How to Play Better Heads-Up Poker: A Beginners Guide

Chan vs. Ivey

In the worlds of professional and high-stakes poker, a lot of poker players say that how well you play heads-up is the purest indication of your true poker skill.

Some pros, in fact, play heads-up poker almost exclusively. And many of the world's top cash players have a standing challenge to play anyone heads-up, any time, for any amount.

Heads-up offers world-class (and amateur) players the chance to pair off and compete head to head. But being successful at heads-up poker requires a very refined poker skill set. 

Your ability to make strong reads of players and situations is paramount. Here's how you can improve your heads-up game.

Who Wins at Heads-Up Poker?

The nature of heads-up allows for more strategic play so it removes a significant portion of the luck factor involved in, say, big-field poker MTTs, which in turn adds a new element to the game.

heads-up poker strategy
HU 4 rollz?

Since most matches go until one player is broke, you're literally putting your bankroll on the line to say you're a better poker 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. So 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.

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Aggression is Critical in Heads-Up Poker!

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 Changes Heads-Up

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).

heads up poker starting hands

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 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 and full houses happen but not nearly as often as they will on a full table.

The fewer hands dealt, the less chance there is 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.

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Playing "Any Ace" Heads-Up

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

Dan Harrington heads up strategy
Cards matter a lot.

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.

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How to Play Heads-Up: Any Pair

If any ace is 52% or better to win, it only makes sense that any pocket pair is even more valuable. You have to play heads-up in the mind-set that any pair is good until proven otherwise.

Remember, the majority of hands heads-up are won by a high card or a single pair. Having any pair puts you ahead of all high-card hands.

Any pair is good until proven otherwise. But don't interpret this to mean you should get married to your hands. Even if you have AA, it's typically between a 5-1 and 6-1 favorite to win. That's 85% to win pre-flop.

heads up poker strategy
Walk the line.

Other than the times where you're up against another hand with an ace, 15% of the time you're going to lose.

You need to walk the thin line of being massively aggressive without getting married to your hands. This is why heads-up poker is so read-based.

At a full table, it's almost never a good idea to be calling large bets with nothing but an ace-high (no pair, no draw). The same play heads-up can be the correct play more often than not, depending on the other player and the reads you can get from them.

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How to Deal with Aggression Heads-Up

What if the person you're playing against has taken control and is the aggressor? You have two choices to deal with someone taking control of the match:

  • out-aggro them
  • become a calling station

If you have the read that your opponent is playing a strictly aggro game you have to deduce if the player is willing to back down from a show of greater aggression or not.

If the other player has a strong read on you they might be willing to push on you anytime you come over the top, knowing you're only doing it to take a stand -- not because you have a big hand.

Pushing against them every time they show aggression can work in your favor sometimes but it removes all strategy from your game. You will get stacked every time they fall into a monster.

Being a calling station is always a bad thing at a full table. Playing heads-up it can be a very strong, advanced strategy to deal with an aggressor.

If you can put the other player on a hand and can figure out the odds of that hand versus yours, including letting them see fourth and fifth street, then you can defeat them by calling.

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heads-up poker
Calling works too

A True Calling Station

A true calling station is someone who is unable to get a read and who therefore won't fold in the face of certain defeat knowing only the two cards they hold.

If you can read the strength of your opponent's hand you can make them believe you're a calling station when in fact you're only calling with the best hand.

You make them believe it's fruitless for them to attempt a bluff. If they believe they can't bluff, it shifts the control to you and allows you more maneuverability.

The calling-station approach is only ever advisable if you can get a read that indicates you're ahead. If you truly are ahead, lots of people will argue that you should aim to get as much money in the pot as possible.

Winning heads-up is more about the mental game than the cards. You want to get the person into a frame of mind in which they think about you as a certain type of player.

You can then understand and manipulate their perception of you. Here are two reasons why calling can be a better option than raising in this situation:

  • If the player has nothing they will fold to your raise. If they are trying to mow you down with aggression, and believe you're passive enough to fold, they will fire one or two more barrels at you and let you pick up two more bets.
  • By just calling the river you get to show them your weak, although good, hand. This will make them believe you're a calling station or they'll start thinking they're outmatched against you and playing scared.

Instead of trying to figure out how your opponent perceives you, there's a much easier course of action: Figure out how you want them to play against you and feed them an image that will make them do exactly that.

How to Adjust for Stack Sizes Heads-Up

Pro players often talk about the small-stack heads-up advantage. What it means is:

  • If the small stack is pushing every time they have any semblance of a hand, it forces the big stack to have to tighten up and play just the cards. This allows the small stack to steal and gain back control of the match.

Many heads-up sessions see the small stack climb back to being even just by stealing blinds and through hopeful limps/raises made by the big stack. Once the small stack gets back to even strength they will retain control of the match and have an easier time taking the lead than the original big stack.

hu poker

This isn't true if the small stack got there by being outmatched and outplayed. If the player isn't able to hold their own in the match they'll need a few good hands to take the win.

How to Win Heads-Up: The End Game

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're the aggressor in the majority of all hands dealt, eventually the other player will give in and let you be the overall aggressor in the match.

You want them to lose confidence in their ability against you. 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.

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.

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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.

The strategy outlined 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 win.

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Wesley 2009-05-30 03:08:00

Boy, I couldn't make a single bet against her, she's so distracting :)

Rod 2008-06-27 00:33:00

Thanks for making the image of the blonde clickable for high res.

Uh... and thanks for the great post.

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