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Tournament strategy:
the Harrington system

If you’re an avid online poker player, and tournaments are where you make the most of your money, you’ve probably already taken note of what I’m about to discuss in this article, on your own.

There are certain stages in a tournament (whether it’s a STT or a MTT we’re talking about) when the proportional relation between the size of your stack and the SB+BB clearly influences the actions you should undertake, in one way or another.

What Dan Harrington did, was to clearly define five such “zones” – as he called them – and establish a clear “to do” list for each of these five situations. He also introduced the variable M which is expressed by the following formula:


To make things easier to understand, we’ll also introduce the variable X in this article, which is basically the size of your chip-stack.

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Here’s a countdown of the five typical situations described by Harrington, with recommendations on what you should do in each of them:

1) X=20*M. (you have 20 times the amount of the BB+SB in your stack). This is the situation, you want to be in all the time, during a tourney. This situation will allow you to control the action, as it will leave every option open for you. You’ll be able to play it extremely tight (in order to protect your stack) or lash out at opponents, forcing them to make mistakes. You’ll be able to trap opponents by check-raising them, you’ll be a force to be reckoned with at the table. The main challenge you’ll be faced with under these circumstances, is to keep adding to your stack without putting it in harm’s way, unnecessarily.

2) X=(10~20)*M (you have somewhere between 10-20 Ms in your stack) It’s still not bad, however, your options are starting to narrow down. This is the stage that will spur most rookies into doing something stupid. That’s because you can no longer afford to play defensively, you need to win something fast. Most mistakes occur under pressure, so you’d better be very sharp when looking for a way out of this situation.

Loosen up, give yourself more chances, but keep an eye on your implied odds, especially those that come with low pairs.

3) X=(6~10)*M (you have between 6-10 Ms left in your X)

This is where things are staring to get uncomfortable. You see, with just 6Ms left in your stack, you shall begin to feel the domination of the larger stacks around the table. No longer will you be able to scare anyone into folding his hand, simply because – at this stage – the cookie monster looks about 10 times more intimidating than you. Forget about coming over the top against a re-raise.

You need to find a way to use the fact that you no longer scare anybody, to your advantage. Try to make a move that looks like a bluff on a monster hand. Do not commit on rags, or you’ll be out of there before you can say “C is for cookie”

4) If your X=(1~5)*M, you’re hurting bad. The knife has practically cut to the bone, and you need to do something or you’ll find yourself “amputated” from the table very soon.

Be aware that the only move you’ll be able to make, is the all-in, which gets some pretty nasty odds in tournament poker. That’s just it, bad as it is, it’s the only solution you have left. Pick the hand you commit on, very carefully weighing in the size of the opposition (no. of players) you’re faced with. Commit on pocket pairs, suited connectors, and high-cards seconded by just about anything. This may sound desperate, but desperate times call for desperate measures, so there you have it…

5) X<M (you have less than an M in your X) This means, the number of hands you’ll see in this tourney are very clearly numbered. You see, the X/M value, will give you exactly the number of times you’ll be able to afford the two blinds to pass over you. Since that is smaller than 1 in this case, you draw the conclusions.

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This is what I call “with your back against the wall”. You see the blinds approaching, and you’re desperately looking around for a straw to cling to. That straw can be anything from a A,x, K,x or any pair, to a Q,10 or something of the sort. It may not be much, but then again, it may be the best thing for you yet.

Don’t wait for the BB to come upon you. Make your move and choose the circumstances carefully. This is where most players get things wrong and commit on a hand they never should’ve touched. Going for “full value” as they call it, they look for a bunch of limpers in front of them, when they commit. Well, news-flash: each and every one of those limpers is delivering a further blow to your already precarious odds. Under the circumstances, that’s about the last thing you need.

Look for a raiser ahead, who makes everyone fold, or at least most of the other players. That’ll provide the best odds for your flimsy hand. Forget about “full value”. You’re in no position to chase after such things.

by Jim Jackson

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