The biggest poker tournaments in the world award life-changing amounts of money to those who finish well. A perfect example of this is the World Series of Poker Main Event with first place prizes that regularly top $10 million. A win in a major land-based tournament could fund your beach retirement plans all in one fell swoop.
We all dream of winning a big one, but there’s just one inconvenient fact: the biggest prize pool tournaments have the highest buyin fees. Going back to our WSOP example, the cost of entry to that one is a cool $10,000. This is not the kind of money most of us can afford to just toss around in the mere hope of achieving an unlikely first place finish. It gets expensive quick.
Well, there is some good news. Many of the people you see competing in major tournaments on TV did not actually get there by paying the normal entry fee. In many cases, people win their seats for a fraction of the cost by playing in online satellite tournaments.
Where Can I Find Satellites Online?
Everywhere. Every poker site on the planet hosts satellites tournaments every day of the week. Satellites are super-popular and easy to organize. Plus, they serve as useful “feeders” into the bigger events that most people wouldn’t normally be able to afford. Satellites give more people a chance to play and help funnel money into the bigger events.
I ranked the above sites based on the overall quality and quantity of their satellite offerings. Anyone interested in playing for big money should consider these sites first and then give it a shot. You can compete for very little money and work your way up to a sizable bankroll if you play your cards right.
One of the big things to keep in mind when choosing the best satellite tournament poker sites is the trustworthiness of the people behind the scenes. If you win a $12,000 package to the WSOP, will your poker site follow through and actually award the trip? This may be obvious advice, but there are a lot of terrible poker sites that look perfectly legitimate. That’s my prime motivation behind always recommending big-name sites.
How Satellite Tournaments Work
A satellite tournament awards entry into some other, more expensive tournament instead of traditional cash prizes. Satellites to big events always attract a lot of attention because they give normal, everyday people a shot at competing for serious money in a bigger event.
Chris Moneymaker serves as the classic example of satellite tournament success. In 2003, he played in a $39 satellite tournament online and won it. Instead of a cash prize, Chris was given free airfare, accommodations and entry to that year’s WSOP in Las Vegas. He did very well in the WSOP and ended up taking home the $2.5 million first place prize.
Two-and-a-half million might not sound like much in comparison to today’s WSOP prizes, but that was before the online poker boom (which we now attribute partially to the “Moneymaker Effect”). WSOP prize pools surged every year after thanks to widespread interest in online satellite tournaments.
Poker satellites are good for players, poker sites and major events alike. They give casual players a shot at the big leagues while simultaneously generating interest in online poker and helping inflate prize pools at major events. Online satellites were one of the best things to ever happen to tournament poker.
Related: check out our list of the best poker sites for WSOP qualifiers.
Not All Satellites are for Live Events
Satellite tournaments come in all shapes and sizes. Some send you to major land-based events but many others award entry to larger online tournaments. If you’ve been eying that £100,000 weekly guarantee for some time now but can’t quite justify spending upwards of £200 for a ticket, satellite tournaments are your best friend.
Almost all the larger-buyin events hosted online are accompanied by low buyin satellites. Sometimes you can even play in satellites for bigger satellites. Let’s say you’re on an extra tight budget and can’t even justify £20 for a satellite to your favorite event. Check the tournaments tab and you just might find a sub-satellite for just a £1 or even less. Winning that one will get you entry to the main satellite in which you can compete for a seat to the main event.
The more expensive a satellite is, the fewer people you have to compete against for a seat to the next tournament up. Poker sites occasionally host $1,000 buyin satellites to the WSOP with one travel package on offer for every 12-13 entrants. If you’re not keen on competing against hundreds of people for a single seat but don’t have the money to throw at a high buyin satellite, step tournaments may be a better option.
Step or “tiered” satellites are hosted as single-table-tournaments with roughly 5-6 different tiers. Each tier awards free entry to the next level up, and you can win your way through the levels until you reach the highest level and compete at a single table for free entry to the main event.
Steps offer several interesting advantages for players. For one, you can buy in direct at any level according to how much you’re willing to risk. The lowest levels often start as low as £1, with the next level up costing £10, the third level costing £25 and so on. Your goal in every tournament is to take first place and win a free seat to the next level up.
In most cases, step satellites also offer consolation prizes to those who finish in 2nd or 3rd place. Sometimes you’ll get a second chance to play in the same level or be knocked down a level. The worst-case scenario is to get knocked out early and have to start all over from the beginning.
What are the Downsides?
In my opinion, the biggest downside to satellite tournaments is the ever-present risk of making it deep into a tournament only to go out on the bubble and have absolutely nothing to show for your efforts. In a poker satellite tournament, you either win the big prize or nothing at all.
Larger satellites are known to award multiple entries to the top 5, 10, 15 or whatever players so it usually isn’t a winner-take-all situation. Even so, the payout structure is extremely top heavy. You need to place very well or else you’ll finish the night empty handed.
This odd payout structure changes the proper strategic approach for poker tournaments. Normally, the basic advice is to play for first place rather than trying to outlast people and sneak into the money. This changes in satellites where you either win everything or nothing.
Example: you’re sitting on a huge chip stack and only 4 more people need to be knocked out before the bubble breaks and people start winning prizes. The proper strategy in a regular cash tournament would be to keep playing aggressive and rack up even more chips while everyone else hunkers down in fear. In a satellite tournament, it is sometimes actually be best to sit tight because it doesn’t matter how many chips you have once the money begins. Satellites end as soon as the bubble is broken – you just have to be alive when that happens.