Tournament Poker: Highway to the Danger Zone

Cards sit on a poker table as its prepared. Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP.

Poker commentator Joe Stapleton is famous for a lot of things. It’s almost impossible to talk about tournament poker without using one of Stapleton’s pet catchphrases – especially the “Danger Zone.”

Stapleton (whispering): Danger Zone~!

That’s right, Joe. There comes a time in nearly every No-Limit Texas Hold’em tournament when your stack dwindles down to somewhere around 30 big blinds.

This is a difficult position to be in; you’re no longer deep enough to open-raise and properly bet all three streets. You’re also not shallow enough to be in push/fold territory – that’s closer to 15 big blinds. So what can you do when you’re in the Danger Zone?

Stapleton (whispering): Danger Zone~!

Plenty, as it turns out. In our latest award-smelting poker article, we’ll show you how to survive the… Zone. Not just survive, but thrive. And we’ll show you how you can take advantage of other players who have fallen into the Zone. This is one of the best ways to accumulate chips in the middle to late stages of a tournament, and push yourself into the money. Maybe even big money.

When Danger Strikes

Once your stack has dropped to that dreaded 30 big blinds and you’re in the Zone, the most important thing to do is get out. You really, really need the leverage those extra 10 bigs gave you. Getting those chips and that leverage back is so important, this is one of the rare times in a tournament where you need to emphasize chip accumulation over survival. Be aggressive, not passive.

If you’re a super poker nerd who uses the M-ratio to count your chips instead of big blinds, you’ll probably be familiar with Dan Harrington. The 1995 World Series of Poker Main Event winner discussed this concept in his seminal book Harrington on Hold’em: Volume II, where he divided tournaments into zones based on how many M (or orbits around the table, counting both blinds and antes) you have left in your stack. The Yellow Zone (10-20M) is where the Danger lies in this case.

Turning the Tables

Poker is a lot more fun when it’s your opponents who are in the Zone, not you. Now you can use your leverage to make their lives even more miserable. When your target opponent opens, you can 3-bet with a much wider range of hands than usual; your opponent doesn’t really have enough depth here to 4-bet light, or profitably call with a speculative hand like small suited connectors or a low pocket pair. That means they’ll be open-folding a lot.

This poker strategy works even better when your opponent opens from late position. They’ll be doing this with a very wide range, one that you can exploit either pre-flop or post-flop with some aggressive raising.

Remember our last article about representing top pair? This is where that advanced bluff really comes in handy. You’ll get a lot more folds with this move than you will when your opponent has 60 bigs in their stack, or even 40.

Different poker players have different ways of playing, so you’ll still want to do a proper job of profiling your opposition before you get too aggressive in the Danger… make that the Yellow Zone. But now that you have the key to success, it’s time to channel Kenny Loggins, jump off the deck, and shove into overdrive.