Thoughts on Poker: How to Grow Poker’s Popularity and Global Appeal Part 1: Satellites

Keith Woernle : July 11th, 2016

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“It turned out it was a satellite where the winner earned entry into another satellite where the top three finishers would get a seat in the World Series of Poker Main Event. To be honest, I didn’t know it was a satellite. If I knew I never would have played it.” – Chris Moneymaker

If you’re reading this, then you already know all about Chris Moneymaker. You know he won a satellite that got him into a bigger satellite that got him his Main Event seat that got him millions of dollars and his own chapter in poker history. That win, that impossible win, changed things for all of us. And the catalyst that started it all was a satellite.

Sometime in the late 1970’s, Poker Hall of Fame member Eric Drache created the satellite system for entering poker tournaments. Players entered a smaller tournament for a fraction of the cost of the main tournament. If they were fortunate enough to win, they’d earn their spot in the main tournament. He believed the WSOP should grow every year and that this was a great way to build it. He was right.

But now at many venues this system has changed. Because of regulations, ideologies, or simple ease, one tiny factor has changed in satellites – the factor of choice.

Many establishments now give players the option to take cash for their victory. The satellite is no longer a required-entry satellite. And that option, that tiny little detail, has changed everything. Here’s why.

1. Satellites, without required tournament entry, aren’t really satellites at all. They are simply tournaments whose first place prize is equivalent to the buy-in of another tournament.

To put it simply, satellites are no longer satellites when the player has the option to take the money. If a player wins an $1,100 sit-n-go satellite, many establishments or sites pay him either with cash or, in casinos specifically, with lammers. Lammers are of course tournament chips or tournament dollars. But $10k in lammers can be traded for $10,000 in cash very, very easily. So has that player played a satellite at all or rather just a $1k tournament or sit-n-go where first place was $10k? You can label it however you want. But in no way is it any different from a regular tournament, except the structure may be worse and there may be a group of equal winners if it’s an MTT.

2. Satellites let the dreamers still realistically dream.

Who amongst us actually daydreams of having a solid cash game session? Or winning a sit-n-go? Occasionally, but it’s simply for a small cash boost. Those dreams are casual. Those are hopes.

But people do dream of winning tournaments. They dream of hoisting up a trophy, or ring, or bracelet. They dream of shaking Mike Sexton’s hand or having Jack Effel read their name over the PA in the Rio.

Let’s take a regular Joe named Tommy. Let’s suppose Tommy’s net worth is $500, and he wins a five dollar, 10,000-person tournament online that gives him a seat or package into the WSOP Main Event. This is a dream come true for Tommy. However, if given the option of whether to play or take the money, Tommy should probably take the money (especially if he is aware of his own amateur status). If he plays he is now putting 95% of his new net worth into one tournament.

This also assumes that Tommy isn’t beholden to anyone. If Tommy has a wife or kids or medical bills, many would agree it would be incredibly misguided for him to enter a poker tournament where only ~15% of players make the money. The rewards are high, but the risks far outweigh them.

Let’s say Tommy does convince his wife and himself to take that $10,000 and 95% of his net worth to play in the tournament; and let’s say he doesn’t cash. It seems rather unlikely that either Tommy or his wife would let him repeat this mistake again should Tommy satellite into the WSOP in a subsequent year.

So, in Tommy’s mind, there is no situation where he can play the Main Event. He would need a net worth of at least six figures before he risked $10k of it on one tournament. And there is no reason to think he is suddenly going to come into that much money. Tommy knows that even if he enters a satellite and wins, he’s not going to let himself play in the Main Event. As much as he craves the opportunity to take a shot, he knows it’s fiscally irresponsible.

But if he’s required to play, the way Chris Moneymaker was required to play, then maybe he will become the next Moneymaker. Because Moneymaker, if you recall, tried to take the cash instead of the ticket. One that became a golden ticket.

3. Required-entry satellites themselves create more satellite players.

This is related to my second point, but many players, even if they want to play the Main Event, won’t enter satellites.  As I mentioned before, satellites that don’t require entries aren’t really satellites at all. And if a player knows ahead of time that this $500 satellite is in reality a $500 MTT with a worse structure, then maybe that player will just a play a regular low-limit tournament instead (and if he makes a big score, then consider playing the Main). If he’s going to take the money anyway, why would he play a tournament that likely has less chips and a worse structure?

So to summarize, many players will not enter satellites in the first place because there’s no longer any incentive to do so.

4. Required-entry satellites pour a larger number of less experienced, amateur players into the field.

Because that’s who plays satellites. And everyone, pros and amateurs alike, should want more amateurs at the table. As a blanket statement, the best players are not satelliting into tournaments. If you’ve ever played a $125 satellite at the Rio during the summer, you can probably attest to this. In short, satellites allow softer players into tournaments. And pros and amateurs alike should prefer this.

Required-entry satellites will also increase the overall numbers of the respective tournaments they feed into. And, as I’ll discuss with the Tournament Virtuous Cycle, big tournament numbers lead to even bigger numbers in subsequent years.

5. Required-entry satellites leave no regrets.

If players must enter the tournaments they’ve satellited into, then when those players bust out short of the money, they no longer feel as if they’ve lost significant money.

I know I’m repeating myself a little here, but under many current systems, winning a satellite does little practical difference than raising the winner’s net worth. If one wins a WSOP entry tournament on a poker site, and that poker site credits the winners account with $12,000 and a note that says “please play this tournament,” the winner has actually just won a small tournament for $12k. His or her decision of what to do with that $12k is then entirely up to them and completely separate from the satellite system.

And if that player chooses to use that newfound wealth to play the Main Event and busts, that player is filled with terrible regret. He or she will think of all the things that money could have been used for. Conversely, if a player chooses to keep the money, he or she may always look back and wonder “what if.” What if I had taken a shot that one time? Maybe it would have indeed been his or her ‘one time.’

Re-watch the 2004 and 2005 World Series of Poker. Watch season 2 of the World Poker Tour. The amateur players eliminated shake it off with a smile and a shrug. This was so much more about the experience and opportunity than the money. Satellites made it about the experience.

Again, if a player whose net worth is $50,000 wins a $500 satellite for a $10k seat, and can take the money, his new net worth is now simply $60,000.  However, if required to play, his net worth is $50,000 + one Main Event Tournament Ticket that has no cash value. So, this player, if he or she fails to cash in the tournament, as the majority will, has now only lost $500 instead of $10,000. This difference is essential in painting his or her experience.

“Well, I had to play. I had no other choice,” this person will tell themselves.

In fact this forced decision is almost freeing to the player. He or she is not filled with regret for what the $10,000 could have done for their family or business. They only lost $500. And in no way, under no circumstance, could they have lost more or less than $500.

And for only $500 (or $50 or $1 or whatever the satellite may be), a player can have the experience of going to Las Vegas (some for the first time), staying at a nice hotel on the strip, eating and drinking well, shaking hands with Daniel Negreanu and Joe Hachem, and bluffing Johnny Chan in a big pot.

There are so, so many amateurs that easily think playing in the WSOP Main Event and busting is worth $500 – just for the experience and the story. But far fewer think it’s worth the full $10,000.

- -

Outside of the reemergence of online poker, I firmly believe that nothing else is more important to the growth of poker than satellites. Luckily, many places still do have required-entry satellites. The Bay 101, for example, has their satellite winners automatically register for the big WPT Shooting Star event there. Players can therefore only keep their satellite winnings if they win a subsequent satellite. I believe this to be the truly optimal system, and it seems to work great at that venue. Also, I obviously don’t know how the satellite system works for every casino and poker site. All I know and believe are that required-entry satellites make poker bigger and better for everyone.

Satellites are the chance to dream of something more. But that dream can only become reality when entry is required.

Thanks for reading, guys. There are many more of these articles to come. Let me know your own thoughts and views and where we blend or clash on ideas. Thanks again and good luck out there.

Keith Woernle is a writer, comedian, and semi-pro poker player based out of New Jersey. He was a producer for season 10 of the World Poker Tour. He won a WSOP circuit ring in 2011. He likes poker a lot. Follow or contact him on twitter @WoernlePoker.

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