Online Poker Strategy Session #3: Improving Satellite Skills With Dara O’Kearney 

March 25, 2021
Online Poker Strategy Session #3: Improving Satellite Skills With Dara O’Kearney 

Appealing to recreational players has been a major part of online poker sites’ strategies over the last couple years. Numerous satellites and qualifiers are a big part of those efforts to bring more players into the game.

Irish poker pro Dara O’Kearney and Barry Carter wrote the book on satellite events – literally. Their recent book Poker Satellite Strategy offers players a unique look at tailoring their play toward these qualifying events.

O’Kearney has more than $1.1 million in live tournament winnings and twice won the PokerStars UK and Ireland Poker Tour satellite leaderboard. Carter is the editor at and has written four strategy books. O’Kearney and Carter offered up some ideas for players to think about as they navigate through satellites.

Beware of battling too much

Satellites can be a great way to earn entrance into a tournament at a bargain price. However, because where a player finishes doesn’t mean much, it’s important to simply qualify.

Whether you’re first in chips or just one ahead of the bubble is irrelevant. Simply getting that tournament ticket to the event is the goal. Avoid major conflicts late in an event, which can be costly.

“If normal tournaments are war, then satellites are more like the Cold War,” O’Kearney says. “Late on in a satellite, you need to display to your opponents that you are willing to engage, while doing everything possible to avoid actual confrontations. Merely understanding that gives you an advantage over opponents who had never heard of mutually assured destruction.”

This concept should help players discover their biggest leaks when it comes to satellites. Some ideas about playing aggressively may not be consistent with a normal tournament.

“Either you are playing like a maniac and playing too many hands (especially calling too much) or everybody knows you are willing to blind yourself out to make the money so you will be seen as a soft target,” O’Kearney says. “Neither approach is ideal, so keep this in mind before anything else. You have to appear dangerous, so ideally you’ll have been seen playing aggressively when you get the hands to do so. But you want to avoid confrontation as much as possible.

“This runs contrary to regular multi-table tournaments (MTTs) where you could say that the philosophy of them is to realize your equity, by getting your strong hands paid, as much as possible so you can build a big stack for the final table.”

In a satellite, building that stack for a final table isn’t the goal and that’s a major key to remember.

Tighten up your game

A fundamental difference in satellites is that everyone is playing for prizes of equal value. Calculated risks in a multi-table tournament may be worth it at times to build a stack. But in a satellite these can be even more costly.

“Calling a raise with a small pair in the hopes of making a set, chasing a draw because you think your opponent will pay you off, or making a call with an inferior hand because you are priced in – these are all tactics which will see you bust early from MTTs, but when they pay off they put you in a good position to secure a massive payday,” O’Kearney says.

“Playing to min-cash is a terrible long term strategy in MTTs, but in satellites a min-cash is the goal. The number of times you cash is much more important than your ability to crush the field, so that means reducing the number of times you bust by not taking needless risks.”

Obviously players must build a stack to get to the bubble. But playing a tight-aggressive strategy and removing high variance pays off in the long run.

“That means once the blinds have started to get big – no set mining with small pairs, no chasing draws with suited connectors, no coin flips and avoid defending with poor holdings because you are priced in,” O’Kearney says. “These moves may be ChipEV correct but they reduce your chances of having a survivable stack come bubble time.”

Barry Carter and Dara O’Kearney, authors of Poker Satellite Strategy.

Shove when needed

Building on this last concept, it’s also important to make big moves when you are dealt a big hand. Once blinds are big and stack sizes shallow, players avoid reshoves after smaller raises by simply moving all in.

O’Kearney says this is a good idea even with 20 or 30 effective big blinds.

“If you open to 2.5x big blinds as your standard bet and get shoved on you are going to have to fold so often that this is a sure-fire way to get blinded down to a micro stack,” he notes.

“Generally, you will get a lot more folds when you open shove in a satellite compared to a regular MTT, but that doesn’t mean do it with a wide range. Do it with hands you don’t mind getting called with.”

Players aren’t looking for calls. Instead, hope opponents fold even when holding you hold a very strong hand.

“Trapping and inducing is a great strategy when you are trying to win the whole tournament,” O’Kearney says, “but the more you avoid showdown, the more likely you are to survive to the bubble.”

Quit the calling

In a normal tournament, calling an all-in with a decent hand may offer the reward of knocking out another player. An elimination also comes with an increase to your chip stack

But the variance that comes with plays like that can be crippling in a satellite. Folding more often in these spots could be a better option.

“The best way to reduce variance is to dramatically reduce the range you are prepared to call an all-in with when the amount you would stand to lose would hurt you severely or eliminate you,” O’Kearney says. “Quite simply you are putting yourself at the mercy of the deck when you call an all-in, and in satellites we want to avoid high variance showdown situations as much as possible.”

This comes back to that open-shove scenario. Being the first player all-in puts massive pressure on opponents. Those with satellite experience will want to avoid a flip situation – and will avoid calling themselves.

“You give yourself two ways to win when you are the one putting pressure on others by going all-in – you can get them to fold or you can win the hand at showdown if they call,” O’Kearney says. “When you are the one facing an all-in call, there is only one way to win and that is to have the best hand at showdown.”

Poker Satellite Strategy is available here and is also available as an audiobook.

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