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What is a Satellite Poker Tournament?


If you dream about playing a major tournament with a huge prize pool, that dream might seem out of reach if the event in question comes with a large buy-in. Enter the world of satellite poker tournaments.

Just about any poker player would love to play the World Series of Poker Main Event, for example, but at $10,000 the entry fee isn’t cheap. What if there was a way to get into the WSOP Main Event without ponying up $10K?

Satellite tournaments offer just that opportunity. A satellite tourney awards buy-in credits for bigger tournaments, using a flat payout structure in which all players that make it into the prize money earn the same reward.

The main purpose of a satellite event is to allow players to live the dream of playing in a bigger buy-in event, even if they don’t have the proper bankroll to do so.

You’ll see satellites pop up on the Lodge schedule during major tournament series. Let’s take a look at how satellites tournaments work:

How Does A Satellite Tournament Work?

A satellite tournament functions similarly to a standard multi-table tournament (MTT), but with a few significant differences.

You can buy in to a satellite tournament for a predetermined entry fee. Instead of straight cash prizes, however, a satellite awards tournament tickets to a bigger buy-in event.

For example, 2003 WSOP Main Event champion Chris Moneymaker won his way into that year’s $10,000 No-Limit Texas Hold’em Championship by winning a ticket in a $86 buy-in online satellite. That win awarded a ticket to a bigger satellite, in which the grand prize was a ticket to the Main Event.

The WSOP, World Poker Tour, and just about every other major poker tournament organizer run satellite events alongside their live events. You’ll also often find online poker rooms like PokerStars running satellites 24/7.

Satellite Tournament Payout Structures

Let’s take a look at an example of a satellite tournament from the Lodge schedule.

The Lodge runs an annual special tournament series called the Lodge Championship Series. The 2023 edition of the series featured a $3,000 buy-in, $2 million guaranteed Main Event.

In the days leading up to the tournament, the Lodge ran a series of $400 buy-in satellites to the Main Event. Each satellite guaranteed at least five seats to the Main Event.

Satellite tournaments divide the prize pool into equal shares, with each share worth one buy-in to the bigger tournament. The LCS Main Event satellite divided the prize pool into $3,000 shares.

For example, say the turnout for one of the Lodge’s Main Event satellites looked like this:

  • Buy-In: $400 ($338 to the prize pool, $62 to tournament fees)
  • 100 entries
  • Prize pool: $33,800
  • $3,000 Main Event tickets awarded: 11 ($33,800/$3,000)

If this satellite drew 100 entries, the final 11 players would each be awarded a $3,000 tournament ticket. The $800 left over in the prize pool would be awarded to the player that finished just outside of the money bubble, in 12th place.

The tournament ends as soon as the event hits the money stage. It doesn’t matter if you’re the chip leader or you have one big blind left, you win the same prize as the other 10 players that make it to the money (in this case a $3,000 tournament entry).

Compare that to a standard $400 buy-in tournament that draws 100 players, The prize pool is the same, but the player that finishes first wins around 20% of the total prize pool (around $7,000 in this case). The player that finishes 11th scored a min-cash, which might be around $700.

In satellite format, however, there is no first-place finisher or 11th-place finishers. All 11 players that make it to the money get the same prize, which is a $3,000 entry into the Main Event.

Note that Lodge satellites pay in tournament lamers, which are credits that can only be used to play in tournaments at the Lodge. You don’t have to spend your $3,000 in lamers on the Main Event if you don’t wish, but you must use them for tournaments at the Lodge.

Some satellites offer the opportunity to collect your winnings in tournament lamers or cash, while others pay as a direct entry to a specific tournament only. Be sure you know how a particular satellite pays before you enter.

Satellite Tournament Poker Strategy

The goal of any satellite tournament is to survive into the money. Whether you make it to the payouts with a big stack, or barely make it with just a couple of big blinds, you win the same prize.

Poker satellite strategy is very different than the strategy you should employ in a normal poker tournament. You don’t win any extra money for finishing first, and in the late stages of the tournament you don’t gain anything by taking risks in an effort to gain more chips.

ICM (independent chip model) implications of a satellite play out much differently than a normal tournament. If you have a big stack in a satellite tournament, and only a couple of eliminations remain before the money, you should be folding nearly 100% of poker hands preflop.

In some late-stage satellite situations, you should even fold pocket aces preflop. The risk of losing an all-in, even with aces, outweighs the benefits of adding chips to your stack.

For example, consider the following situation from the Lodge $400 satellite. Let’s look at the details of that tournament one more time:

  • Buy-In: $400 ($338 to the prize pool, $62 to tournament fees)
  • 100 entries
  • Prize pool: $33,800
  • $3,000 Main Event tickets awarded: 11 ($33,800/$3,000)

Suppose the tournament is down to 12 players, and two of those 12 players have less than five big blinds remaining in their stack. You’re second in chips with 40 big blinds, and the tournament chip leader is at your table with 50 big blinds.

You look down at pocket aces, and open raise to 2BB. The chip leader 3-bets, shoving their 50BB stack.

In a cash game or just about any other tournament format, this is a snap call. In this satellite scenario, however, you should fold pocket aces in this situation.

With a big stack and a couple of players very short, you have something close to a 100% chance of just folding your way into the money. While your pocket aces are an 80% favorite against the chip leader’s range, there’s a 20% chance that you get eliminated from the tournament if you call.

That risk isn’t worth taking in the late stages of a satellite if you’re almost assured of winning. You could argue for not even open raising with AA in this spot if you’re certain you have enough chips to fold your way into the money.

Final Thoughts

Satellites are a unique brand of poker game that can be highly profitable for players that know what they’re doing.

Building a stack in the early stages is a fine approach, as you’ll need to accumulate enough chips to assure a spot in the money. There comes a point in every satellite, however, where it’s time to go into survival mode (if your stack is big enough) and fold your way into the money.

Most satellites will include several players that don’t understand the differences in strategy between a standard MTT and a satellite. Those players will play too aggressively in the later stages, and you can take advantage of that by tightening up significantly once you’ve built a decent stack.

Satellites play very similarly to survivor tournaments, another format you’ll occasionally see at the Lodge. For more on survivor events, check out the article below:

What Is A Survivor Poker Tournament?

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