Heads-Up Poker 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.

How to Play 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 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 in Heads-up Poker

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.

In Heads-Up Poker, Have a Game Plan

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.

More strategy articles from Sean Lind:

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david 2017-08-12 14:47:34

You re fine. He gave you the right pot odds to call. Quite frankly. He should of bet on the turn and took the pot. 2 outs have a 10& chance of hitting 2 cards, versus 5% on the turn. You wouldn't of called with pocket 9s. He shouldn't of given you free cards.

askuncledana 2016-10-14 09:22:22

raise it up! stealing blinds is a great part of the game. the red chip poker pods talk about this alot.

Chris Smith 2016-08-22 11:26:01

Hi Newbie question.
Could you adopt this strategy for stealing blinds?
For example, if I am on the button or SB can I try this to increase profitability?
If I am on the button and nobody else has called, will this work, is it a valid strategy for cash games, which is my main area of interest.
Or is this too aggressive regardless if we are on a 6MAX or 9/10 seated table?

Emma Goldman 2012-01-28 15:18:06

Paul, hi, first, your articles are amazing. I played a great game last night with a new group with players more senior than me but I got into HU, final 2. I got crushed. I was 4-1 chip underdog. I had terrible cards, meaning, virtually no pictures, no aces, certainly. I have been more aggressive in the past, but he got into my head early...he could raise big (no limit hold em/tournament style), etc. Any thoughts on what to do if say 5 hands in a row suck and those blinds are being lost?


Sean Lind 2010-02-15 23:04:22



That one word is all you need to know. Here's what happened:

He raised the button (most TAG and LAG players will raise just about anything HU on the button, range is wide open here)

You three-bet (this represents you have decent hand, but heads up that can be as weak as JQ, a weak ace or any pocket pair), he just calls (A-10 is a decent hand HU, even into a raise).

So far, it's all standard.

Flop - A 10 2

Yes, it is very possible with a raise and flat call of the 3-bet that he has an ace in his hand. In fact, I'd say that about 50% of his range here includes an ace (this number is 100% from feel, no real maths to back it up).

Since you checked, it's a raised pot and he has the button, he will bet just about any 2 cards here. After you check you represent having anything but an ace, this means he will always value bet his ace, and will bluff just about anything else (we're playing heads-up, every bet you make is either a bluff or a value bet)

I'm fine with your flat call. You have no reason to assume you're beat yet, but because it's very possible you want to keep the pot as small as possible. No hand you ever beat will call a raise, so you can only fold or call. If you believe that he's bluffing even half the time, you made a good call.

The turn goes check-check (huge mistake on his part, I'm not sure why he checks such a big hand here).

You spike the river.

Now you can be about 90% certain you have the best hand. He could have JK for the nuts (it would make perfect sense) or even J8 for a straight, but that's only 2 hands to fear, while his range is still massive.

I really like the check-raise here. If you bet out, it would be a three-street stop and go, which screams of extreme strength, since you almost certainly have the best hand, and it's a hidden hand (good chance of getting paid by any pair of aces, or two pair), you want to get it all in here.

We can be almost 100% sure he's betting the river with anything one-pair or better, he checks with less. Since he will NEVER call your bet with less, checking is hte most profitable play here. He bets, you raise, he snaps, you double up.

This was a 100% standard hand. You played it perfectly, he made some mistakes.

Yes, you got lucky, but you had no way of knowing he had A10, with the information you had, you made great plays, and got bailed out.

To put it into perspective though, you paid $15 to see two streets, if you miss you never lose any more. If you hit, you make $200. Those implied odds are worth it, especially since there is a marginal chance you actually called with the best hand on the flop.

So yeah, don't sweat it, and just laugh it off.

Paul 2010-02-15 20:38:18

I caught a lot of crap from a superior player this past Friday for a hand we played--tell me what you think.

50./$1 live heads up. I am the big blind with $100, while my opponent has a stack of $200. He plays a solid, tight game, but advertises bluffs sometimes. I have developed a loose image to couple with his sense that I am a fish (perhaps rightfully).
I get dealt QsQh...
Button: raises to $3. Me: reraise to $12. button calls. flop is A 10 2 rainbow. he bets $15 in $24 and I call. Pot $54. turn is a 9s. I check, and he checks behind. river brings a Q. I check, he bets $35. I raise all-in and he snap-calls with A10. I take the $200 pot. He starts lamenting about my two-outer for the rest of the night. We finish even.

-Where did I mess up? Suppose he had bet the turn and I called--would that be a mistake on my part, or do you not have enough info about my opponents game to give me an answer? His c-bet fit in perfectly with his range, true, but he also knows that I know that. With only one overcard its hard for me not to think I have the best hand, plus there are no obvious draws so this is not an RIO situation. He could have a weak ace and my calling range could very well have a better kicker. My preflop reraise indicates just that, or a pocket pair, or top-pair hand. I am not disputing that I got lucky; I just do not think that it was a complete donk hand on my part.

bennie99 2009-11-05 15:29:00

Yeah heads up poker is a real test of your skills. Strong maths guys tend to have a real advantage here....huck seed, chris ferguson and andy bloch cut up the national heads up champs whilst Hellmuth (yes I know he knows the maths but he's not a genuis maths guy like the others I've mentioned) struggles a bit.

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