How to Play Heads-Up Part 2: Your Mind Is What Matters


Part two of this three-part article discusses how to deal with various types of opponents and situations you may encounter heads-up.

In Heads-Up Part 1: The Cards You Play, we started exploring what makes a strong heads-up starting hand, and what level of aggression is necessary for success.

To be successful heads-up you must have internalized these key points from the previous article:

  1. You need to be as aggressive as your skill level will allow, without becoming reckless. This aggression level is ideally above that of your opponent.
  2. The strength of your hand is determined greatly by the value of your highest card; making a hand with any ace a very strong holding.

Once you have both of those ideas embedded into your gulliver, you will be able to take the advice in this article, using it to build your own winning heads-up style.

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. (You'd think it would be the other way around, since the game comes from Texas and all.)

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

I was being repetitively redundant on purpose. Too many players seem to think that AA will win upward of 98% of the time. I hate to burst your euphoric AA bubble, but it's going to lose around 15% of the time. (I hope I got the message across by now.)

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.

Huck Seed
Huck Seed, winner of the 2008 Canadian Open Heads-Up Poker Championship.

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, or 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. There are times when this can be a decent strategy; I'll explain when those are in the next section.

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 are able to 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 are able to defeat them by calling.

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 are able 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, allowing you more maneuverability.

The calling-station approach is only ever advisable if you are able to 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.

I think that advice is only relevant on a full table. 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 I think 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, allowing you to 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.

As you can see, 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.

Gus Hansen
Gus Hansen: one of the world's most aggressive players.

How to Adjust for Stack Sizes Heads-Up

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

  • 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.

I've watched, and been part of, many heads-up sessions where the small stack climbs back to being even just by stealing blinds and thanks to any hopeful limps/raises made by the big stack.

Once the small stack gets back to even strength, they will retain control of the match, allowing them an easier time taking the lead than the original big stack.

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're going to need a good hand or few to take the win.

By now you should have a solid understanding of how strong your pocket pair and any ace hands are heads-up. You should also have a fairly decent idea of the massive amount of aggression you should be playing with.

In the final part of this article, I will discuss how to use this aggression and hand knowledge to break your opponent. I'll give you an example of one of the heads-up game plans I use, and show you how to use it as a building block to create your own.

More strategy articles from Sean Lind:

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