Poker Strategy: Let's talk about Heads Up!

Hi everybody! Taking the cue from the interesting video that recently appeared on PokerNews Italia in which three major heads up players suggest some starting points to reflect upon this speciality, I also wish to analyze the theory of heads up tournaments to express my personal view.

Among poker tournaments, excluding the shoot-outs, the heads-up tournaments are the only ones to be characterized by a structure at sealed off compartments: each segment has a own life, starting and finishing in the lapse of few hands but not leading to an increase in stack in sight of future moves or in the attempt to dominate the table thanks to the quantity of chips.

Once the turn is over, everything always starts from the beginning once again with a new opponent who probably we have never seen before.

The key to heads-up play is the ability to understand the style and the psychology of our opponent. Starting from the premise that we do not know our opponent and that the tournament has a structure that allows for playing, a number of 25/30 hands to start with should be enough to understand more or less the kind of opponent that we are facing.

The aim is to understand the main features and to take advantage of the weak points of the opponent. However, there is something even more important that has to be done. While we are trying to understand who is sitting in front of us, the same "analysis" will be carried out on us! Therefore, we need to change our game constantly. We should try to give little opportunity of reading to our opponent by alternating pre-flop action, starting hands, and game on board too. Never be repetitive and foreseeable in heads up!

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Aggressiveness is fundamental in a speciality like heads up poker. I too had to work hard to improve my heads up play and it was a long and difficult path. Obviously, it is not possible to wait for a good hand or to be too tight or passive in heads-up.

If the opponent is passive, the best way to profit from this leak is to attack frequently. However, should this play become a standard, in the long run the opponent will take our measures and start to counterattack by raising in a bluff or making some hero calls on our bluff attempts. We therefore need to "mix" our image, sometimes by preflop limping (if the opponent is not aggressive, probably he will not raise), sometimes by renouncing the classic c-bet at flop. Once we have confused enough our image, we can start to attack and to bluff again.

We cannot wait for a good hand.

If the opponent is aggressive instead, we cannot give him much space to act. At the same time, we cannot wait for a good hand. By mixing our plays, we won't let him take control of the situation. If we preflop fold a few trash hands at the beginning, then we can suddenly raise or reraise no matter what we have. With players of this kind, when we are in the big blind we can surely increase the number of hands with which we can call a raise, but every now and then we have to come up with a reraise. Sometimes, I limped preflop with aggressive players, then see their raise and fold the hand. Later on, when I had a good hand, I did the same play, obviously firmly 3-betting on their raise. Very often, this "trick" has allowed me to pick up some big pots.

Another often useful play in heads up is the delayed c-bet: though I attacked preflop, I choose to check at the flop, followed by the opponent's check ,and finally I come out betting on "any turn". This play may create confusion for a while and lead the opponent to think that he is facing a slowplay. Try this, but once in a while, and then choose a different play in a similar game situation.

To conclude, the heads up is a game based on reading the opponent while hiding oneself. it is a challenge to our opponent's mind and, in the end, this is one of the features that make poker a wonderfully complex game!

Luca Pagano
@PokerStars in Luca Pagano