How Well Would You Fare in Satellites if You Always Took the GTO Line?

This is a guest post by Dara O'Kearney, who is sponsored by Unibet Poker, co-host of The Chip Race Podcast and the author of Poker Satellite Strategy.

Question 1: Late in a satellite near the bubble, which of these hands is more preferable for shoving over a min-raise, assuming we would prefer our opponent to fold?

a) A5 suited

b) Pocket Jacks

Question 2: Four players remain, three seats are on offer, the blinds are 500/1,000.

Player 1: 40,000

Player 2: 10,000

Player 3 (Small Blind): 10,000

You (Big Blind): 20,000

Player 1 shoves, the next two players fold. You believe Player 1 would shove 100% of their range, what is your calling range?

a) KK+

b) AA only

c) 88+AK+

d) Fold 100% of your range

Question 3: Three players remain, two seats are on offer, blinds are 500/1,000

You: 35,000

Player 1 (Small Blind): 6,000

Player 2 (Big Blind): 6,000

You are first to act, both your opponents are highly experienced satellite professionals, what is the GTO move?

a) Shove 100% of your range

b) Shove 22+ KQ+ Ax+

c) Shove 88+ A9+

d) Fold 100% of your range

(Answers at the bottom of the article)

How well would you fare in satellites if you always took the GTO line?

People mistakenly think that satellites are a simple form of poker when in reality they conjure up some of the most nuanced and counter-intuitive spots you are ever likely to experience in tournament poker. The quiz you have just taken probably had you scratching your head at at least one of the answers if you have not studied satellites in depth. The key difference in satellites to other forms of poker is that you are playing for prizes of equal value, which makes the Game Theory Optimal play often very surprising.

It is often correct, for example, to open shove all our big hands even with 30 or 40 big blinds, even Aces. There are also times when it is correct to fold Aces preflop when your opponent shoves and has you covered. Lots of tournament players know about that particular nuance of satellites, but few people know about a spot where it is correct to fold Aces preflop as the big stack on the bubble when you are first to act. That’s right, you have no risk of bubbling and you have the best hand in poker, yet if everyone at the table knew the perfect GTO strategy you would be correct to fold Aces when the stacks are distributed in a specific way. I write about all these unusual situations and more in my new book Poker Satellite Strategy.

Poker Satellite Strategy book
Poker Satellite Strategy by Dara O'Kearney and Barry Carter

To go back to one of the better known quirks of satellite play, it is often correct to fold 100% of your range preflop when you have been shoved into by a player who covers you. That includes Pocket Aces. This is because there are situations in satellites where you are almost guaranteed to make it to the money, so even though Aces are more than 80% favourite against whatever your opponent’s range is, that 15-20% of the time you lose does not justify the call.

This also means that there are spots where it is GTO to shove any two cards against your opponents. Assuming your opponents know they are supposed to fold 100% of their range against you, even Aces, and you have them practically covered, shoving any two is unexploitable.

Recently SNG Guru Collin Moshman (whose iconic book Sit N Go Strategy is referenced in our book) asked me how successful I think a satellite grinder would be if they had to stick to the perfect GTO lines. In other words, if they assumed everyone else was playing perfectly too. He gave the example of a player who had a seat 99% locked up but a solver tells them they still should shove into two other big stacks, because in theory they should know to fold 100% of their range for the reasons I have illustrated above.

My answer was I think they would do OK, but nowhere near as good as the regulars who can adjust for their opponent’s mistakes. If all it took to beat satellites was access to a solver, I would never have had to write Poker Satellite Strategy. Few players come even close to playing perfectly and while a lot of players understand when they should fold 100% of their range, most do not. In the book we start with GTO shoving and calling ranges as a baseline, but we also have a big section called ‘Adjusting for Imperfection’ precisely for spots where player tendencies are too tight, too loose, or a mix of the two.

I saw a very graphic illustration of Collin’s hypothetical situation in a satellite I played online recently. The situation was there were two big stacks who should have been locked up for a seat, two medium stacks (of which I was one), and three small stacks. So seven left, five tickets, and it should usually be a case of which of the three short stacks gets the last seat.

The fun started when one of the big stacks (second in chips) decided to open shove KTo under the gun. I'm pretty sure if I plugged it into a solver it would say the shove is fine, assuming everyone behind knows what they're supposed to call with (the other big stack should fold 100% of their range, the two medium stacks nothing or almost nothing, and the three small stacks should call relatively tight too). As it happened, the chip leader called with Aces to eliminate the other big stack. I remember thinking in-game that while the shove might be profitable if everyone is playing perfectly, I'd never do it in practice. The upside is almost nothing compared to the downside of getting called and losing.

If you are playing small stakes satellites then the GTO advice might not be essential, but the higher up you go, especially the direct satellites to major events, you can expect the regulars in those games have studied the ICM in incredible detail. Satellites are an unusual breed where the field tends to be made up of very bad recreational players and elite ICM Wizards without much in between. With that in mind until you develop solid reads on who the very good regulars are, erring on the side of common sense (which is usually the less risky option) is usually the way to go.