Heads-up Part 3: Destroying Your Opponent

Phil Laak

This three-part series concludes with an article designed to help you build your own game plan to destroy your heads-up opponents.

Once you have a firm grip on the hands you play, and the aggression you need to play them with, you are ready to use these skills to intimidate your opponent.


In a full-ring game, the aggressor controls the hand. Although it can happen, it's very rare for someone's aggression to completely control the entire table. When you're playing heads-up, you only have to control one other player.

If you are the aggressor in the majority of all hands dealt, eventually the other player will give in, allowing you to be the overall aggressor in the match.

The idea behind aggression and intimidation is to make the other player scared to play against you. You want them to lose confidence in their ability against you. Usually this will result in them telling themselves you're a nutbar.

Once they assume you're a nutbar, they will decide that they need to sit and wait for a premium monster to pick you off with. When you have a player in this state of mind, it makes it a very easy fold to any show of strength. If a player in this state of mind plays back at you, you can assume you're beat and lay down.

Voitto Rintala
Another way to intimidate: physically scare your opponent.

Stealing blinds becomes a huge part of winning at heads-up. For every one chip you steal as a blind, your stack gains a two-chip lead over your opponent's.

Because the blinds in a cash game are so small compared to the stacks, you can steal a large portion of your opponent's total stack before they realize what's going on. When the blinds are 1%-2% of your stack, it's easy to let it go and not think twice. You let that go 20 times in a row, and you've lost 30% of your stack without playing a hand.

Crack the Weak Link

Cracking your other opponent is the most rewarding thing you can do in a heads-up match. It's a spectacular feeling when you can mentally outplay your opponent so greatly that they believe they are actually outplaying you, even as they lose all their money.

I'll do my best to describe my favorite system for this. As you're about to learn, I play a very mental heads-up game, actively thinking through my strategy:

  • You start off by playing an aggressive game. Even more aggressive than usual. Right now you're both in a normal frame of mind, feeling good about the match.
  • After a few hands, you should already have a read on your opponent, and be adapting your game plan to them. You've started to get a feel for how passive they are, and how hard you can push them.
  • You are now stealing the majority of blinds, stealing or winning any hands they try to put up a resistance to, and laying down to any monsters they happen across.
  • At this point you have started to amass chips, putting you into a chip lead. They've lost one quarter of their stack or so. You're in control, feeling good.
  • They are starting to get agitated and now believe that you're just being recklessly aggressive and getting lucky.
  • It is at this point, when they're steaming, that they decide to set up a trap for you. They decide they will wait until they have a monster, or hit a big flop, and trap you for all your chips. They think because of your aggression you won't see it coming.
  • Now every time they do get a big hand, you lay down. This makes them steam more. They think that you have nothing whenever they get a big hand, and if you only get as much as a pair you'll pay them off. After all, you've shown ace-highs and bottom pairs on the river; you'll obviously call anything.
  • Now is when you can get the rope out for them to hang themselves. You've collected enough of their chips to set up a trap of your own. This is where I will start seeing flops with them when I know I'm behind a better hand.
  • It is at this point I'll play suited connectors, or really any two cards, hoping to hit a big flop against an overpair. If I don't, I fold knowing I'm beat, only giving them the pre-flop raise. I use the chips I stole from them earlier to freeroll into these raised pots now.
  • They should be happy to have won back some chips, but instead they become more upset that you folded to their monster.
  • This is where it goes down. You flop a straight, or top two, with a random hand against their overpair. You bet out, letting them raise you.
  • You instantly push on them. You just pushed $200 into a $20 pot, but they don't see this. All they see is you trying to bully them off another pot.
  • They think to themselves "I finally caught this donkey!"
  • They snap-call you to lose their stack.

I can't tell you how many heads-up sessions I've won this way. Of course this plan will only work against players who will crack and have the sort of mental breakdown I described. These players are the ones who believe they are strong strategists and who don't want to admit they're outmatched by you.

Mark Teltscher
The George Costanza approach: look frustrated all the time.

Fortunately, the majority of poker players fit into this category.

Some Parting Thoughts

The strategy here isn't meant for you to take and try to follow step by step. The goal here was for you to realize how much thought actually goes on in a heads-up match. It gives you a good idea of where to set the bar in terms of how in-depth your strategy should be.

You should take this example, and use it as a starting point to formulate your own heads-up game plans. Using a strategy such as this against a superior player is not going to pan out.

You must first correctly judge the skill and style of your opponent. Once you know whom you're up against, you'll be ready to create a game plan to destroy them.

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