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Playing in big poker tournaments with little investment

Final Table - How To Play Big Tournaments

Most people come into the world of competitive poker with the same dream. Namely, invest a relatively small amount of money into a tournament buy-in, dominate the competition for hours/days, make the Final Table (FT) with a huge stack, and then win the entire thing and the massive top prize.

In fact, many pundits attribute the explosion of online poker two decades ago to this exact story. In 2003, Chris Moneymaker (now an Americas Cardroom Team Pro) qualified for the WSOP Main Event in Las Vegas via an online tournament, otherwise known as a satellite or feeder tourney. It cost him just $39 to play in the satellite poker tournament and he ended up winning the tourney and over $2.5 Million.

And while the aptly-named Moneymaker was the first high-profile player to enter and win a large tournament without investing much money, he definitely wasn’t the last. There have been tens of thousands of players who have since qualified for major tournaments via a lower-cost poker satellite.

But how do satellite poker tournaments actually work? And what are some strategies players can use to put themselves in great position to cash in these tourneys, plus make a real run at the main tournament they feed into?

Types of Satellites

Before we can look at the actual gameplay strategy, we have to first answer the three questions that many players who want to be the “next Moneymaker” want to know.

Satellites - How To Play Big Tournaments

What is a satellite poker tournament?

A satellite poker tournament, sometimes referred to as a ‘SAT’ or ‘satty’, is a poker tourney where the goal is not to win money, but rather an entry into a larger tournament with a higher buy-in. Usually, satellite poker tournaments pay multiple positions, with each player finishing in the money (ITM) and earning the exact same prize: entry into the target tournament. This payout setup, with all winners earning the same amount, calls for unique strategy adjustments. This is particularly true as the tournament approaches the money. But more about that in a moment.

What is a super satellite poker tournament?

A super satellite poker tournament is essentially just a satellite into a bigger satellite. For example, say there’s a small stakes player who wants to earn a seat into the WSOP Main Event for as small of an investment as possible. This player could first enter a super satellite tournament for $100 (plus the rake/juice). If that player then cashes the super satellite by outlasting 90% of the field, they will be rewarded by receiving entry into a $1,000 satellite tournament where they will need to again be the 10% of entries who go on to win the grand prize of a WSOP Main Event seat.

What is a step tournament?

Lastly on the poker satellite list is the step tournament. These are multi-level feeder tournaments that are generally played in a Sit & Go format with 5 or 6 levels where each ‘cash’ leads to a higher-limit Sit & Go. This culminates with a high buy-in Sit & Go paying out one or more poker tickets to the target tournament. Essentially, step tournaments are like a small grouping of super satellites and one satellite, all leading to a specific tournament. The benefits of step tournaments versus super satellites is that they often have a much lower entry fee at the lowest level and are better suited for players who prefer shorter playing sessions/Sit & Go format over long feeder tournaments.

Satellite Poker Tournament Strategy

With the last player to cash a super satellite or satellite poker tournament earning the exact same prize as the player sitting in first place, the incentives are incredibly different than in a regular poker tournament. With no motivation to move up the leaderboard standings beyond a certain point, satellites are entirely about survival rather than domination.

In fact, there are many situations where it not only makes sense to fold pocket aces preflop, but it would be a horrifically -EV play to do anything else. To showcase one such example, imagine sitting in third place on the bubble of a satellite paying 10 seats to the WSOP Main Event, the next player eliminated being the only one who won’t earn a seat. In this scenario, the player in first place could show you 72o (the worst hand in the game) before shoving all their chips in from the small blind and the right play would be for you to instantly muck your AA from the big blind. That’s because winning the hand would only marginally improve your position in the tournament (since you could likely fold your way into the money), whereas losing the hand would be disastrous to both your short and long-term expectation.

WSOP - How To Play Big Tournaments

Poker Tournament Strategy

If you’ve finally made it through the super satellite, satellite or step tournament process and now find yourself playing in the target tournament, you are probably asking yourself the following questions:

  1. How to win a big poker tournament?
  2. How to improve poker tournament strategy?

The first things to consider are whether the tournament is live or online, and whether it is a single or multi day poker tournament. When it comes to online poker tournament strategy, there is much less of a focus on building ‘reads’ or ‘tells’ on your opponent, though many players look for timing and bet-sizing tells in lieu of the physical tells one would look for in live poker tournaments. Online, the strategy really comes down to developing a solid gameplan away from the table that is built on minimizing your own mistakes rather than exploiting your opponents’ mistakes.

But regardless of the tournament venue, the important thing to remember is that no one has ever won a major poker tournament in the first level. So although you want to focus on building your stack fast enough to stay ahead of the rising blinds, there is very little benefit to taking big risks early in the tournament since each of those chips will soon mean much less than they currently do. Consequently, accepting a coin-flip situation, which may be unavoidable in the latter stages of the tournament, has very little value early on. That’s because strong players who believe in their edge at the poker table know that if they stay patient, they’re most likely going to encounter multiple situations in which their edge is significantly higher than, for example, a TT vs AQ coinflip.

As such, many of the world’s best poker tournament players employ a tight-aggressive approach early on, chipping up via numerous low-risk pots, and begin increasing their aggression as the growing blinds begin to pose a real threat to the stacks of passive players. This is usually the exact opposite of the approach used by recreational poker players, who often play much too loose in the early stages of a tournament, only to tighten up in the latter stages once the money is in sight. Knowing this, experienced players who for the most part are focused solely on the top-heavy portions of the poker guaranteed tournaments, will put increasing pressure on their opponents the closer they are to the money.

Players Approach - How To Play Big Tournaments

Therefore, to survive a multi-day poker tournament, the key is to view it in the following three stages.

  • A) The early stage: this is the time to play a relatively straight-forward poker strategy focused on basic fundamentals. This is while getting a feel for the table and building reads on opponents’ tendencies that may prove to be crucial during the later stages.
  • B) The middle stage: this usually occurs around the money-bubble. This is when astute poker players who have done a good job identifying their opponents’ tendencies will be able to exploit the weaker and more risk-averse players with increased aggression, chipping up nicely ahead of the money-bubble while many others are just trying to survive.
  • C) The late stage: this stage most often comes around the final couple of tables. Here, recreational players attempt to survive the high-blind portion of the tournament and experienced players jockey for the powerful chip-leader positions to set themselves up for a top-3 finish. During this stage, it’s generally advisable for players to significantly increase their aggression and accumulate as large a stack (as fast as possible) before the now sizable blinds force them to make a move in a pot they wouldn’t otherwise get involved in.

With all that said, let’s close this look at poker satellite and tournament strategy with some common questions new players ask.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Are poker satellites worth it?

This question can only really be answered accurately knowing a player’s specific situation as it relates to their bankroll, skill level, and preferred game type. However, there is no doubt that poker satellites offer incredible value both for experienced players looking for a cheap alternative to direct tournament entry and for recreational players looking to participate in tournaments well above their means without breaking their bankroll management guidelines. Thinking back to Moneymaker’s incredible story, it’s unlikely poker would have exploded in popularity as quickly as it did had he not parlayed that $39 online poker satellite into the $2.5 Million WSOP Main Event win.

When is it a good value to try and satellite into a poker tournament?

As outlined above, the best times to try to satellite into a poker tournament are as follows. The first is when a strong player can realistically anticipate being able to gain entry into the target tournament at a lower price than they would by buying in directly. The second is when a player with a smaller bankroll is looking to take a shot at a much larger, potentially life-changing score, without putting their entire poker bankroll at risk.

How many chips guarantee a seat in poker satellite?

There is no magic number of chips that will guarantee a seat in a poker satellite as it depends on the type of tournament, number of entries, entry fee, and price of the target tournament. With that said, one of the most common satellite formats is paying out one entry or tournament poker ticket for every 10 entries. That means, on average, each winner will need to end up with 10 times the number of chips they began the tournament with.

What does poker tournament guarantee mean?

A poker tournament guarantee refers to a predetermined guaranteed prize pool that will be paid out to the winners regardless of how many entrants end up playing the tournament. When the combined number of entries do not manage to meet the guarantee, the tournament is said to have an ‘overlay’, which is essentially free money added to the pot by the hosting entity.

Can I sell extra seats earned in a satellite, super satellite, or step tournament?

Each hosting entity, whether it’s a live casino or an online poker platform, has its own terms and conditions that stipulate what happens if a player wins multiple entries via satellite. Some will allow the player to redeem extra entries for their cash equivalent, others will award their value in credits for alternative tournaments. Finally, some will stipulate that no extra seats are permitted and will be forfeited if earned. If you don’t know which of these options is in play in a given tournament, it would be wise to contact the tournament host ahead of entering.

What are some additional online poker tournament tips?

It would take a lifetime (or two!) to spell out all the different online poker tournament tips that could improve one’s game. However, one useful one is using websites such as and to research your opponents’ online poker stats and results. By ‘sharkscoping’ your opponents at the table, you can quickly gain a baseline read on just how experienced and profitable of a poker player they are. And while that may not come in use in every hand you play, in a game built on incomplete information, any edge can be significant in the right situation.