This is an excerpt from the Mental Game chapter of Poker Satellite Strategy by Dara O’Kearney and Barry Carter (with guest insights from yours truly).
There is nothing more brutal in poker than a satellite bubble.
Over the years I have had to do a lot of mental health counselling with students who play a lot of satellites, because the all-or-nothing nature of them is hard to take from a mental game perspective. All tournament bubbles hurt, but the fact all the prizes are of equal value in satellites makes bubbling them so much more painful. Bubbling a regular tournament hurts too, but you were never playing for the mincash, so you can easily and correctly justify ‘going out swinging’ to yourself because in the long term the move that caused your elimination may also be the move that another time helps you win the whole tournament. Plus the mincash in a regular tournament is usually only around double your buy-in, whereas in a satellite it is often five, ten or twenty times your entry fee. So it is important to point out in these pages the mental game issues satellites expose, because you will encounter them. Whatever mental game issues you already have in tournaments will be amplified in satellites.
I don’t want to go into a deep dive into how to resolve these mental game issues. For that I would point you to The Mental Game of Poker by Jared Tendler which I am a big fan of (but to point out an obvious bias where this is concerned, my co-author Barry is also the co-author of that book). I also often point my students to Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman which has a large section on cognitive biases that will impact your own mental game issues. However, it is useful right now to point out some of the mental game issues you will encounter in satellites, so you can pre-empt them, recognise them for what they are, seek help to resolve them and also so you know you are not alone as most poker players experience these problems in super satellites.
One final point before we get to the specific issues is that 90% of mental game problems like this can be overcome with experience. The more you understand satellite strategy, the easier it is to recognise when you got unlucky or when you made a mistake. Although he has a vested interested in fixing mental game issues, Jared Tendler also says this early in his book, that improving technical knowledge is usually the best way to prevent tilt. So before you jump to the conclusion that you need a Shrink, spend some time reviewing your hands and maybe practicing all-or-nothing bubbles in Double or Nothing SNGs to solidify your strategy. Beyond that, these are the mental game issues you will encounter in satellites:
There is only one size of prize in satellites, you don’t get more money for finishing with a big stack and therefore it’s not worth taking crazy risks. From the start of the tournament you have had your eye on one prize, and one prize only. This makes the end of a satellite a very binary affair, you either won it or you didn’t. Not only is it really disappointing to lose in a satellite, it is borderline humiliating when you are one of the last few players to exit without a prize. This goes double in a live satellite when everybody is hugging and high fiving each other as you make the loneliest walk ever out of the card room (there is actually often a great sense of camaraderie in live tournament bubbles, especially in live satellite bubbles, which are emotionally frustrating to not see out to a fulfilling conclusion).
Then you have the fact that satellite bubbles are often long and gruelling. If you have locked up a seat you might be left stalling and folding for several hours until the tournament is over. It can really feel like wasted time when you don’t get over the line.
It’s not just the lost prize and wasted time that hurts, it’s the missed future opportunity. If you are playing a satellite for a major live event like the WSOP, you start to get excited about the event while you are nearing the money bubble of the satellite. My friend and Chip Race Podcast co-host David Lappin once foolishly started looking at flights to Punta Cana while he was still in a satellite which ended up really stressing him out when he took a bad beat and was left short stacked. The sense of disappointment can often go beyond the 24 hour period the satellite was played in, all the way to having to watch the live updates for the destination event at home weeks later, lamenting the fact you ‘should have been there’.
We are lucky enough that Jared Tendler of the aforementioned Mental Game of Poker took some time out to address this particular issue for us:
“You are not going to be able to take away the pain of bubbling a satellite. It really is one of the more extreme situations poker will throw at you. The best you can hope for is recovery. How can you recover faster from this setback than you would have otherwise? For every hour that this disappointment continues to sting you, you will be missing opportunities to improve as a player and it is more likely the ‘emotional hangover’ from bubbling will affect how you play in the future.
As Dara has suggested, the best way to overcome satellite bubble disappointment is to develop a better understanding of satellite strategy. That will take away any uncertainty about whether you made the right play when you were eliminated. What I would also suggest is that you write out what I call ‘logic statements’ and ‘strategic reminders’ based on the theory in this book. List out the lessons you have not quite internalised yet as well as the areas where you need to improve in satellites. For example, if you play too tight on the bubble, make a note of that, or if you induce too much when you should be open shoving more hands, write that down too. Think of it as a letter to your future self. It’s there to remind yourself of the correct play under pressure. It won’t take the pain away, but it will start you on the road to recovery sooner.”
Once players have internalised how brutal satellite bubbles are, it creates a secondary problem that they play less than optimally a long way out from the bubble. This usually manifests in the form of folding too much. This is tricky strategically to balance, because most of the advice in satellites revolves around playing less hands, so it becomes easy to justify it to yourself to fold too much. It is true that taking the lower variance line is usually correct, but there are some spots that are too good to pass up and folding too much makes it more likely you blind out and bubble.
Often my students come to me with justifications as to why they folded too much, which I will ask them to back up. In spots where you normally would shove wide I advise them to tighten up if the players behind call too much. My students will therefore claim their opponents call too much, which I ask them to back up by showing me HUD stats or previous hands where that has been shown to be the case. I’d advise you do the same. After the satellite go back into your hand histories and HUD stats and challenge your own assumption that you made a correct fold. Unless it is a much deeper mental game issue, the best remedy will be to get back in the lab and study how you should have played the hands.
Jared Tendler again:
To begin with, before you get to those big bubble decisions that can really paralyse you, it is likely that you make smaller, less consequential, risk averse decisions earlier on in the tournament. It could be as simple as folding a hand where you got really good odds to see a flop, or betting half pot for value when you should bet 2/3rds pot. It is much easier to spot and correct these smaller decisions where there is less risk than it is to force yourself to be brave in the all-or-nothing spots. By correcting the smaller decisions, you will train yourself better for the bigger ones.
Beyond that, when reviewing your play afterwards and during crucial bubble spots, you have to factor in the risk of not doing something. It may seem incredibly risky to shove into two stacks that cover you on the stone bubble, but the long term cost of inaction can sometimes be even greater, it’s just not as painful in the moment. You are also costing yourself important experience which you need to become a better player.
Finally, and especially if the problem is just purely on the bubble itself and not the build up, ask yourself what you are really afraid of? It is always more than just the money itself, and as the bubble in satellites are so harsh often it can be things like not wanting to look stupid or embarrassing yourself. When you know what you fear besides just losing money, it makes it easier in the moment to give yourself a pep talk and push past it.
Unable to Adjust to Regular Tournaments
We mentioned at the outset of this book that there is a perception that ‘good satellite players are bad normal MTT regulars’, which hopefully we have quashed by now. However, it is worth noting that if the only format you are playing regularly is satellites, then there is a chance that you will play too tight when you play in the target events. Everything will look like a fold, especially near the bubble, and you will play too tight to accumulate chips to make a final table run. Also look out for open shoving too much with 20+ big blind stacks, not defending enough and presuming people will fold as often than they do in satellites.
This is a leak of your study away from the tables more than anything, because if you are devoting an appropriate amount of time to study your play in regular MTT tournaments you should be able to adjust accordingly to other formats. So play more normal MTTs and devote more study time to them if this sounds like you. I’d also suggest you throw some PKO tournaments in there to really jolt yourself out of the satellite mindset, because often they are the complete opposite of satellite strategy, where you should be calling much wider, sometimes even wider than ChipEV.
This is an exclusive excerpt from the Mental Game chapter that I contributed to in Poker Satellite Strategy written by Dara O’Kearney and Barry Carter. You can buy it now on Amazon. If you purchase the book then email email@example.com with proof of purchase and say that ‘Jared sent you’ you can get a free video which demonstrates how to do one of the complex ICM calculations in the book.