The overwhelming majority of the poker you play is going to be against multiple opponents. Even when you’re playing casually with friends, you’re going to seek out a full table because the crowd is just part of Texas Hold’em poker.
At some point, though, you’re going to get down to a single opponent. This can happen during a Texas Hold’em poker tournament or at a casino table, but you’re going to get there at some point and your are going to need a Heads Up Poker Strategy to compete.
Let me tell you, this is when poker starts to get really, really complicated.
Developing your heads up poker strategy requires getting acclimated to an entirely new type of game. The typical player’s poker strategy tends to fall apart in these situations because players tend to expect business as usual.
The reality of heads up poker, though, is anything but that.
Heads up poker strategy is a place where true professionals excel, though. The people you see winning at a big Texas Hold’em poker tournament are those who have mastered this type of play, and they’re the ones that are always going to be your biggest competition.
What’s the average player to do, then?
Well, you’re going to start thinking about whether you really want to win poker tournaments. If you do, you’re going to have to learn how to develop a stellar heads up poker strategy.
Our goal right now is to get a good handle on the basic heads up poker rules, and then to start working on a feasible heads up poker strategy. If you can manage to do both, you’ll be ahead of the game.
Heads Up Poker Strategy: The Foundational Information
When you’re playing heads up poker, you’re going to have to adjust your poker strategy quite a bit. Some of the things that you take for advantage – calculating poker ranges, for example – are going to change pretty radically. That is not, however, the only tough part about creating a solid heads up poker strategy.
What’s harder than just remembering heads up poker rules or coming up with a new strategy is the requirement of swiftly changing from one method of playing poker to another. You’re going to have to put the brakes on whatever you were doing before, and then switch over to your heads up poker strategy. It’s that switch that tends to throw off so many players.
When you’re looking at the heads up poker rules, the biggest change is going to come with the button and the blinds. If you’ve got the button, you are now the small blind – congratulations, because now you’re also now the last person to play after the flop. The odds are also dramatically in favor of the small blind here, so keep that in mind at all times.
Best Heads Up Poker Strategy
We are going to look at a little bit of basic heads up poker strategy here. These tips are going to help you to build a better overall poker strategy and they’ll hopefully help you to put together a better game when you get into heads-up situations.
If you’ve been playing in poker games online, you probably know that players love to limp when they’ve got the small blind. You really want to lose, this should absolutely be your heads up poker strategy. If you’ve got a deep stack, limping is going to be a death of a thousand cuts.
Let’s start with the obvious here – you aren’t going to win a big pot when you limp. If you limp, the other player is going to check every single time they’re even slightly worried about their hand. Not only are you not building value, but you’re also showing cards for free here.
In fact, limping with your bets is just a gift to the big blind. You’re not messing with other players with your strategy here, you’re helping the other guy out. When you’re aggressive, you exercise some control. When you limp, you’re handing it over.
If you’re not going to limp, then, the obvious heads up poker strategy is going to call for some level of aggression. Statistically speaking, aggressive players win more often when they go heads up. Pressure gets to the other player, and you want him to make mistakes before you make one yourself.
How’s your poker strategy here any different from regular game-play? In short, you’re going to raise with just about anything that looks reasonable. Get a pair? Raise. Get a face card? Raise. Go big when the cards are actually great, but always be aggressive.
The Any Ace Rule
One of the unofficial poker rules is that a player who has an ace in a heads-up situation is going to win. The truth is that a player with an ace is going to win just over half the time. Those aren’t great odds, but they aren’t all that bad.
You really need to remember only to do this when you’re playing heads-up poker. You go with the any ace strategy in a tournament, you might as well hand your chips back in. When you’re in this heads up situation, though, go with it.
Remember Your Poker Position
The best place to be in a heads-up game is at the button. Whenever you’ve got that small blind, you need to put as much pressure as possible on the other player. This means raising, bluffing, and generally doing whatever it takes so that you grab as many pots as you can.
It’s important, though, to know that the other player is going to do the same thing to you when he has the small blind. You need to stick to your guns when you can and avoid being bullied. Sometimes, this is going to mean making moves that would otherwise be considered a bit dumb.
Hold on to that Any Ace strategy when you’re the big blind, because it’s going to help. Do a three-bet if you’ve got an Ace or a face, and then put the pressure back on the other player. Don’t get bullied if you can help it.
By the way, there are a couple of ways that you can really mess with a player who is trying to the aggressor. The obvious one is always to meet aggression head-on, but you can really mess with that player by just calling literally everything he throws out.
Which one is the right call? It depends on who you are playing against. Some players are going to back down when you get aggressive, others are going to call you out because they have your number.
What you need to do is to learn how to switch gears. Be aggressive, but don’t be afraid to call. Yes, calling is awful at a full table, but it’s a great way to cool off a single player. Alternate when you need to do so, if only to mess with the other player’s potential read on your style.
Read The Player
By this point, you should already know how to read the other players at the table. Reading becomes even more vital when you are developing a solid heads up poker strategy. You are going to have to constantly adjust your strategy as you go, something that’s easier when you understand how the other party plays.
If you read the other player as being weak, you can turn on your full aggression to bully him or her off a good hand. If the other player is strong, you can cool him or her down by calling. You should be on the lookout for very specific weaknesses as well so that you can exploit them at your leisure.
This is also a good time to start paying attention to the emotions of the other player, especially in live games. When the other player starts to get tired, angry, or even a little loopy, you need to swoop in and take advantage of the situation.
We’ve talked a lot about when to raise and when to call, but we also need to talk about when you’re going to fold. This is a vital part of your strategy because it’s going to keep you from putting yourself in the wrong position later. You’ll need to learn how to get rid of those bad hands if you want to win.
Yes, you’re going to be hesitant to fold when the odds look like they’re in your favor. After all, that’s what life’s like in a full game. When you’re dealing with a big stack in the middle of a heads-up game, though, you really need to understand that folding can be a viable – and necessary – part of your game.
If there’s a hard and fast rule to folding when you’re heads-up, it’s this: earlier is better. Fold when you’re less committed, when the pot looks less attractive, and when you can still control the flow of the game.
The Any Pair Strategy
You are playing against a single player. As such, the odds of having almost any hand are depressingly low. If you know that you can win more than half the time just by having an ace, you should be aware that having a pocket pair is even better.
The go-to mindset in a heads-up game is that all pairs are good until you have more information. Even a pair of twos is better than a single ace, and you’re going to have to stick with that position until someone shows you a reason to beg off.
Does that mean that you’re going to win with every pair? Of course not. At best, you’re only sitting at six-to-one odds of walking away with the pot. That means that you’re always going to have a fifteen percent chance of being taken to the cleaners, and that’s a big enough percentage to keep you on your toes.
What, then, do you do?
You read the other player! You pay attention to what’s on the board, and you play smart. Don’t go all-in with just an ace. Don’t automatically think you’re going to win with a low pair. Pay attention to what’s going on in the game before you commit even though pairs are usually great.
Learn How to Alter Your Strategy
The single most important part of your heads up poker strategy is learning how to keep your opponent on his or her toes. You cannot stick to any single strategy, because it’s way too easy for one other player to get a read on you. You are going to have to change gears, and you’re definitely going to have to do so frequently.
Keep switching things up as you play. Play aggressive, play conservatively, play loose, and play tight. Throw the other player off your scent so you can make the big moves and ultimately win the whole pot.
It’s fairly well established that playing aggressively is going to help you knock out players at a full table, at least on a given hand. Playing aggressively is also going to help you to control the other player when you are in a heads-up situation. The more aggressively you play, the more control you have.
At the same time, the end-game in a heads-up situation relies upon the other player being confident. He or she needs to think that you’re not playing smart, and then the other player will make a big move. Once that move is made, you get to take advantage of the other player’s mistakes.
The problem, as always, is that the other player is going to do the same thing to you whenever possible.
The end-game in a heads-up situation is often going not to come down to those big moments, but rather to the process of chipping away at the opponent’s stack through stealing some blinds.
As you go through the game, you need to chip away at the other player’s stack. The process is going to be subtle enough that the other player probably won’t realize what you’ve done until things are just too late.
All of the tips above are meant to help you master a part of the game that most players don’t see too often. Getting to the heads-up part of a game can be tough, but once you’re there you need a solid heads up poker strategy.
It feels great to win when you play heads-up. Feels a lot less like luck and a lot more like you’re a great player. It also makes you feel like you might have the hang of this poker thing after all.
A word of caution, though.
All of the heads up poker tips here are just that – tips. They’re not a guide for how to play on a full table, and some of the best players play this way. If you’ve learned anything, it’s that playing heads-up poker is very complex and that you’re going to have to think about it differently than playing at a full table.
Pay attention when you play against a single player. Learn how to read him, and the game will be yours. It’s a big adjustment to make, but it’s one that’s going to carry you all the way to the bank. See you at the WSOP!
Heads Up Poker Strategy – FAQ
What does heads up mean in poker?
It means you are only playing against one other player.
How do blinds work in heads up poker?
The button is always the small blind. The other player is the big blind.
Who acts first in heads up poker?
The small blind/button acts first pre-flop, but that player acts last post-flop. It can be confusing if you are not used to it, but you will adjust.
How should you play in heads up poker?
In heads-up poker, you want to be incredibly aggressive. I had one tournament where I wasn’t aggressive heads-up and it led me to taking 2nd place. I did not like that.