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One of the options presented when trying to join a full server is:

Auto-Retry → Alert me when a player slot is available on the server

I have, however, never really received any kind of alert from this service. Am I looking in the wrong place? Do I want to use Steam's server browser rather than the ingame one, perhaps?

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There's a small audio blip, but no other visual response. It's pretty distinctive, and it indicates that a server slot is open. If you've also checked "join as soon as a slot is available" you'll both hear the bleep, and then steam will start to load the game (if you're not in the game already) or simply begin to transfer to the server (if you are).

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I take it I won't hear it if I tabbed out of the game, though? Chat does keep sonar-bleeping on chat messages when I tab out... –  badp Apr 7 '11 at 19:04
    
@fail badp - I don't know, I've only used the option when I'm not in a game to begin with or non-tabbed out, as TF2 tends to crash when I alt-tab it. –  Raven Dreamer Apr 7 '11 at 19:15
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