The strategy guru looks like a rock who grinds his way to victories, but dig a bit deeper and it’s clear Action Dan isn’t all he seems
|Dan Harrington is something of a chameleon, as he’s by turns tight, loose and aggressive
Most modern poker players opt for an aggressive style, but this month we look at one of the ‘old school’ players, Dan Harrington. The somewhat ironically nicknamed ‘Action Dan’ won the WSOP main event in 1995 and, crucially, made return trips to the final table in both 2003 and 2004, despite having a super-tight reputation.
He’s just as well known for his strategy books. The publication of Harrington on Hold’em volumes 1 and 2 in 2005 brought a whole raft of new phrases into the poker lexicon, such as ‘continuation’ and ‘probe’ bets, ‘inflection points’ and ‘green’ through ‘red’ zones, as he put the game under the microscope in what are now considered to be definitive texts.
They also explained some of the plays repeated ad infinitum on ESPN that had by turn shocked and amazed a poker community that thought it had Dan Harrington pegged. The secret wasn’t just out of the bag, but giftwrapped with instructions. Although there was little point hiding anything when millions of people got to see him reraising two players with 6-2 offsuit on national television!
A WOLF IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING
Harrington had a perfect table image, having managed for ten years to convince everyone that his super-solid facade was, in fact, the truth and that he was about as likely to make a move as Gus Hansen was to fold suited connectors. The truth, as revealed in the books and on ESPN, is slightly different from this. While he generally maintains a conservative approach in the early stages of a tournament, he fully understands when aggression is necessary.
This is particularly true in his estimation of the latter stages of events, when the ratio of a player’s stack to the blinds and antes rise, and more aggressive plays are required in order to avoid slipping into the danger zones. Specifically, Harrington defines the point at which you have only ten to 20 times the pot (the yellow zone) as the time to start playing more hands to avoid falling into the orange zone (six to ten times the pot) or the red zone (one to five times the pot), at which time you must start playing even more aggressively and frequently moving all-in to prevent yourself from being anted away.
A TIGHT SQUEEZE
He also employs a number of sophisticated plays to help keep his stack healthy at these stages; these are founded on the premise that his opponents view him as extremely tight. At the 2004 WSOP main event final table, he demonstrated one of these, the ‘squeeze play’, to perfection.
With the blinds at $40,000/$80,000, the aggressive second chip leader Josh Arieh raised in early position to $225,000 with K-9, and chip leader Greg Raymer called the bet with A-2 suited. Harrington looked down at 6-2 off-suit and, to the amazement of all, pushed in $1,200,000 of his remaining $2,320,000 chips, effectively committing himself to the hand. His read that Arieh had opened light and that Raymer had called without much of a hand proved right: they both passed, although not before David Williams shrugged and passed A-Q in the blinds.
This is a perfect example of using your table image to manipulate the opposition and take down a huge pot. While it’s a great example of well-timed aggression, it’s important to note that all of Harrington’s play is rooted in a sophisticated mathematical approach to the game. He can calculate ranges of likely hands for his opponents and combine these with pot odds to evaluate his moves. He also demonstrates a great awareness of the multiple styles that appear among tournament players and the specific strategies that should be employed to combat them. Finally, he’s a master of knowing when to go all-in, which he describes as the single most important factor for success in no-limit hold’em tournaments.
Dan Harrington is something of a chameleon, as he is by turns tight, loose and aggressive as he feels the situation requires. But as he has quite ably demonstrated, building a very cautious image over the years has been one of the most profitable aspects of his game, and this is something that all players can recreate in the first few levels of a tournament to good effect later.
More than that, though, he’s a great example of how the fearless, super-aggressive style that has taken over the game in recent years can still be thwarted by good old-fashioned discipline and logic. This, of course, is provided such conservative play allows room for later aggression and the occasional grandstanding bluff.