In 1983, Tom McEvoy was the first world champion to enter the main event by winning a satellite. Since then, many of the champions, like Chris Moneymaker and I, have won a satellite to earn themselves a seat into the biggest poker tournament of the world.
In 2004, I won my seat in the last World Series of Poker satellite that PokerStars offered — a $160 buy-in double shootout. In this format, 81 players put up $160 and played in nine separate one-table tournaments containing nine players each. To advance to the final table and the second stage of the shootout, you had to win your first table. Then, the nine winners played off for the big prize, the main event seat. Those who finished ninth through second earned their buy-in back, but only the winner got the coveted seat (plus $1,000 cash and a free hotel room). Fortunately, I was that person.
So, if this is all you know, then you think I turned $160 into $5,000,000. However, in addition to this victorious double shootout, I had also entered but failed to win many previous double shootouts, plus a couple of $650 buy-in supersatellites. Thus, I spent something like $2,000, not a small sum, but I ended up winning close to $12,000 in value. The point being, if you're a winning player, then you can make (and save) money by entering satellites rather than paying full price for a seat.
Greg Raymer won a double shootout at Poker Stars to earn his seat at the WSOP in 2004.
Supersatellites play much like regular tournaments, but they often feature the same first prize for several players. For example, in a PokerStars $650 supersatellite, there might be anywhere from 20-100 players. For every 18 or so players who enter, one person would win a main event seat. Thus, if 90 players were to enter, then as soon as the tournament is down to the final five players, it's over, as they all win a seat. Any extra money would be given to the person finishing sixth.
Also popular is the single-table satellite. In this type of tournament, every player puts up one-tenth of the prize, and the winner takes all. In addition to finding these online, you will find them at the Rio before each tournament, and the cost Poker Stars varies from just over $100 to just over $1,000. You can even pay a little over $5,000 to play a single-table satellite into the $50,000 HORSE tournament.
No matter what type of satellite you enter for the main event, you can leverage your talent to win a seat for much less than the full price of $10,000.
But which way is best? Of course, like any good poker question, to a large extent the answer is, “It depends.” How big of a poker game do you usually play? How talented are you compared to the competition? What is the value of your time? Having said all that, I stipulate that you're probably better off playing some of the more expensive satellites.
If you're good enough to play in the main event and have any realistic chance of success, then you're good enough to put up between $100 and $1,000 to enter a satellite. Although this is a lot of money, surprisingly enough many players at this level are very weak. Weak opponents mean easier money for you, at least relatively speaking. Like any poker game, the worse your opponents play, the more often they put their chips in the pot when behind.
If you stick to your winning strategy and use all your skills, you will win more than you lose in these satellites, and that means you'll win your seat at a discount. In fact, it is quite common to see many well-known players, myself included, in these satellites. It doesn't matter that I am going to play in the main event whether I win or lose the satellite. Entering is simply a good way for me to make money, so if I have the time, I will gladly do it.
The strategy for single table satellites and double shootouts is relatively simple. You have to win all the chips to win anything, so that should be all you worry about. If somebody pushes in for more chips than you have, but you have positive expectation to make the call, you should do it. Since the ultimate goal is to beat the table, there is no reason to turn down an opportunity where you have the advantage.
Conversely, the strategy for super satellites can be very strange, specifically when you start getting close to the positions that pay. For example, if you are the chip leader and down to the final seven players in a satellite that pays five seats and prize money for sixth, you should almost certainly shut down. Why should you get involved in pots and risk losing your stack? If there are other players who are very short-stacked, you can sit back, risk nothing and let them knock each other out. All you care about is being one of the final five players. You absolutely do not care how many chips you have once that sixth player is eliminated.
This is in sharp contrast to a regular tournament in which first place usually pays nearly twice as much as second, and second pays more than third, etc. In a regular tournament, when you have the big stack, you often have a license to steal most of the small pots, as your opponents don't want to get involved with you unless they clearly have the best hand. They know that if they sit out and let you knock out others, they can move up the pay ladder.
Even though this same power exists in a super satellite, the player with the shortest stack doesn't have this same incentive to keep folding. If he sees that the other stacks aren't going to tangle with you, then he will need to take a stand sooner rather than later. This way, if he wins the pot and doubles up, he will double up with more chips, thus pulling himself out of the basement and leaving it to someone else to risk the fate of being the bubble boy. Furthermore, even if you think your opponents will fold all but monster hands, the upside just isn't there. Padding your lead doesn't increase your chances of winning as much as losing will hurt your chances, since fifth place is just as good as first.
So, if you're ready for the main event, then you're ready for a higher buy-in satellite, with a price tag of anywhere from $100 on up. Just make sure you play the satellite with as much brains as you apply to your regular game, and you can win a seat and save yourself thousands of dollars. Plus, you'll then have a chance to be the next world champion of poker!