Heads-up Part 1: The Cards You Play

Chan vs. Ivey

In the first installment of this three-part article, we start exploring the differences between playing at full tables and playing heads-up.

Being successful heads-up requires a refined poker skill set; your ability to make strong reads of players and situations is paramount. Some believe that how well you perform heads-up is the purest indication of your poker abilities.

Some players will play heads-up almost exclusively, and almost all of the world's top cash players will play anyone heads-up, any time, for any amount. Heads-up offers world-class players the chance to pair off and compete head to head.

The Best Player Will Win Most Consistently

The nature of heads-up allows for more strategic play, removing a significant portion of the luck factor, which in turn adds a new element of gamble to the game. Since most matches go until one player is broke, you are gambling that you're a better player than your opponent.

Playing at a full table with one or even a few players stronger than yourself doesn't mean you're going to lose money. If half the table is better than you, you still have a skill advantage over the remaining players.

You can tiptoe around the better players and pick off the weak. The better players will take the weaker players into their sights before they will you.

In heads-up, though, you're the only one they can aim for. Because victory is so starkly delineated, prestige and ego are on the line as much as the cash. Full-table cash games and even tournaments don't give you the same unquestionable bragging rights as a heads-up match.

Chris Ferguson
Chris "Jesus" Ferguson has proved himself to be one of the world's best heads-up tournament players.


Aggression is an important part of any form of poker, but with heads-up it's critical. You're in the blinds every hand. If you buy-in for $200 for a $1/$2 heads-up match and fold every hand, you will lose half your stack in just 66 hands. In a full ring game, you would have lost $18-$21.

Aside from saving yourself from getting blinded out, there are many strategic advantages to playing an aggressive game heads-up. Every aspect of a heads-up game that is covered in what follows is related both directly and indirectly to aggression.

If you pair two players of equal poker skill, the more aggressive of the two will win more sessions in the long run.

Hand Power

Almost all people who play Hold'em poker will tell you 2-7o is the worst hand you can be dealt. Most of them can tell you why (they're the two lowest cards you can be dealt without the ability to make a straight).

Only a few of these same people understand that the worst starting hand changes when you get down to heads-up.

The "Texas hold'em starting hands" entry on Wikipedia (view it here) plots out why this is:

There are (52 × 51)/2 = 1,326 distinct possible combinations of two hole cards from a standard 52-card deck in Hold'em, but since suits have no relative value in poker, many of these hands are identical in value before the flop.

For example, A J and A J are identical, because each is a hand consisting of an ace and a jack of the same suit. There are 169 nonequivalent starting hands in Hold'em (13 pocket pairs, 13 × 12/2 = 78 suited hands and 78 unsuited hands; 13+78+78 = 169).

If you hold A-K on a flop of 10-Q-K, out of all the 169 nonequivalent hands, only 14 have you beat at this point. That means only 8% of the possible hands have you beat.

The 8% number is not accurate to figure your odds at losing this pot, though, as the odds of being dealt AA are far lower than those of being dealt something like 4-7. Not to mention you already have one of the aces, which makes being dealt AA even more improbable.

What you need to see here is that with only one other person having been dealt a hand, the chance of them having you beat is very slim. On a full table there will always be nine times more hands dealt with the chance at beating your own.

For this reason, hands in heads-up are mostly won by a high card or a pair. Straights, flushes, full houses happen, but not nearly as often as they will on a full table. The fewer hands dealt, the less chance of the board connecting with anything.

The face value of the cards in your hand becomes more important than your straight or flush possibilities. By this logic, the lowest hand you can be dealt heads-up is 2-3o.

poker cutie
Another strategy is to distract your opponent with your huge... glasses.

Any Ace

Now that we're on board with the idea of your hand's worth being determined by the value of your highest card, it will be easy to explain the "any ace" concept.

Almost all hands you play heads-up will come down to a battle of two unpaired cards. If most hands are won by high card, or one pair, having an ace becomes a big deal. As Dan Harrington says about heads-up play, "Suits matter a little, high cards matter a lot."

Any ace, regardless of the second card, is 52% or better to win against a single random hand. These are just numbers to help get your head around starting-hand requirements in heads-up versus a full ring. If you pushed all-in every time you had an ace heads-up you would not win 52% of the time or more.

The reason is simple: you don't get a call every time you push. You are almost guaranteed to get a call when the person has a hand that seriously dominates your own, and a fold when they have junk. The numbers in this article are just one way to help make you comfortable playing at the aggression level needed to dominate heads-up poker.

The better a player you are, the more aggressive you can be without being reckless. The more aggressive you can be as a heads-up player, the more often you'll find yourself winning the match.

I'll continue my dissection of heads-up play and how to crush your opponent in part two tomorrow.

More strategy articles from Sean Lind:

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