In this Article
  • The M-factor and effective M
  • The zone system
  • Why you should never end up in the dead zone

Many players know the famous book series Harrington on Hold’em. This article will discuss a concept Harrington presents, which presents an easy system for defining your position in a multi-tabletournament (MTT). This system is called the M-factor, Magriel's M, often simply called "M" by many players, and is based on the following formula:

M = stack / (SB + BB + Antes)

This formula indicates how many orbits you could survive without playing a single hand. The formula, as seen above, simply divides your stack size by the amount of chips in the pot before any action takes place. This approach gives you a better impression of where your stack stands in a MTT and uses the small blind and antes in addition than just defining your position in terms of BBs (as you might in SNGs). 

Never look at your M as an isolated value, but rather in relationship to the other players' M. Whereas you should play slightly more aggressive with an M of 8 when the other players have an average M of 7, your play will change when the average M is 30 to your M of 8. 

Short-handed tournaments (3 to 6 players) require an adjusted M, called the effective M, shown by the following formula:

Effective M = M * (players / 10)

The effective M is better suited when short-handed because the orbits whip around much faster, thus accelerating the rate by which your already dwindling chip stack falls. Theoretically, the M and effective M are the same thing. In full ring MTTs, the Effective M is just null as 10 players/10 = 1 and simply reveals a reflexive calculation.

Harrington defined 5 critical zones and also outlined corresponding strategy depending on your M.

  • Green zone: M > = 20
  • Yellow zone: 10 < M < 20
  • Orange zone: 5 < M < = 10
  • Red zone: 1 < = M < = 5
  • Dead zone: M < 1

The following paragraphs explain how and why you should play in each zone.

How do you play in the Green Zone?

Much of your tournament life will be spent in the Green Zone. This phase allows basically every move and variants of moves that can increase your chip stack. You can decide to be conservative, aggressive, or even super-aggressive in this phase.  Harrington advises not taking uncalculated risks in order to stay in this zone as long as possible.

You can play like in a normal full-ring No Limit game, but somewhat tighter. When you find yourself in marginal situations, folding is often better than trying to exploit a minimal edge. The most profound difference between a MTT and a cash game is that the former proceeds with a finite number of chips and the latter allows a theoretically infinite amount of rebuys. You can't buy yourself a new stack in a tournament.

A good way to increase your stack is via the smooth call. Even with a somewhat speculative hand, smooth calling in position versus a tight raiser in early position is a good idea for the following reasons. You can pretty safely limit his range to QQ+ (JJ+ perhaps) and AK, which means you can know where you stand with your hand quite well on the flop.  The fewest of players will play forpot control (let alone fold) with a big overpair out of position.

Good hands to smooth call with are pocket pairs and suited connectors, hands like 55 or 67s. Such hands will have the requisite pot odds (particularly implied odds) to move forward. The rule of thumb found from a cash game is that both you and your opponent should have at least 15 times the amount of the call (20x is even better) remaining in the effective stacks. Of course, you should be sure not tooverplay your monster hands when in early position.


Hero (t2850)
UTG (t3100)

Big Blind is 50

Pre-flop: Hero is BU with 78
UTG raises 150 6 folds, Hero calls [150] , 2 folds

Flop: (375) 95Q (2 players)
UTG bets t200Hero raises to t550, UTG calls 350.

Turn: (1475) 3 (2 players)
UTG checks, Hero bets 800 , UTG calls

River: (3075) (8)  3 (2 players) 
UTG checks, 
Hero is All-In, UTG calls

Final Pot: 5950

You called in position with a speculative hand before the flop. If you had not hit anything on the flop, you could simply and safely fold to the continuation bet. On the other hand, you have a good chance at stacking your opponent if you do hit your hand, since you give him a range of QQ+, AQ+.

You have 12 clean outs on the flop, since your opponent is sure to have some combination offace cards. You play your monster draw aggressively knowing that your opponent will rarely fold. You hit the flush and make two simple value bets.

How do you play in the Yellow Zone?

When your M is between 10 and 20, you have entered the Yellow Zone. Harrington no longer recommends conservative play; he recommends aggressive or even super-aggressive play instead. You need to loosen up your range a little and make looser calls and raises. Small pairs and suitedconnectors should be thrown away. He recommends small ball moves, meaning you decide to push or fold at the first hint of oppositional resistance.

You can steal raise with a 3-bet push in this phase, meaning you go all in to force the originalaggressor to fold. Pocket pairs and suited connectors are best suited for such a move, since they have the best equity against the very tight calling ranges your opponents will have.

Finding the perfect spot for a 3-bet is certainly one of the toughest things a MTT player has to do. Look for the right conditions when introducing this move into your repertoire. First, keep your opponents' raising ranges in mind - the looser, the better. Loose raisers do tend to be loose callers, which doesn't speak for fold equity. On the other hand, you will usually have better equity when a loose raiser calls.

The next thing to consider: the size of your opponent's stack and the likelihood that he will call. An opponent with 7 M won't be able to fold after raising, no matter what two cards he may have (barring inexperience). Deep stacks also tend to call, since they have enough chips in reserve if they do lose. You should target opponents with stacks roughly as large as yours.

Try to accumulate chips from late position and the blinds when your M is between 10 and 20.

The very best places to steal from will be from late position and you can still play hands when in position.   By using 3-bets in small and mid size MTTs, you can make steals very profitable. You can even 3-bet all-in from a blind position as a steal-raise.  


Seat MP2: Mike (19,004 chips)
Seat BU: Hero (14,584 chips)

Big Blind costs 1,000 chips

Pre-flop: Hero is BU with 77
4 folds, Mike raises to 25002 folds, Hero is All-In2 folds, Mike folds.

Raises from late position can be quite loose, which means you should generate more, rather than less, fold equity with your push. Your pocket sevens quite often give you decent equity when you do get called. You have a good risk/cost ratio when you have 3-5*pot left in your stack.

How do you play in the Orange Zone?

Being first in becomes crucial when your M is between 5 and 10. While you still want to remain relatively tight in early position, your range can open up significantly in later position. At this stage, you will find yourself in the classic push-or-fold mode and should not make any calls.

Suited connectors and small pocket pairs are also playable. Harrington recommends trying to hold on to as many chips as you can to make your double up worth more when you do catch a monster.

Because you cannot generate an overwhelming amount of fold equity, push-or-fold is basically your only choice. Being the first into the pot is a strong advantage. You must increase your range as you reach later positions.

Your pushing range depends on how tight your opponent calls. You can push with pocket pairs and suited connectors against an opponent with a tight calling range, since these hands will have the most equity. Pocket pairs are also good against looser calling ranges; suited aces are significantly better than suited connectors. You can also push with strong broadway cards.

You will find opponents with very tight calling ranges in MTTs with low buy-ins. This allows you to push with more fold equity from late positions. The pot is close to 1/3 of your remaining stack, and none of your opponents are getting great odds to call.


Blinds 750/1500, no Ante (8 handed)

Stacks & Stats
UTG 3370
MP1 13140
MP2 4870
MP3 13910
CO 4240
Hero 15367
SB 6000
BB 7015

Pre-flop: Hero is BU with QJ
5 foldsHero raises ALL-IN to 153672 fold.

You are under a lot of pressure with an M of about 6.5. You are under pressure and can no longer afford to 3-Bet push - you generate no fold equity. Target players in the blinds with small stacks and relatively tight calling ranges.

How do you play in the Red Zone?

According to Harrington, your only and best option in this phase is to be the first to push in the pot. It is recommended that all pairs, suited connectors, and face cards be played in this stage - hands that have half decent equity.

He also views not going all-in with AA as a mistake; it's simply too obvious after you have been playing push or fold. Stick to you strategy and hope opponents fold when you have a weak hand and call when you have a strong one.

Harrington also points out the danger of being eaten up by the blinds. A push that doesn't get called can increase your stack by up to 25% - you would lose that same amount every round you don't push.

You will see a lot of players in the Red Zone who fold themselves into bankruptcy. This can make sense when you're just short of the money or a few spots from the final table, but it is wrong at any other point in the tournament.

You basically have nothing left to lose when you are in the Red Zone. You got there by losing a hand, or because you couldn't catch a playable hand. Your goal is to play aggressively and double up to the Orange Zone, or end your misery and call it a day.

How do you play in the Dead Zone?

As mentioned previously, you should never be in the Dead Zone. The only legitimate excuse for being there: You were all-in against a slightly smaller stack and lost. If that was not the case, you did not push when you had the chance. Your chances of getting back in the game are slim to none.

If you end up in this zone, you're going to need a lot of luck getting out. You can call after another player raises, since you can then view the blinds as dead money and you then get better pot odds than if you were to push and get called by the Big Blind.

Only do this when the aggressor has a loose raising range, otherwise you may have nearly no equity at all. A good range for calling would be suited kings, pocket pairs and suited connectors.


Blinds 750/1500 without Ante (8 handed)

Stacks & Stats
UTG 3370
MP1 13140
MP2 4870
MP3 13910
CO 40240
Hero 2000
SB 6000
BB 7015

Pre-flop: Hero is BU with QJ
4 foldsCO raises 3800Hero is ALL-IN2 fold.

You call. There is a lot of dead money in the pot and you have decent equity against his raising range.


The M-factor is a very simple method used to develop a strategy based on your position in a MTT. M tells you how many rounds you could survive without playing in a single pot.

With an M higher than 20, you are in the green zone and can feel free to try any move you deem appropriate. As your M falls, your options shrink as well.

The more your stack shrinks in relation to the blinds, the more you need to search for a good spot to make a decision. The biggest mistake you can make is letting the blinds devour you. You've got little left to lose once you reach the Red Zone (5 M or less); pushing is better than folding.