Playing Heads Up by Paul Wasicka
Heads-up play is one of the most important aspects of poker, and many players could benefit from strengthening this part of their game.
Position is crucial in heads-up play. So is aggression and reading your opponent. In fact, playing aggressively in position can often be the deciding factor in whether or not you win the pot. You can have a much worse hand, but if you trust your reads, you can often take the pot with the right board.
I don’t recommend playing that many raised pots out of position – in other words, don’t call a lot of raises from the big blind. Hands like two face cards, A-8 and up, and pairs are worth re-raising with. Hands like 8-7 suited are fairly worthless because suited connectors like these can be easily dominated by larger hands and lose a lot of their value heads up.
In general, I’m looking for big cards like K-10. Even though these cards are easily dominated in ring games, they play much stronger heads up. If I hit a big pair with cards like these I can feel comfortable going with it, which is something that’s hard to do with middle cards like 6-5.
I’m usually going to do one of two things in the big blind when I’m heads up; fold or re-raise. My standard re-raise is between three and four times my opponent’s bet, and by pumping up the pot pre-flop, I’m making it difficult for my opponent to call me with marginal hands. If he does call, I can always make a post-flop continuation bet or lay down my hand if I’ve missed and my opponent leads out at the pot.
The only time I call out of position is when my opponent plays back at me by moving in a lot. My decision here comes back to paying attention to my opponent’s tendencies and going with my reads.
Reading is Fundamental
Reading your opponent becomes even more important in heads-up play. Because your opponent is likely to raise with a much larger range of hands heads up, making reads is much more difficult. Learning to gauge your opponent’s hand requires paying close attention to their patterns. Do they always raise the button? How often do they call your button raises? Do they ever re-raise from the big blind? Asking questions like these helps to narrow down their possibilities.
You have to trust your reads enough to act on them. If you sense strength, are you willing to lay down the second-best hand? If you sense weakness, will you apply the pressure it takes to win the pot?
In my experience in both ring games and heads up, many players try to accumulate chips too quickly. If you just sit back and wait for your opponents to make mistakes, you’ll end up with all of the chips in the end. For instance, you should avoid making pot-sized bets when smaller bets will usually accomplish the same goals with less risk. Sometimes half-pot bets are even too high and betting the minimum is enough to gather the information you need about your opponent’s hand.
This becomes especially true when your opponent becomes short-stacked. In these cases, I will usually limp on the button once they are around the 10 big blind range. If I do raise, I must have a hand I’m willing to go with because my opponent’s only options are folding or pushing. Some people think it’s weak to limp on the button, but I don’t want to keep folding semi-decent hands in this situation. By limping when my opponent is short, they have to decide if they want to gamble with a high-risk/low-reward all-in move to win one of my blinds.
In heads-up tournaments you want to play in position, trust your reads, and play small pots to build a lead. Once you have a 3-1 lead, then you’re looking for hands to gamble with against your opponent’s short stack.
I’ve had a lot of success using these principles in heads-up play; they were instrumental in helping me win the 2007 National Heads-Up Championship. Put these ideas into practice and you may find the extra edge you need the next time you’re playing heads up.