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Playing Heads Up - The Basics

By: Joe Benik

Just a few years ago, very few players played heads up very well at all. If you were one of them, you had a distinct advantage, and could expect to win in nearly all of these situations unless you were unlucky. That's changed, and the main reason why it has is that more players are getting more experience playing heads up. Years ago, you'd have to get to the end of a long tournament in order to face someone heads up. Nowadays, there are so many smaller and one-table tournaments online that whomever you end up against will surely have a great deal of experience playing this unique brand of poker, and cannot be run over so easily.

Going forward, I believe that heads-up tournaments will be the next big thing in poker. These are tournaments that consist entirely of heads-up matches, where the winner advances and the loser goes home, in a sort of a Final Four bracket scenario. You are already seeing these tournaments popping up on online sites, and NBC has premiered its National Heads-Up Poker Tournament from the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas. This show, as well as other final-table programs which devote a significant time in their broadcast to heads-up matchups, will add to the allure of heads up play, and more importantly, to the skills of the opponents you will face when you get into a heads up situation.

So it is more important than ever to make this a strong part of your game, rather than a weakness. This series of three articles will cover the ins and outs of heads-up play in some detail, and will hopefully add to your skill level in these spots. There is no substitute for experience, but the ideas in this series should help you turn your experience into some wins, rather than settling for second place.

Starting Hands

One thing that everybody knows about heads-up play is that the starting hand requirements are significantly lower in heads-up play than in a full ring game or even a short handed game. You will -- and should -- play hands heads up that you wouldn't think of playing in a bigger game.

In heads up poker, the average hand is J-7 offsuit. If you look down at J-7, you are exactly 50 percent to win against an unknown hand. So, if you are looking down at such unremarkable hands as J-9, Q-3, or K-2, you are looking at better-than-average hands. These hands should be played heads-up, even against a small raise, since they will bring down the pots more often than not.

Not only are there more playable hands heads up, but there are more "monster" starting hands as well. In a full ring game, there are about ten hands that you can comfortably raise with. (If you are very aggressive, maybe fifteen.) Heads up, you have a monster if you hold any Ace, any pair, or certain other hands such as K-Q and Q-J suited. This gives you a total of 27 hands that you can assume that you are well ahead with, and should definitely raise with these. (There will be times when you would not raise with an Ace, but we'll discuss those later.)

But there are also hands that do not hold up so well in heads up matches, and those are small suited cards and small connectors. The chief benefit of these hands is that they can win a lot of money from a full ring game if they lead to a straight or a flush by the river. They can win a great deal of money in a heads up match too, but you may not have the odds to draw to one of the hands on the turn and the river. In fact, a good opponent will make sure that you don't. Two unsuited connectors are - at best - about 38-39% to win against two unsuited overs, and two small suited cards are about the same. But the percentages fall off quickly if you are up against higher connectors, higher suited cards, or share a card in common with your opponent. You can play small suited or connected cards for variety, or against smaller stacks, but you need to hit your flop in order to continue, since speculating can be costly.


The other thing that most everyone knows about playing heads up is that you must be very aggressive in order to win. You are usually better off raising than calling, especially early in the hand, and you will fold marginal hands less often.

The best scenario in heads up holdem - other than going all-in with a monster - is to take down a lot of small uncontested pots. Both you and your opponent are waiting for opportunities to cash in with high pockets or miracle flops. But while you are doing so, if you are able to win most of the small, unimportant pots, then you will have the best of it. And by the time your opponent finds his pocket aces against your pocket queens, or flops a set when you flop two pair, he may not have enough chips to do much damage.

These small pots don't make the TV telecasts, but any pro will tell you that they are their primary goal in heads up play. The way to win them is to keep the pressure on your opponent, to give him the opportunity to fold when it is his turn to do so. When you are the first to bet, bet as if you have a hand. When your opponent has bet in front of you, raise as if you have a better one. The trick is to do it often enough to win most of the pots, but not so often that your raises have no meaning. How often is that? Well, that is part of the art of heads up play. It is different in every situation. But if you find that your opponent is calling you with less-than-premium hands, it is a sign that you are raising with a bit too much. Well talk more about this next month.

Way Ahead

Aggressive play is even more important when you are way ahead of your opponent, when you have at least 75% of the chips in play. Under these circumstances, you can justify putting your opponent to the test with every single bet you make. Even with a decent hand, he won't want to risk all of his chips in order to call your bet. So you will win a lot of these pots uncontested, and continue chipping away at what he has left.

Eventually, he will make a stand and call you with the better hand. In this case, two things can happen. He can win and double up through you, and odds are he will. But he can also lose, if the cards fall your way. And it happens more often than you think. If you push him all in with 7-2 offsuit, and he calls with A-K, you're way behind. But you will win the pot and the championship 33% of the time. So, you're not as far behind as you may think.

Way Behind

When the opposite is true, and you are short stacked heads up, you need to pick a spot and push all of your chips in. If you have enough chips, you may get a fold from your opponent, but you should expect to be called. The question is what hands to go in with.

Pre-flop, any of the 27 monster hands described above are good candidates. You may also think about going in with any King, and some will go in with any Queen as well. The shorter your stack becomes, the more hands you will be willing to push with. If you have at least nine or ten times the big blind, you can afford to be more selective. But if you have only two or three times the blind, then you cannot be too choosy. Any face card will have to do.

After the flop, you will want to push with any pair, even bottom pair. With two pair or better, you may think about checking, since you will get more of your opponents' chips this way. If you flop a drawing hand, you can push if the odds favor you, or if you think you may get your opponent to fold. Otherwise, try to preserve some chips to keep yourself in the tournament even if your card doesn't come.

That leaves situations when you miss completely. When this happens, you need to swallow hard and fold most of the time. It is hard to give up a pot when you have so few chips left, but your chances of winning the pot with a bluff, or by catching a miracle card on the turn or the river are against you. Give up this one and wait for a better spot.

Next month, we'll talk about different playing styles, and how to defend against each, and later we'll also talk about changing gears and confusing your opponent. Until then, good luck at the heads up tables.

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