Tournament No-Limit Hold'em: Harrington's Zone System

The Zone System was first introduced by Dan Harrington in his highly acclaimed book Harrington on Hold'em, Volume II: The Endgame. The system divides a poker tournament into five different zones based on a player's stack size as compared to the blinds and antes. Each zone will affect your play and correct strategy will vary dramatically as a result. The ratio of your stack compared to the blinds and antes is referred to as your "M." For example: You have $750 in chips and the blinds are $25/$50 with no antes. This means that you have 10 times more than the starting pot and your M is 10.

The Green Zone: M is 20 or More

In the Green Zone all weapons are at your disposal and you can play in all different kinds of playing styles. This is the place to be but you must be careful to balance your play in a way that allows you to continue building your stack while simultaneously protecting it. You can afford to play in both a super conservative style as well as in a super aggressive style.

The Yellow Zone: M is 10-20

You can no longer play conservative (tight) poker. The blinds and antes are starting to hurt your stack and you must loosen up your play and take more risks. Certain types of hands become less playable, such as small pairs and small suited connectors. This is because these hands now lack the implied odds necessary to turn a profit: The stacks have to be big in order to achieve this.

The Orange Zone: M is 6-10

You have now lost the ability to make more advanced moves. For example, you can't come over the top against a raise and a re-raise because, even if you make an all-in raise, your bet will not be big enough to discourage a call from even the weakest of hands.

Your main concern is to be first in whenever you decide to play (unless you have a monster hand like AA-QQ and A-K). You must try to preserve your chips for an all-in move, such as an all-in re-raise when you are in the big blind and suspect a steal. This means that you should not make marginal calls in the big blind or small blind, or limp in with drawing hands the way you could when you were in the Green or Yellow zone.

The Red Zone: M is 1-5

Your only move is basically to move all-in. Even if you make the minimum raise you are pot committed and can't get away from the hand. If your M is 3 or less then you will most likely be called by any two cards when you make your all-in raise. Small pairs and small suited connectors are again playable but only as a means to making an all-in move. You need to steal as many blinds and antes as possible and hope to get lucky if you are called (most likely you will be the underdog) or pick up a monster hand and hopefully get called.

If you are first in and sitting in a late position you can move all-in with plenty of hands; AA-22, any two cards 10 or bigger, A-x, K-x, Q-x, any suited connector, and any connector if your M is 3 or less (such as 9-8 off-suit and the like).

The Dead Zone: M is less than 1

As implied by the heading, you are as good as out of the tournament and every move you make will be instantly called. You need a lot of luck to get back into the tournament. The most important thing to consider is your play before you enter the Dead Zone. If you have blinded yourself down to this position then you have made a mistake. You should only end up in the Dead Zone by losing a big pot when your stack was bigger than it is now and your opponent had slightly less chips than you had.

You should make your move when you are first in and before the big blind arrives (this means moving in with any two cards when a first-in opportunity arises). This way you at least have some chance of getting the pot heads-up against a random hand.

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kevin currie 2012-02-28 08:44:27

I am in bovada 100K sunday trny and for 5 hours the best hand i get is A/10s....what do you do??

Arty Smokes 2011-05-31 20:18:25

Jack Straus knows all about M and the deadzone. You can't have a lower M than "a chip and a chair" and still be alive. His story gives hope to anyone who has suffered a bad beat early in a tournament and been left with almost nothing, but he needed a miracle to go on to win. I doubt we'll ever have another WSOP champion that makes such a comeback.

If I'm playing a tournament, I really hate getting KK, QQ, or AK in the first few hands. I don't fold them, but I don't play them half as confidently as I do once I've settled in better. They say "No guts, no glory", but I just hate risking everything when the tourney has only just begun.

icd 2010-09-15 22:54:22

Yes, don't give up in the dead zone. Once in a live tournament, I was on the final table (~6 people left) when I lost a huge pot. I had 1.5 big blinds left, and I was supposed to be in the big blind the very next hand. I thought - that's it, I'm done. But then I got dealt KK which held up, quadrupling my stack. I then proceeded to win the tournament.

Sean Lind 2010-02-08 21:03:54

Tom,

You're folding all the long-odds hands. Small pocket pairs are only useful if you hit a set, and can get paid out in full when you do. You don't have enough chips to be limp/folding, and you have too many chips to be open-shipping with something like 33.

So you fold, if you're playing this system.

Tom 2010-02-07 07:01:25

In the yellow zone it says that you must play looser but also get rid of starting hands like small pocket pairs if you are playing less conservative wouldn't you want to add hands not subtract them

stu 2009-10-30 04:36:00

Been using the system for years. Every system requires some tweaking to fit the individual's manner of paly and the table situation based upon information gathered at the table.

The only thing that I have found, for me, is that in the red zone, I usally will hold out a little longer for a good starting hand. I havve had good success with PATIENCE.

joe 2009-04-30 01:19:00

Don't give up dead zone's. I had M of 4 mid way thourgh a 500 player MTT. I was lucky enough to be dealt big slick (AK) and moved in, quadroupled up (not sure of spelling) and ended up coming second in the tourney.... SLUUUUUUUUUUUURP

Erwin 2008-05-18 17:36:00

Brent,

I don't know if you're responding to a comment or the article (the comments aren't ordered by date).

The point is that in the red zone, your chances of surviving in the tournament are already small.

Combine that with the fact that you're only a really big underdog to another hand if that hand is a pair, moving in as the first player makes sense with that kind of stack.

It works much better if the table is short handed (ie. the final table or sit-and-go tournaments) than on a full table, but on a full table your chances of survival with a small stack are already minimal.

Sean Lind 2008-05-15 23:23:00

Although this article is old, it's still dead-on accurate.

What you're saying is indeed correct, Harrington goes on to talk about how First in vigor is more important than the strength of your hand. I.E it's better to push all in with 45, than to call an all in with A10.

But I think the most important lesson he teaches is this "It's better to take a risk, or gamble to keep yourself in the green zone, then to let yourself get down the read and be forced to take a gamble"

Brent 2008-05-14 18:26:00

You must be speaking about freerolls or micro stakes tournaments. If there was several other people in a pot FOLD. If you are willing to put your hole tournament life on the line for pot odds that you might only be playing to win or your crazy.

Crazy means you also stupid.

If you are playing to only win the tournament i.e. a sat where only the winner gets anything that I completely understand.

This M stuff makes working with a stack a lot easier down the stretch than just XBB stuff.

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