The Zone System was first introduced by Dan Harrington in his highly acclaimed poker tournament strategy book Harrington on Hold'em, Volume II: The Endgame.
The system divides a poker tournament into 5 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.
Harrington's Green Zone: M of 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.
Yellow Zone: M of 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.
Orange Zone: M of 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.
Red Zone: M of 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).
Dead Zone: M 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.
Waiting for the "Right" Hand ... and Why It's the Wrong Strategy
When many players become short-stacked they start looking for one good hand. They decide to wait until they get the "right" hand and then try and double-up.
If they're successful they tighten up again and slowly begin to revert to the same position they were in before.
This type of strategy can be summarized by the familiar phrase:
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
The limitation of this strategy is that to succeed you need three things to occur.
- You need to find a suitably strong hand in the time frame required
- When you do find a hand you must get action (get all of your chips in)
- When you do get all of your chips in you actually still need to win the showdown
An alternative strategy more likely to be more successful in the long run is to identify situations that may be favorable or conducive to accumulating chips and try to focus more on them.
Button-Small Blind-Big Blind Play
Obviously, one of the most common of these situations is B-SB-BB play. Generally speaking, most players play too cautiously (and too passively as well) when they are in a B-SB-BB situation.
An extremely important element to successful poker tournament play is the ability to quickly and accurately assess the play (ability) of the players immediately around you.
Meaning specifically the players to your immediate left, who'll be in the blinds when you're on the button, and the players to your immediate right, who will be in the small blind or on the button when you are in the big blind (small blind).
If you're unable to pay attention to anyone else at the table, try to at least determine what these players are capable of and how they tend to react to various situations.
They are your bread and butter. If you can dominate the action against your neighbors, you have a good chance of making it deep into the money.
The Bubble Approacheth: Raise Away
When you're involved in a B-SB-BB situation and your poker tournament M is in that critical 8-15 range, it is important to be as aggressive as you can.
This is even more critical as you approach the money.
Despite the fact many players know intellectually to remain aggressive (or become even more aggressive) as the bubble approaches, the simple reality is they become preoccupied withthe potential to finish in the money and tend to play significantly more cautiously.
You must be able to identify these players and when you do, be absolutely ruthless. If they are willing to regularly give away their blinds (and the chips), it's your constitutional obligation to take them.
Against many of these players, simply pushing any two cards is the correct approach. You may wish to fold every once in a while though - just so it doesn't become totally obvious to your opponent(s) what you're doing.
After all, you don't want them to change their behavior.
The Limp Re-Raise: Another Useful Tool
In addition to simply raising far more often (which you should definitely be doing), another powerful technique to attempt against slightly more aggressive opponents is the limp re-raise.
If you attempt to limp re-raise and your opponent simply checks behind you, you get to see a flop. On the flop you can still make a move at the pot (assuming you don't actually hit your hand).
Remember, many opponents will be looking for a way to get away from the hand cheaply. If you miss the flop, you still have a good chance to take down the pot and you cannot afford to leave this dead money on the table.
Remember, you need to chip up if you want to win this thing.
Probe Bet on the Flop
To attempt this, make a probe bet on the flop. Or, if you're feeling cheeky, attempt to check-raise the flop. This will cause most players to fold everything but top pair.
Finally, you need to know who on your right is capable of trying to open light in an attempt to steal the blinds, but is also able to lay the hand down to a re-raise.
Against players like this you should be quite aggressive.
If you're able to successfully re-steal against a button or small blind raise, you'll pick up between 30-40% of your stack without seeing a flop - a fantastic result for you.
Words of Wisdom
Remember, in B-SB-BB confrontations, players will open the pot with a much wider range. Don't be afraid to move your chips into the middle. You have to be willing to commit all of your chips to the pot with hands that under more normal circumstances would be marginal at best.
If you think there's a reasonable chance your opponent will fold, or if you believe you're ahead of your opponent's range, be aggressive.
Harrington's Zone System: The Re-Steal
Many players tend to play too tight when facing an opening raise from late position (for simplicity's sake, let's assume any raise from the hijack, cut-off or button is considered late position).
Of course, when a player raises from under the gun, you usually need to show him a little respect. A raise from the cut-off, though, could represent a fairly wide range of hands. So whenever possible you want to be aggressive and try to go after the money already in the middle.
Imagine you have an M of 8 and are on the button with A-8 suited. Against a typical opponent, who raises to 3x the big blind from the cut-off, you have a fairly easy decision.
You should move all-in, unless you know for a fact the cut-off is very tight. Even hands that don't have an ace may be perfectly reasonable hands to make a move with. For example K-Q or K-J, or even possibly surprising hands such as J-T or 8-7 suited.
And although you prefer not to try a move with the smallest pocket pairs (22-44), all other pairs are strong enough to move in with.
Play to Win a Poker Tournament!
If you want to dramatically improve your tournament results, you must be playing to win. You may end up eliminating yourself just before the money - or just in the money - far more often than you did before.
But the chances you take will lead to considerably more final-table appearances, a much better chance of finishing in the top three positions and a much better chance of earning a big payday.
Remember, to make the correct decision about whether or not to try a re-steal, you must, at minimum, consider the following factors:
- Your opponent's probable range of hands
- The probability he'll fold to your re-raise
- How your hand will perform in a showdown if he calls
The more you can be dispassionate about the decision and separate the results from the process, the better your results become. If you can get in the habit of considering all of these factors analytically as opposed to emotionally you'll be on the road to improved results.
In tournament play, the real money is in the top three positions. Simply sneaking into the money will do little for your profitability in the long run.
Being more aggressive - especially when your stack creeps down into the 8-15 range - will pay off with more final-table finishes. And, you can hope, more tournament victories.