Satellite Poker Tournaments Guide

Poker players everywhere have heard how Chris Moneymaker parlayed an $86 satellite on PokerStars into a win at the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event, netting him everlasting fame and $2.5 million.

A recreational player at the time, Moneymaker has said he would never have dreamt of playing the Main Event because of its daunting $10,000 entry fee. He admits he even thought about selling the seat to someone for $5,000 or whatever he could get until he found out the rules would not allow that.

His was a true rags-to-riches story. The strategy paid off handsomely for Moneymaker, but are satellites a smart investment or a risky proposition?

Satellite payouts are determined by how many players enter. All the prize money goes to first place until enough of a pool has been generated to pay the entry fee for the prize up for grabs. This process repeats itself for each succeeding place.

So if 30 players enter an online satellite where the entry fee is $10 + $1, a prize pool of $300 would be generated. If the prize is a seat in a $60 + $6 tournament, then the top four players would win $66 tickets, with fifth place getting the remaining prize pool ($300 minus $264 or $36) paid out in cash.

It is important to note that in most satellites – live and online – the prize is paid out as an entry or ticket into the specified event. Players do not win cash, and the ticket generally cannot be transferred or sold to another player.

More Bang for Your Buck

The major advantage of a satellite tournament is it offers the chance to play in higher stakes events with a minimal outlay. For instance, the World Series of Poker Circuit usually offers $50 (plus $15 house fee) satellites into their $365 ring events. This provides a chance to compete for a prize in the tens of thousands of dollars for $65, less than the cost of most tourneys in brick-and-mortar casinos where first prize is often less than $1,000. Who wouldn't jump at the chance to play for a prize that is 20 or 30 times greater than what you normally play for, at the same price?

Similarly, online poker sites host satellites to qualify for their biggest tournaments for a fraction of the cost of direct entry. You’ll also often find super-satellites online, which require players to qualify through more than one satellite tournament in order to net the high value ticket. In this way it’s possible to compete for extremely high prize pools for pocket change, but the process can be lengthy, and a degree of luck will likely be needed in order to successfully navigate multiple tournament fields.

For recreational players whose bankroll doesn't allow them to play for high stakes, satellites offers a chance to win seats in marquee events at an affordable cost.


Chris Moneymaker won his Main Event seat in a satellite, and you can too.

Satellites can be found online, as well as in brick & mortar poker rooms.


But Are They Worth It?

Using the WSOP Circuit satellites as an example, players are risking $65 to win a $365 ticket. This means that for every 7.3 players who enter the satellite (7.3 multiplied by $50, the prize pool portion of the entry fee), one earns the ticket. In other words, about 14% of players who enter a satellite will win an entry into a $365 event.

When looked at from a plus-minus EV perspective, this would be a losing proposition. If all players are considered equal, you would win one in every 7.3 chances. This translates into paying $474.50 (7.3 multiplied by $65) to enter a $365 tournament. Most players, then, would be better served by paying the entry fee.

To break even, you would have to win one in every 5.6 tries, which equates to a win rate of almost 18%, or 28% higher than average. But if you can afford to enter the satellite multiple times, why not just enter the main tournament instead to guarantee your seat?

To come out ahead, you'd need to win at least one every five times ($325 investment for a $365 ticket). This win rate of 20% is 43% higher than the average. Are you confident you're that much better than everyone else playing the satellite?

Live satellites are often turbo tournaments with 10- or 15-minute levels and smaller starting stacks. This structure significantly reduces the skill factor, so even if you feel you have a plus EV on the rest of the field, the format neutralizes a lot of your advantage. Satellites often become push-fold contests at a certain point, meaning luck comes into play a lot quicker.

The majority of online satellite tournaments feature smaller starting stacks and shorter levels, which again reduces the skill advantage. Some even offer hyper-turbo tournaments, with very short levels (3 minutes or less) and ridiculously small stacks (1,000 or even 500 chips). These are nothing more than luck contests and should be avoided at all costs, unless you have money to burn and time to waste.

Strategy for Success

If you decide to play a satellite, it may be wise to adjust your playing style. If the structure is akin to a turbo tournament, you'll need to be more aggressive early and try to stay ahead of the chip average until the inevitable shove-fest begins.

Be in your seat before the tournament starts. With the small starting stacks and quicker levels, buying in late or rebuying will put you at a tremendous disadvantage.

The goal is not to win the tournament but to earn the ticket. If the top four players receive tickets, your goal is to finish in the top four. In terms of prize payout, there is no difference between first and fourth place, so keep your eyes on the prize and not your position.

If you have one of the largest stacks and are approaching the bubble, dial back on the aggression and let the smaller stacks knock each other out. Instead of going for the jugular, protect your stack. Play very tight, pay attention to position and avoid multi-way pots, even if you have a monster (see below).

Be smart with your funds, too. Don't waste a lot of your bankroll playing satellites. A general rule of thumb is not to spend more than five percent of your bankroll in a tournament. For satellites, it's probably best to keep that number even lower, around 2 or 3%, because even if you win the ticket, you still have to play the next tournament and finish in the money to realize a return on your investment.

Fold Pocket Aces Pre-flop? Really?

It may seem counterintuitive, but there are scenarios in satellite tournaments where it would be a good decision to fold pocket aces pre-flop. Let's say the event is down to five players, the top four get tickets, and you have a good stack that puts you in the top three (20 BBs). You wake up with pocket aces in the big blind. Before the action gets to you, the two small stacks (8 BBs and 6 BBs) shove all-in.

Normally you would be jumping for joy, but what do you gain and what do you risk?

  • If you call and knock out both players, you win a ticket.

  • If you fold and the small stack loses, you still win a ticket.

  • If you fold and the small stack wins, then the next smallest stack is now crippled (down to 2 BBs) and you still have 20 BBs and are in great position to earn a ticket.

  • If you call and lose to both, now you are the second-smallest stack with 12 BBs, the previous small stack has increased his holdings to 18 BBs, and even the second smallest stack still is left with 4 BBs, a workable stack in a push-fold situation.

As counter-productive as it may seem, the prudent play in this scenario to fold your pocket aces pre-flop and hope the small stack loses.

Improve your game further by checking out even more poker strategies and guides or bring it back to basics with the poker rules for other poker variants.

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