Heads Up

Things you will learn:

  • Why aggression is important in heads-up poker.
  • Concepts to bear in mind on each street

Heads-up No-Limit Hold'em requires the mastery of all the classic elements of poker - maths, psychology, hand reading and heart.

For players craving action and the ultimate test of their skills, heads-up poker has always been the game of choice. Heads-up No-Limit Hold'em is the most profitable format for a skilled player, because there is nowhere for your opponent to hide. Not only do you have to play your opponent on almost each and every hand, but post-flop competence is crucial. To an expert player, this means the opportunity to continually exercise your edge by making better decisions than your opponent.

Pre-flop

In heads-up no-limit hold'em, aggression and position are paramount and you should be raising from the button with a very wide range of hands. Your aim is not just to put maximum pressure on your opponent and build pots, it's also to develop the opportunity to put him to tough decisions later in the hand.

Out of position, you will need to play much more circumspectly, defending only with hands that you can play with confidence, like pairs, suited connectors, Broadway cards, and high or suited aces.

You also need to balance your ranges and attempt to seize back the momentum in a hand by re-raising frequently against a player opening a lot of hands from the button.

Against aggressive players who re-raise frequently, you will need to combat this through a mixture of four-betting with marginal hands, calling with big hands to trap and calling with more speculative hands. You should also be prepared to go broke with a decent top-pair type hand, a big draw or even just a big bluff.

On the flop

On the flop you need to remember that your opponent’s hand ranges will usually be extremely wide. They could be holding anything.

If you raised pre-flop and were called, continuation betting is usually a must. Just be prepared to fire more than one barrel against loose opponents who will call you in the hope of hitting something on later streets.

Similarly, out of position against an aggressor you will need to employ some of these tactics by looking for exploitable traits in your opponent, such as continuation betting too much or not betting the turn enough. As you get a feel for their play, you should also be able to identify some good flops to attack with a check-raise.

On the turn

Turn play is often what separates average and good heads-up players from great ones. Being able to balance your strategies on this street is crucial to your overall success.

Even with stacks of 100 big blinds it's possible to get most of your chips in the middle by raising pre-flop and betting all three streets post-flop, so the turn acts as a vital lynchpin in putting your opponent to the test.

Players expect to encounter aggression pre-flop and on the flop - this is standard play - but aggression on the turn will force mediocre players and hands out of pots much of the time, particularly if you are known for following through on the river as well.

Out of position, players tend to play the turn less aggressively than they should too. While calling players down can put you in awkward situations, check-raising against aggressive players with a wide range of hands can be a very effective tool, both in individual hands and as part of an overall strategy.

The river

River play is again an area where hand reading and balancing ranges is key, but it should be noted that the bigger winners would always be those that spend the most time playing the river in position. Since your options at this stage are simply to value bet or bluff (and check-raise for value or as a bluff), you need to adjust your hand ranges throughout in order to ensure that your river betting strategy is well balanced overall.

Remember that if you bet the pot on the river you lay your opponent 2/1 odds, so if you are bluffing a third of the time his decision becomes automatic.

Adjust your play according to your opponent's tendencies and his probable read of you, bluffing less against a player who is likely to call you down and more against one who folds too much.

If you are out of position you need to consider the same factors, but remember that this will always be a losing situation against a tough player, so try to head it off earlier. Also, consider employing occasional river check-raises in order to force him to bet less frequently against you.

Final thoughts

Overall, bear in mind that heads-up No-limit Hold'em is a battle of not just maths and logic, but also psychology and self-discipline. Between two strong players, aggressive and creative play will be the norm, so try to ensure that you adjust better to your opponent than he is able to adjust to you - or quit to play another day.