Over the next few weeks I will be concentrating on heads up limit hold’em and some of the strategies that I use in these particular games. For a long time, I never touched heads up play of any description. I started out playing limit hold’em but only in full ring games. As these games became fewer in number then I was forced into playing and adjusting for short handed games.
But these days, the middle limit games are getting tougher and tougher to beat and game selection is critical however good you are. So I eventually dipped my beak at playing heads up limit hold’em not that long ago actually and found that I not only liked it but also I was very strong at it. But of course you are confronted by many heads up situations in short handed games anyway so it wasn’t as if I was totally unprepared for it.
My publisher Byron Jacobs was doing amazingly well at $10-$20 heads up limit and the amounts that he was winning online were certainly eye opening. But I would sit and watch the heads up games and get to know the regulars and the good players and simply avoided them. The players that I concentrated on were the shot takers. The types who had a loose $500 or so and fancied some macho heads up action rather than their usual boring $2-$4 game.
Heads up play is a game where you are forced to be aggressive and you will get aggression in return. You will be forced to play junk hands on flops that have missed you, call down with ace high and value bet ace high and bottom pair if you want to make money and certainly against the better players. Any form of poker where you are constantly seeing flops is one hell of a tough game in my opinion and a true test of a players ability.
It really sorts out the men from the boys, none of this raising before the flop and taking it or raising pre-flop and continuation betting the flop and taking it like you see in no limit ring games. In fact, playing heads up limit hold’em against a very strong player could just be one of the toughest examinations that you will ever undertake in your poker career. I advise against it until you have studied the game or I advise against playing for meaningful stakes anyway.
If you are a winning short handed player and pick your games well then chances are that you could do well in heads up play but you need to be cautious. In this series of articles on heads up play I will at all times talk as if the button is the small blind for consistency.
Speaking of the button, just how important is it? Well for a start you have position and position is crucial in any form of poker. I mean, it is literally king in a game like PLO for instance and also of vital importance in NLHE. But having the button and playing it correctly is a matter of life and death in heads up limit play.
As I have just said, having position is of importance in any form of poker but yet its power can be stifled somewhat the more players who enter the pot. If in a full limit ring game, five players have limped in and you are on the button, its power has been blunted by the sheer number of opponents in the hand. Chances are that you are going to have to make a hand to win this pot.
But it is a different story in heads up play where getting just one opponent to fold is the difference between winning and losing so the button is dramatically elevated in importance in heads up play. So what advantages does having the button give to you? Well I feel that one of the least talked about and most crucial advantages of having the button is that it also gives you the option to check it back after your opponent.
I see too many players in heads up games simply blast away pre-flop and post flop. This will win you money some of the time if your opponents are both weak enough to stand for it and card dead. But a maniac approach while not being a bad approach to heads up games and far better than a passive approach is also not the optimal way to play.
Whenever I am on the button then I will be playing a very high percentage of my hands. If I sense that I can dominate my opponent post flop then I will play if not 100% of my hands, then close to it. When I do play my hands then I am raising and I never limp in on the button and yes this means raising with junk. Raising gives my hand added equity in the pot but much of that equity disappears if you raise 100% of the time against a very good strong aggressive player.
You don’t want to raise with a hand like 9-2 and be three bet. Much of the time against most opponents then you will have to slow down somewhat and fold some of your hands from the button and is why I play on average around 85% of my hands from that position. On the whole I avoid strong opponents heads up but if I were against a strong opponent then I would still raise with around at least 80% of my starting hands. This is a necessity because conceding too many small blinds against most players is just not profitable.
So my raising percentage when I am on the button tends to vary depending on the quality of my opponent. But like I said earlier, one of the advantages of having the button is the option to check it back after your opponent has checked.
For example, lets say that I raised with an Js-3s from the button and get called. The flop comes 9c-8d-6h and my opponent checks. If my opponent is weak and will check fold a lot of flops with a fit or fold mentality then I will continuation bet here but a strong opponent checking is a different story. Strong players will call and even raise you with weak and mediocre hands so there are just not that many hands that my opponent is going to fold here to a bet. He will call or raise with his draws, overcards and aces and if I get check raised here then I cannot continue. So the calibre of your opponent not only dictates how often you raise from the button but also how frequently you continuation bet.
As usual I will be available through the forum to answer any questions.
Carl “The Dean” Sampson can also be found playing free poker