Dara O’Kearney: Playing the business end of satellites

Online satellite expert Dara O’Kearney explains why it’s vital to play tight at the business end of a major satellite

Five years ago when I turned full-time, a lot of the early hay I made came in online satellites. My first six-figure year on PokerStars was largely down to the fact that they introduced ‘3x’ satellites and people had no idea how to play them. The main reason sit-and-go grinders like myself prospered was our understanding of Independent Chip Modelling, more commonly known as ICM. This is a basic model used to calculate a player’s equity in a tournament, using stack sizes to predict how often a player will finish first, second and so on. The general playing public lacked even the most basic understanding of this key concept in flat payout structures such as satellites.

Fast-forward a few years and you are far less likely to see guys calling it off with pocket Eights on the direct bubble. Even recreational players understand the importance of tightening up and not calling all-in late on in a satellite. However, there is one ICM mistake I still see a lot of players making, even good regs.

Open ranges

As stacks get shallow (sub-20BBs), most good players realize the importance of having three separate opening ranges:

  1. The strongest hands. These are strong enough to raise and then call a shove with. This is referred to as ‘inducing’ because you raise these hands hoping to induce a shove rather than just take the blinds.
  2. The weakest hands you can profitably open. These are not strong enough to call a shove so you raise hoping to win with little or no resistance.
  3. Hands which fall between the other two. These are too strong to raise/fold but too weak to raise/call. These hands are open-shoved to maximise fold equity.

These ranges are interlinked. The more strong hands you have in category (1) the more weaker hands you can profitably open in category (2). Getting the balance right is referred to as ‘being balanced’.

If you open far too many weak hands hoping to steal the blinds, perceptive players behind will pick up on this and reshove a very wide range in the knowledge that you generally can’t call. This is one of the most common mistakes I see recreational players making late on, as they raise/fold their way out of contention. You can also be unbalanced the other way: some players are so fearful of having to raise/fold more than 10% of their stack that they only open very strong hands. They are very easy to play against. Perceptive players will simply fold all but the strongest hands preflop. These players may never raise/fold themselves out the door, but will often blind themselves out in that direction.

In extreme ICM situations such as satellite bubbles, more and more of the inducing range moves into the open-shove range. The reason for this is the same reason why your calling ranges tighten up: it’s generally an ICM disaster to find yourself in a race at this point, or even a 60/40 or 80/20. Yet many good MTT regs don’t seem to realise this.

A knock-on effect to more and more hands moving from being raised to open-shoving is that the raise/fold range shrinks dramatically too. Because you can so rarely call a reshove due to ICM you have to be far more selective with your steals. You can’t afford to continue to open a very wide range of hands that can’t call a shove if perceptive players are aware of this and playing back at you.

Don’t be a Jack-off

Such a situation arose recently in an online UKIPT satellite on PokerStars. With five level stacks (all in the 15 to 20BB zone) battling it out for four equal prizes, ICM was extreme. It folded to a reg on the button and he opened. Playing with this guy every night, I know he continues to open a very wide range in these spots, most of which he will fold to a reshove. I decided Sixes were good enough and went with it. Unfortunately for me he had Jacks and held.

Obviously getting it in 20/80 is a horrible outcome, but the real winners at the table were the three guys who had already folded.

At the start of the hand, given the equal nature of the stacks and the fact that there are five of us chasing four equal prizes, everyone’s chances of being one of the four is approximately 80%. When I pile my Sixes into his Jacks, my chances plummet from 80% to 20%. Now consider my opponent. His chances go from 80% to, well, 80%. And this is the best case scenario for him. If I make this move with a hand like K-Q (which I would obviously fold if he just open shoves) he suddenly finds himself flipping for a ticket. Even if I make the move with A-7 his chances actually decrease. Heck, even if I go mental with 5-4 suited, they decrease. So inducing in this spot with a hand like Jacks is a clear mistake.

So remember, the closer you get to the bubble in a satellite, the less inclined you should be to induce. In even more extreme situations there may be no inducing range – even Aces might just be a shove!


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