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Keep the Ball Rolling

The art of playing satellites—Part I

The first $10,000 buy-in poker tournament of record was the 1972 World Series of Poker (WSOP) championship. In the third year of what was to become poker’s premier spectacle, eight players put up $5,000, as they had the previous year. But in 1972 Benny Binion decided he wanted widespread publicity, so he decided to match each entrant’s buy-in. When the chips settled, Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston pocketed the $80,000 winner-take-all prize.

Today, the world championship event is just one of many $10,000 affairs annually. The World Poker Tour (WPT) championship buy-in is $25,000. The WSOP spreads a $50,000 hold ‘em; Omaha high-low, razz, seven-card stud; seven-card stud eight-or-better (H.O.R.S.E.) tourney. One of the reasons expensive entry poker events have flourished in this millennium has been the proliferation of satellite tournaments.

Panoramic Picture

At the heart of the satellite concept is an adage near and dear to a gambler’s heart: ‘Bet a little to win a lot’. Sports bettors can achieve this objective through parlays. Equine enthusiasts have retired after scoring huge proceeds from a longshot driven ‘pick six’. Lotto devotees worship the principle. Poker satellites serve to reduce our overall financial risk while maintaining the maximum prize we seek. It’s our way of rolling a snowball down a hill and winding up with an avalanche of cash. In this three-part article we will offer a brief history, address different types of satellite events (such as Double Shootouts and the increasingly popular Sit & Go events) and provide strategy along the way.

Single-table Satellite Roots

Let’s start where it all began, at the 10-seat, single-table satellite, also known as a ‘freezeout’ tourney. Eric Drache, the first tournament director of the WSOP, has been credited with inventing the satellite. In the mid 1970s, Drache was charged with increasing the field for the championship event. He came up with a simple, yet highly effective way to simultaneously appeal to a gambler’s instinct and his or her bankroll. Drache encouraged groups of 10 players to pony up one-tenth of the main event entry fee to enter a winner-take-all, no rebuy, single-table tournament that would involve rapid blind escalations, thus take approximately three hours of play to decide the winner. Eric cleverly added a small entry fee. As an aside, the $10,000 WSOP main event buy-in had no ‘juice’ charge during its first 33 years; the aggregate buy-in always became the prize pool. Benny Binion welcomed the ‘loss leader’ firmly believing the WSOP would some day become his legacy. He was spot on.

The first world champion to emerge through a satellite victory was Tom McEvoy in 1983. An accountant by trade, McEvoy entered the championship with the proceeds he won during a one-table satellite. The now famous author invested $1,020 and received a check for $540,000 in what Tom has characterised as, ‘the defining moment of my life.’

The most famous satellite survivor is the aptly named Chris Moneymaker who invested $40 and won a series of satellites at ‘Money’ went on to defeat 838 opponents at the 2003 WSOP world championship. He left Las Vegas with $2.5 million after completing the perfect poker parlay.

Single-table Satellite Strategy Summarised

Think of a one-table satellite as a mini-tourney where you’ve made the final table and the blinds have been backed up to a comfortable level, but will escalate rapidly. In addition, all players will be starting with an equal amount of chips. Naturally, different games dictate different approaches, but several general satellite strategy suggestions apply to all forms of poker. Your basic, early level game plan should include:
• Paying close attention to your opponents
• Preserving chips through careful play
• Formulating a table image that you can use to manipulate opponents later on

When play begins you want to gauge adversaries on the basis of ‘tricky versus straightforward’ and ‘tight versus loose’. Who plays strong hands slowly, but checks with monsters? Which foes need a big hand such as 10-10, A-Q or better to play? Who is limping into pots hoping for cheap flops? Is anyone raising frequently? You should push strong hands, but avoid getting short-stacked through a commitment to a marginal hand or an ill-fated bluff attempt. (The risk is not worth the reward when the blinds are low and you possess the chips to play selectively.)

Then, when the blinds increase to something worth fighting for, you should:
• Play more aggressively
• Note which opponents correctly gravitate into a more aggressive mode
• Adjust as players are eliminated and short-handed strategy takes centre stage
• Take advantage of your table image—steal more if you’ve been card-dead previously (thus folding a lot), and tighten up when playing marginal hands or attempting position steals if you’ve been active throughout the early stages
• Incorporate position and relative chip stack sizes into your decisions

When only one or two opponents remain, most players realise that they must get involved in hands that would be clear ‘throw aways’ in a full game, such as K-7 offsuit. But, these same players often fail to get full value from most of their hands. The way to maximise return is to play against the flow of your opponent(s). For example, if he or she is very aggressive, trap more than you would against a passive adversary. Conversely, you should bully the passive players. In addition, never lose track of your opponents’ chip counts, as they will often base decisions primarily upon that factor.

In the next installment, several successful professionals will provide additional one-table satellite tips.
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