Bubble Play in Top Two Pay Satellites – A Comprehensive Guide (Part One)

Justin Howell
Satellite Bubble Strategy

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There are several nuances to satellite play, so for the beginning player it can be a bit tough to know where to start. We’re of the mind that if you can only study one part of satellite player, you might as well study the part that is (arguably) the most important – bubble play. While each satellite has a different payout structure, a very common structure for single table satellites is that only top two pay (or top two pay the most significant amounts) – this is the payout structure for PokerStars Steps satellites (and most Steps tournaments offered by other sites) and is also a popular structure for single table tournaments at the WSOP.

Rather than cover every possible bubble dynamic then, we’ll focus on three handed play situations where the top two players receive equivalent prizes. In this article, we’ll break down three handed play by position. In each position, we’ll look at situations divided along a spectrum of how you should play, from very loose to very tight.

A couple of caveats: as with any advice, the below is based on a generalized picture of a typical opponent. Your opponents may be much tighter or much looser; our models are based on players who have some knowledge of proper SNG play and are generally TAG. It would be a pretty massive undertaking to account for every variation based on opponent type. While we’ll note some adjustments here and there, the basic rule of thumb is this: if a player is tighter, you should be raising them more and calling them less; if a player is very loose you should be calling them more and raising them less.

We also don’t cover play where stacks are deeper than 12BBs effective, which they rarely are when you’re at this point in a satellite. What that means is that we’re only considering decisions where you’re shoving all in or folding (or calling an all in shove). We’re also not considering decisions where there is both a raise and a call in front of you (that will be tackled in another article).

Whenever we cite specific raise or call percentages, we’re drawing on calculations performed by the excellent ICM software Sit N Go Wizard. SNGWiz has a fully functioning 30 day trial that we strongly suggest checking out (review and link here). As awesome as the software is, however, it doesn’t do much to incorporate game dynamics, so you have to consider for yourself if some unique game dynamic (the SB is walking you way too often, the other two players seem eager to play pots against each other, etc) should override the ‘proper’ decision from an ICM perspective. Our hand %s are also drawn from SNGWiz.

Finally, these are just general guidelines. For every ‘rule’ we cite below, you can likely find a handful of scenarios that are exceptions. The point of this article isn’t to tell you what to do in every possible situation – rather, it’s to outline proper play in a variety of situations in an attempt to get you thinking about the unique logic that applied to satellite bubble play.
Let’s get started with play UTG. Three handed, UTG is the button, so you only have one decision – shove or fold.

Considering your play from very loose to very tight:

Very Loose (70-100% of hands)
When you’re in third place, you should generally be playing very loose from the button. While it might not seem like optimal position, consider: it gives you pretty good leverage on the SB and (in most chip configurations) puts the BB in a tough spot. Even if they have you doubled in chips, the last thing they want to do is double you up, as that will basically result in them swapping places with you. Raising the button also takes advantage of the fact that players tend to be much looser when raising than when calling, and this is the one spot where you’re guaranteed to get to open the action. Finally, you need to get chips somewhere. Even if you have a 12BB stack, it’s going to get eaten up pretty quickly three handed, as a 12BB stack generally has an effective M of 2-3, and compared to your alternatives, the button looks like a pretty attractive spot: in the BB, you’re likely to get shoved on very wide by one of the players in front, and you’re rarely going to have a hand strong enough to call. In the SB, you have to worry about the button shoving first, and you also have to contend with a BB that’s likely to give far less respect to you SB raise than they would to your button raise.

You can also play the button very loosely when you have a large chip lead, the SB and BB are in a close fight for second and the blinds are high – especially if doubling up an opponent would still leave you in a pretty solid first. The logic is that you need the chips, to some extent, and both the blinds are likely to play pretty tightly. Even if they don’t and you lose, you’ll still be in fine shape to cruise into the money.

Here are a few scenarios where SNG Wiz suggests pushing 100% of hands:

When you have 4-8BBs and are in distant 3rd place
When you have 10BBs and are facing stacks of 40BB / 15BB behind
When you have 10BBs and are in a close race for 2nd with the BB
When you have 14BBs and the SB and BB both have about 3.5 BBs

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