Heads up Poker Strategy
A solid understanding of the duel game fundamentals is crucial for every player. According to the heads up poker rules, only two individuals are involved in the action, so you should think outside the box. Here, the emphasis shifts from mathematical calculations (although they remain important) to psychology and your ability to read opponents and situations.
Why do you need to master the HU strategy? Every tournament final table culminates in this format, as the main pot of the entire event is played "1 vs 1". When playing cash games (3-max to full-ring), you’ll often find yourself fighting for money against just one opponent. Consequently, one cannot avoid HU play.
This article discusses strategies of one-on-one matches across various formats: cash games, MTTs, and SnGs.
Heads Up Poker Rules and Features
Gameplay runs under the rules of the chosen discipline, typically Texas Holdem and much less often PLO. However, scenarios where you’re left battling for the pot 1-on-1 (everyone else has folded) can occur in any poker variation.
So, each hand commences with both participants placing mandatory bets and receiving their pocket cards. Similar to the classic format, each street comes with betting. Three community cards, known as the flop, are revealed on the board, followed by two more cards on the turn and river. Any match ends when someone folds or through a showdown, where players compare their holdings and thus determine the victor.
Here are the chief hallmarks of the 1v1 format:
- both gamblers post blinds in each hand (there is no option to muck cards for free);
- small blind acts as button, being the first to make a decision pre-flop and the last to move on the subsequent streets;
- people have around 15-20 seconds to act regardless of what they play – cash or tourneys;
- the fewer opponents, the higher the starting hand value – in 2-max, therefore, you will find yourself playing lots of those starters that you would muck on 6-max and 9-max tables;
- kicker’s value diminishes, as the probability of having identical combinations at the showdown is low.
We suggest that you watch an episode from the National Heads-Up Poker Championship with the famous poker pros (Phil Ivey, Antonio Esfandiari, Jonathan Duhamel and others) to make sure that this format is worth trying:
Full rings and HU tables have varied probabilities. We’ve provided several examples below:
- your opponent will catch an out on the flop in 33% of cases;
- probability of hitting a draw combination is approximately 10%-13%;
- users have 50% fewer strong starters to initiate aggressive betting, down from classic tables.
Varieties of the "1 vs 1" Format
Three main formats primarily involve one-on-one games, although they may not always be available in every poker room:
|Cash tables||One cannot be eliminated forever. You can always rebuy and continue playing or leave the table whenever desired.|
|Sit&Go||Heads-Up SnG starts whenever two players join a specific game. The entire prize pool goes to the winner; these tournaments resemble cash games in respect of gameplay dynamics.|
|MTT||In tournament poker, the HU play isn’t limited to the final table (when only two participants remain in the competition). There are also special events where many people compete, but gameplay follows the principles of a heads-up battle. Thus, you play each hand against a random opponent.|
In MTTs, users start with equal initial stacks. In cash games, however, players may have a different number of chips.
Valuable Heads Up Poker Tips
The poker community considers HU as the most challenging game format. There are several essential aspects to grasp if you want to succeed in 2-max.
- Be the one who runs the show
Due to the need to play every hand, aggressive gamblers are most successful in this discipline. The value of starting cards increases, and the range of playable hands widens (players are required to enter the action more frequently). A tight playing style is ineffective since forced bets (blinds) can deplete your stack. The higher your level of aggression, the more often you will win pots/matches in the long run.
You should always open-raise as the small blind. If your opponent limps from the SB, raising is a preferred choice as well.
- Expand your range as much as possible
Remember that the fewer players in the game, the higher the likelihood that even a weak combination will win. Let us remind you that in 2-max, you will post the blinds in every single match. So waiting for premium cards to come is undoubtedly a flawed strategy. Heads up poker hand chart as such is not really required.
The following starting hands have over 50% equity on the preflop:
- All pocket pairs. According to poker statistics, any pocket pair will be higher than the opponent's cards in 80% of cases. The probability of both participants getting paired starters is 1 in 300.
- Ace or King + any card (e.g., AT, A7, KQ, K9) are also regarded as powerful holdings and should be played just as aggressively as pocket pairs. Any Ace (irrespective of the second figure) is 52% or better to win versus a random hand.
- Q+3, J+5, T+7, 8+9 of the same suit.
- Q+5, J+8, T+9 and better, offsuit.
- Poker hand values must be considered
In HU poker, any winning combination has greater potential compared to regular games. Given that there is only one rival, the chances of them beating you are very thin. For example, a top pair on the flop corresponds to a set on 6 or 9 max tables. Moreover, even a medium-strength pair on the board can become winning at the showdown. Straights and flushes (and stronger combinations) are a rare occurrence here. Consider this factor and place your bets under the appropriate circumstances.
- Your position at the poker table matters
The one occupying the small blind gains an edge as it acts as the button here. They move last on the post-flop, allowing them to know their opponent's decision. From the SB position, one can aggressively play not only pocket pairs but also connectors, suited starters, and unrelated to each other pictured cards. As the big blind, it is recommended to behave more conservatively.
- Assess your rival’s playing style
It is imperative to accurately determine the nature of your opponent. Be mindful of their actions and bet sizes. How do they play a pair, a drawing hand? When are they inclined to bluff or fold to your bets/raises? If they are overly aggressive, exercise patience and wait for strong hands. If they are excessively tight, take advantage by making continuation bets to claim the pots. But, bear in mind that the opponent will study you thoroughly as well. Therefore, try to diversify your behaviour: use checking and bluffing, apply different bet sizing, and don’t forget about playing check/raise.
Check out how Daniel Negreanu reveals his opponent's (Greg Raymer) bluff:
- Stealing blinds is paramount in heads-up
Blinds in cash are relatively small, approximately 1%-2% of the user stack. Therefore, by successfully stealing them, you can grab a significant portion of your opponent's stack (often catching them off guard). Missing out on 20 such spots, one would potentially lose 30% of their total chips without even entering the action.
- Make semi-bluffing part of your strategic bridgehead
Smart semi-bluffing is a great tool for winning pots here – any drawing hand or pair is suitable. Test your opponent with small raises on the flop. If they call, you will know that your rival has either a top pair or a medium-strength hand with a high kicker. Even so, you still have the opportunity to cheaply see the turn card and potentially hit your draw.
If this happens, keep fighting and raise; if not, skip betting on this street and wait for the opponent's actions. In any case, it will be clear to you what to do next: go to the river or muck your cards. The semi-bluff bets should not be smaller than 50% of the pot.
- Befriend with value betting
Try to win maximum chips from your opponent on every street (betting round). And again, do it even with a hand of medium strength. The fact is that here it is very likely that your rival will call your bet even with small pairs or just ace high. At the same time, it makes sense to change bet sizing to confuse your "enemy". Therefore, you can slow play on the flop and turn with an obviously strong hand, and then make a big river bet.
How to Play Heads Up Poker In a Fast-Fold Format
Certain poker sites offer the option to play 1-on-1 in a fast-paced format (e.g., Zoom Poker on Stars). This means that you will face a new opponent in each hand. A solid strategy is to start off playing tight and selectively, focusing on strong and favourable starting hands. As the game progresses, you can employ an effective push-fold technique to gain your rival’s chips.
It would be unwise to begin mastering heads up poker strategies with such games. The rapid blind increases will limit your ability to advance flop and post-flop skills.
Introduction to Bankroll Management
Play heads-up at one table. At the same time, beginners shouldn’t use more than 5-7% of their bankroll. Newbies’ common mistake is using an entire bankroll and running two or more tables at once. Even savvy regs don't allow themselves to be that crazy as the risk of losing money is high.
You ought to learn how to manage your bankroll not only when playing HU poker but to reach success in this field generally, so we recommend you to watch the following video:
Poker Rooms to Practice HU Play
For the record, 2-max cash tables typically come in NLHE and PLO (regular and fast). And 1v1 multi-table tournaments run exclusively on PokerStars. On other sites, only single-table games (Sit-and-Go) are available.
100% First Deposit Bonus
Make your first-ever real money deposit using the bonus code ‘STARS600’, and we will give you a 100% bonus up to $600. To claim the full value of the bonus, you can make up to three qualifying deposits in 60 days.
Alternatively, deposit using code ‘THIRTY’ and claim $30 of free play.
How the 100% First Deposit Bonus works
Once you’ve made your deposit, you need to earn redemption points by playing real money games. Unless stated otherwise, you will earn 5 redemption points for every USD $1 you pay in rake or tournament fees (6.5 points per £1, 4 points per CAD $1, or 5.5 points per EUR €1).
Every time you reach 180 redemption points we’ll credit your Stars Account with $10 cash. You have four months after each qualifying deposit to earn all the redemption points needed to release your bonus.
You may only take advantage of one of our first deposit offers, but may be eligible for further deposit bonuses open to existing players. You can view any bonuses you have, alongside information on expiry dates, redemption point requirements and more, under the ‘My Stars’ menu.
Please note that redemption points will not be earned at pot-limit or no-limit tables with blinds of $5/$10 or higher, 8-game tables with stakes of $20/$40 or higher, or other limit games with stakes of $20/$40 or higher.
18+. T&Cs apply. New Customers Only. £20 extra = one cash game ticket of €8 and 4 x UK Tour tournament tickets of €4. £500 Playthrough bonus = €600. Both bonuses are activated upon first deposit from the poker client. Tickets expire after 35 days and the playthrough bonus after 60. £1 GBP = €1.1875. Selected games only. BeGambleaware.org.
18+. New players only for a bonus. The €365 bonus is redeemed in €2.50 instalments as you earn Status Points. Status Points are accumulated at a rate of 10 for every €1 or £1 paid in rake and/or tournament fees. No wagering requirement. 60 day expiry. T&Cs apply.
One-on-one battles are often the most challenging for novices since luck has minimal influence there. This is where players show their full arsenal of theoretical knowledge and skills. But, even an expert grasp of poker theory does not guarantee success. When playing 2-max, psychology and emotional control are of great importance. History knows thousands of cases when brilliant pros lost all their fortune in no time after emotions took over them.
Aggression, resistance to stress, prudence and a cold mind are essential to be a seasoned HU player. You can select starters great and make money with online poker, but if you do not know how to control yourself, your winnings can turn to zero at some point.
It’s a situation where you are battling 1-on-1 with your opponent. This can be either 2-max games, which excludes seating more than two people – all distributions take place only between two participants; or, a scenario when everyone else has sent their cards into the muck, and you are left with your opponent one on one (often called a HU pot).
With proper selection and approach to the game, the “standard” win rate typically ranges from 10 to 20 big blinds / 100 hands. Unfortunately, tilt can eat up a portion of your win rate.
However, it's important to note that the overall win rate can vary based on factors like skill level and stakes one plays. As you move up in limits, the average skill level of your opponents increases. In other words, they make fewer mistakes (and those they do are not as costly). Consequently, your advantage at NL5 will differ significantly from that at NL50. Snd this difference will affect your expected return from the game.
Practice shows that the one who can read their competitor, play wide ranges, and show aggression is more likely to succeed and generate good income in the long run. In this case, a smart loose-aggressive strategy is more advantageous than a standard tight approach. Your main goal is to understand your rival's play and benefit from it; poker math is less crucial in this case.
For neophytes, it’s best to postpone fast-fold games and begin learning the discussed format from regular low-stakes cash tables.