Navigating a low-priced satellite
If you ever play poker on PokerStars, you most definitely have heard of "Needasetup." And you've probably heard of his victory in the FPP tournament that got him his seat in the upcoming World Series of Poker main event in July.
What's that? You've never heard of him? Unbelievable.
Well, Needasetup's journey -- and the journey for the other 485 players who have qualified on Pokerstars -- has already begun for the 2008 WSOP. Back in 2003, no one really knew who yours truly -- Money800 -- was, either. That all changed, of course, after I won the main event that year.
On many Web sites, satellite tournaments start as low as $2 and are run all day long. Find one that you can easily afford. As a general rule, the $2 tournaments will have thousands of players, while the more expensive tournaments (a $615 buy-in being typical) will have a few hundred. Once you have found your tournament, take notice of how many places are being paid. Some pay only first place; others give up to 10 seats away.
So you've found the tournament you want to play in. What is your strategy going forward?
Like most things in poker, that depends. There are many different styles and strategies in tournament poker. The best advice for a beginner is to try to play different ways and see what is most comfortable for you. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on strategy for lower buy-in tournaments with thousands of players.
The biggest advantage to playing the lower buy-in tournaments is that players are generally weaker. The downside is that you usually start with a low chip stack (1,500 in chips being typical).
My strategy for the early stages of one of these tournaments is simple: Accumulate as many chips as you can with as little risk as possible. Sounds easy, huh? In actuality, it really isn't that difficult.
A $1,500 starting stack leaves little room for error. As you play, take note of how your opponents play their hands. I group the players into four categories:
1. Tight, passive players -- typical at this level: They play very few hands and are timid about going broke. They sometimes bash other players at the table for playing poor cards or too many pots.
2. Loose calling stations -- most typical at this level: When you start limping into a lot of pots, they will follow suit and see many flops with you. These players are happy to give their money away quickly if the flop is a pair (and it doesn't even have to be top pair, either).
3. Tight, aggressive players -- more typical in the bigger buy-in tourneys: They don't see many flops, but when they do, they play aggressively and keep their opponents guessing. They play pots when in position and fold almost everything when out of position.
4. Loose, aggressive players -- typical at this level: These opponents will raise many pots, regardless of position. These players bluff almost uncontrollably, and they will often show their successful bluffs -- not necessarily to give away information to other players, but more to show the table how good they (think they) are.
What type of player am I? I try to be all four: I just change according to opponents and situations in the tournament. My base strategy is loose-aggressive; however, I pay more attention to position than do others who usually play in this style.
So now that you have studied your table some and determined the players you are sitting with, what comes next? My general rule is to play passively early, limping into a lot of pots preflop. During the early stages of these tournaments I am looking to capitalize on the loose calling stations. I tend to look for an early double-up by flopping a big hand and vastly overbetting it. If that kind of situation does not present itself, then I continually look for spots in which I can pick up pots cheaply.
Early on in these tournaments, I never bluff big. I let my opponents make mistakes and give me their chips. I will make small stabs at the pot, but will never risk a big portion of my chips trying to get a player to fold.
Some words to live by in these tournaments: Don't bluff bad players. The majority of the players are not good anyway, so let them make mistakes. As the tournament progresses, I will settle into one of the above styles, based on my table. I basically play to my table. If it looks loose, I play tight, and vice versa. Once antes kick in to the game, I usually kick my aggression up a notch and attempt to steal more blinds and the dead antes in the middle. Of course, don't play foolishly. However, you have to take more risks at this stage.
Another rule I play by comes into play as the tournament blinds increase. If 33 percent of my chips make their way into the pot deeper into the tournament, the other 67 percent will almost surely follow. Give yourself a chance to win. Committing a large portion of your chips and then folding is a surefire way to get stuck pushing in with ace- or king-high later.
This brings me to my next way to make chips in these tournaments: Look for opponents with small chip stacks -- say, 10 times the big blind or less. When stacks get this low, all-ins become common place. Way too often, players with a good chip stack will fold to the all-in short stack raise. Force yourself to call more loosely than you usually do in these situations, and two things will happen. One, you could bust out of tournaments sooner than normal, if the cards fall against you (obviously not good). However, the second possibility -- when the cards fall in your favor -- means you will win more tournaments, rather than just cashing.
Am I saying that poker is a game of luck? Of course not. Poker is a game of people, as was made evident earlier in the categorizing of opponents. Poker is also a game of odds. By calling more often in these situations, you increase your outcome variability, but in doing so you also increase your odds to win. That is the way to win at poker.
One final note on these low buy-in, huge tourneys: Often times finishing fifth is the same as finishing first (Nos. 1 to 5 can all have the same payoff of a seat to the event), so you don't have to win the tournament. You just should concentrate on placing in the top five. If you are high in chips with only a few players left, avoid playing pots and let the others wipe themselves out.
Best of luck in your satellites! See you in the 2008 main event.
Chris Moneymaker is the 2003 WSOP Champion and a part of Team PokerStars Pro. He plays exclusively at PokerStars.net, where you can play for your chance to make it to the WSOP.