Heads up poker strategy

 Heads up poker

​Sooner or later, every poker tournament comes to a heads-up stage in which the amount of their win depends on success or failure. This is the most important phase in poker tourneys as the winner receives the biggest share of the prize pool.

There is also a special poker discipline referred to as Heads-up Sit&Go, where all hands are played in a heads-up format. Such tournaments are available in many poker rooms. Heads up might also occur during a cash game session when there are only two players left at the table, or when two players are playing one-to-one while waiting for other opponents to join the action.

In any case, it is important for a poker player to learn how to play heads up correctly, therefore we consider it necessary to provide you with information on heads-up poker strategy and heads up poker tips. 

What is heads up poker play?

Heads up is a type of poker game when two players fight one-to-one at the poker table. This discipline is one of the most popular and profitable at the moment.

In heads up poker, a player can show their true skills, as the game requires you to have special concentration and the ability to quickly make correct and well-informed decisions.

It is widely believed that heads-up is the most challenging poker discipline since here victory is determined by those skills that distinguish a professional player from an amateur: ability to read the opponent, ability to adapt to their playing style and make quick adjustments to his/her own strategy, aggressive play, tilt resistance. Poker mathematics isn't an essential aspect of heads-up strategy.

Heads up in poker

Important! Your main goal is to understand your opponent's play and benefit from it.

The good thing about the heads-up play is that you don't have to share your winnings with other players at the table. In this regard, the following question may arise: "If everything is so smooth, why doesn't everyone play heads-up poker?" The answer is quite straightforward – this is a complex and laborious discipline to study. 

As already mentioned, player skill plays a huge role in heads up, which means that if you are much weaker than your opponent, then it will not be difficult for them to win money from you. Therefore, you should start to play heads-up format having some basic knowledge, lest you can become a soft target.

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 type of poker is worth trying:

Common strategy tips for heads-up players to note

The heads up holdem strategy depend on a number of factors: your opponent's playing style, range of hands to play, position, ability to manage your bankroll and chose correct bet sizing, bluffing as well as and revealing your rival's bluffs at the poker table.

Let’s consider a few common strategy tips that will help you take your heads-up play to the next level:

1. Your opponent's playing style. It is imperative that you keep an eye on your “enemy” in the heads-up. Examine your opponent in order to know when and how they play a pair, a drawing hand, and when they are inclined to bluff or fold to your bets/raises. In online poker, we suggest that you keep records of your rival’s actions and behavior, while in offline poker – you should keep everything in mind.

But, bear in mind that the opponent will study you thoroughly as well. Therefore, try to diversify your play: use checking and bluffing, apply different bet sizing, and don’t forget about playing check/raise.

2. Hand range. Play as wide range of hands as possible. Remember that the fewer players in the game, the higher the likelihood that even a weak combination will be winning. If one waits for the premium cards to come, they risk losing the entire stack for blinds, as in heads-up you will be posting the blinds in every hand.

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 80% of the time.
  • Ace or King + any card. In heads-up, any Ace (irrespective of the second card) is 52% or better to win versus a single random hand.
  • Q+3, J+5, T+7, 8+9 of the same suit.
  • Q+5, J+8, T+9 and better, offsuit.

3. Poker hand values must be taken into account. In heads-up poker, any winning combination has greater potential than in cash games. For example, a top pair on the flop corresponds to a set in cash games with a large number of players. Moreover, even a medium strength pair on the board can become winning on the showdown. Consider this factor and place your bets under the appropriate circumstances.

Important! Bear in mind that in heads-up you will win the majority of poker hands with a high card or a pair. If a player has any pair, even the weakest one, they will be ahead of all high-card combinations.

4. Position at the table. Every hand, you and your opponent in turn will take the position of button or big blind. Each time you are on the button preflop, you will be in a good position, since you will be the last to act postflop. Take advantage of this and apply aggression by playing every pair, suited connectors, every Ace, or any two picture cards. At the same time, be cautious when being in the big blind.

Positions in poker

5. Value betting. When playing heads-up, try to win maximum chips from your opponent on every street. 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 A as a high card. At the same time, it makes sense to change the bet sizing in order to confuse your “enemy”. Therefore, with an obviously strong hand, you can also apply a slow play on the flop and turn, and then make a big bet on the river.

6. Playing for stack. In heads-up, calling all-ins with a bad hand is not the best solution. Do not be lazy; apply a methodical approach to further reduce your rival's stack. Also, beware of all-ins from your opponent if you have significantly reduced their stack.

7. Semi-bluffing is a great tool for winning pots here. Any drawing hand or pair is suitable for semi-bluffs in heads-up. Test your opponent with small raises on the flop. If you are called, then you will know for sure that your opponent 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 hit your draw.

If this happens, keep fighting and make a raise; if not, skip the trades 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 fold the cards. The size of the semi-bluff bet should not be less than 50% of the pot.

8. Bluffing. Take care not to get bluffed in heads-up, especially if an aggressive player is trying to bluff. To that end, you should re-raise preflop and then call your opponent’s bet if they bet on the flop. You should do this even with a middle pair. Observe how your opponent behaves on the turn and try to catch their bluff. If you succeed, then your rival will hardly return to this technique.

Check out how Daniel Negreanu reveals his opponent's (Greg Raymer) bluff: 

9. 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 playing at two or more tables at once. Learn to manage your bankroll. Even experienced regular players don't allow themselves to be that crazy as the risk to lose all their money is high.

You should learn how to manage your bankroll not only when playing heads up poker but generally to reach success in this field, so we recommend you to watch the following video:

Final thoughts

You now know the answer to the question "what does heads up mean in poker"?. For a beginner, heads-up is often the most difficult to play while experienced players consider heads-up to be true poker because this is where you can show your entire arsenal of theoretical knowledge and skill.

But, even an expert grasp of poker theory does not guarantee you success. When playing heads-up, psychology and emotional control are of great importance. History knows thousands of cases when brilliant poker players lost all their fortune in no time after they allowed emotions to take over their minds.

Resistance to stress, prudence and cold mind – these are simply necessary qualities of a strong heads-up player. You can play great and make a lot of money, but if you do not know how to control yourself, be aware that at one moment your winnings can turn to zero.

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