Playing heads up really is different to any other game situation will encounter and there is quite a knack to getting it right. You can play heads up cash games or tournaments and there are even heads up knockout tournaments available. Some players become so good at heads up play that they specialise in it. The best example at the moment is probably Tom ‘durrr’ Dwan, a Full Tilt Pro who recently issued a million dollar challenge to any player who wanted to take him on heads up online. A number of poker legends such as Phil Ivey and Patrik Antonius have taken him up on this, hoping to take him down a peg or two!
Even if you’re not aiming to become a heads up expert like this, it’s useful to get in some heads up practice, as this can come in very useful if you do make it to the last two of a larger tournament.
Due to the nature of heads up play, it is much higher risk than other poker games, as you are involved in every pot. This fact also dictates a lot of the strategy tips I outline below:
1) Loosen up your play – because you are involved in every pot, posting one of the blinds every hand, you have to loosen up your starting hand requirements from normal play. This also makes sense from the point of view that you’re only facing one opponent – they’re simply not going to have a great hand every time for you to worry about.
It has been calculated that the ‘average’ poker hand, or at least the lowest starting hand that would be a favourite against any other random hand, is Q7. This doesn’t look like a particularly impressive hand by any stretch of the imagination, but in heads up play, this is the nature of the game – you’re up against one random other hand. You should therefore play a very wide range of hands when you’re in the big blind, and almost every hand when you’re the small blind/dealer.
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2) Play your position - position is really important in heads up play – if you’re the small blind, you’re also the button, acting first before the flop and last after it. This is a massive advantage, and you should raise with all but your worst hands in this position, unless you’re mixing up your play of course.
I tend to raise with all but the worst hands in the dealer position, but a general rule of thumb is to raise with any pair, any suited connectors and any two big cards. Your opponent won’t really have any real clue as to the strength of your hand from your pre-flop raise, and you get the advantage of position after the flop to see what he does.
On the other side of the coin, if you’re in the big blind, respect any raises, and fold most hands to a raise, as you’ll be out of position post-flop.
3) Think about hand values – just as in tip 1), where the value of your starting hand increases when you only have one opponent, the same applies to showdown hand values – you’re simply not going to be facing full houses, flushes and straights very often in heads up play, and often top pair or even second pair will win if you get to showdown. This means if you make a hand of any kind on the flop or after, it’s usually worth betting it out unless you face any resistance.
4) Semi-bluffing – it’s a good strategy to semi-bluff (where you catch a draw to a straight or flush on the flop) a lot of the time in heads up play. If your opponent is fairly passive, they will fold a lot of the time to a reasonable bet. If they call, you can always slow down on the next street, but if you hit your draw and make your hand, then you can carry on betting for value. This strategy gives you two ways to win the pot; by getting your opponent to fold, or by hitting your draw.
5) Stand up to constant aggression – this is effectively to counter the aggression of someone playing as you should be. If they’re raising you pot after pot, they’re not going to have a decent hand all the time. Every so often you should re-raise, with or without a hand, but obviously better with, to let them know that you can’t just be walked over in every pot.
6) Bet for value – when you do make a hand that you think is ahead, you need to bet it to make sure you extract the maximum value from it. If you follow the aggressive strategy I recommended above, your opponent may well not realise you have a hand and pay you off.
7) Pay attention to your opponent – make sure you follow what your opponent is doing and react accordingly. If they’re playing tight and folding a lot, then keep on betting at them. If they raise back, chances are they either have a hand or are getting wise to your play. Play each hand in context of how the preceding hands have played out, considering how your opponent is playing, and also how they are perceiving your play. If they’re playing lots of pots and making lots of raises, play back at them every so often to slow them down.
8) Mix up your game – if your opponent is paying attention, they will soon realise what you are up to and react accordingly, just as you are doing to them (see above). If you can mix up your game a bit, it will be much harder for them to work out what your strategy is, and consequently this will give you an advantage. Throw in some moves to keep them on their toes, such as slow playing good hands and check raising .
9) Finish them off – in a heads up tournament, if you manage to get your opponent down to a short stack, you need to be able to finish them off. They are likely to shove all in a lot of the time. Make sure you don’t give them an easy double up by calling with a poor hand in an attempt to finish it quickly – carry on playing as you have been, aggressively with position, and you should soon finish them off. Call their all in shoves with decent hands only. If you become the short stack, you need to be shoving often in order to try to double up. You can go all in nearly every hand against a passive opponent, but me more selective if your opponent is likely to call often.
10) Stick to your bankroll – as with any poker, if you play above your bankroll you’ll soon go broke. Stick to games that are less than 10% of your bankroll or less and you should be able to handle the swings that heads up play can bring.
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