best players in any field makes them totally worth it.

  • Carlos @HipHop101Trivia Welch discusses what makes satellites hard, and what makes them easy.

  • There's an edge to be had in satellites (if you can handle the pressure), explains Carlos Welch.

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