In a satellite tournament (also called feeders or qualifiers), everyone who cashes gets an entry into a bigger tournament rather than being paid according to their finish position. They can be an excellent way for someone on a small bankroll to get into bigger tournaments, but can also be played for their cash value, as well. I'm going to give you some basic rules for playing in them, as well as teaching you how to turn tickets into cash rather than an entry.
It All Pays the Same
The first key to playing satellites efficiently is remembering that first place gets the same amount as everyone else who cashes. In a normal tournament, proper play denotes that you must amass chips in order to work your way past the lowest payouts and get up to a top three finish where the majority of the prize money resides. In a satellite, this is not the case. If you get into the money with one chip or a million, you're going to win the same thing: one seat into a bigger tournament. What does this mean?
Tight is Right
Very tight play is the correct strategy in both the beginning and middle portions of satellite tournaments. With no burning need to gather chips, there is no reason to take any risks. Keep your starting hands to premium holdings even in late position (stick to the top five on the linked list), and don't play a big pot without a big hand.
More People Get Paid
In a normal tournament, typically ten percent of the field gets paid. In a satellite, it is often more. In a recent satellite I played for an entry into a Mid-States Poker Tour Main Event, 20% of the field got an entry. This makes it much satellites much easier to cash in when you're used to playing down to half that number. Again, this means less of a need to get a big pile of chips to survive late game play.
Eventually You'll Need to Play a Hand
That's the nature of all tournaments: eventually you're going to have to put some chips at risk. If you haven't picked up a hand or haven't had any hands paid off, eventually you have to play. Keep a close eye on how many people need to go out and what the average stack is. If there are only one or two people left before you get paid, half an average stack will usually be enough to get in. Stick with very tight play. But if there are a lot of people to go, and your stack has less than 10 to 12 big blinds in it, start pushing all in whenever you're first to act in late or middle position and have any kind of hand.
Find the Brakes!
If you've pushed in once or twice and haven't been called, be sure to recount how many blinds are in your stack. You're probably back up into a safe range and can "put on the brakes." Go back to tight play until you're forced into action again. Remember, in a satellite, you don't need to thrive, you only need to survive.
Do I Have to Play the Bigger Tournament?
Nope. Find where the cardroom is signing people up for the bigger tournament, and offer your ticket up for sale at a slight discount. It is a very common practice, especially among lower limit professional players. Most won't play a tournament they're not bankrolled for, no matter whether they won there way in or not, because once they've won the ticket and can convert it into cash, it is a part of their bankroll. But for the recreational player, satellites provide an excellent way to move up the ranks and experience the thrill of high-stakes tournament play for a fraction of the price.