Useful Hints to improve your heads-up play
Heads-up (face-to-face) play in poker is exciting, dynamic and fast. Typically, you have to make decisions that can cost you your whole stack every five seconds or so when playing heads-up.
You have to somewhat experienced in poker to begin playing heads up, otherwise you are likely to lose constantly.
Your brain needs to tune into the precise wavelength and act correctly to the greatest possible extent, feeding on your opponent's playing style and his decision-making patterns. The right strategy for heads-up differs greatly from the common cash-game strategy. You have to make the right adjustments during the game to beat your opponent and earn some money. With this is mind, I have written ten basic hints to guide you smoothly into learning how to play heads-up. After reading this article you can study the strategy section of heads-up playing and enhance your knowledge – but never forget that it is practice that makes one a true professional.
My first advice: Broaden the range of your starting hands. As you'll know from my previous articles, the strength of a hand increases when the amount of players at a table decreases. Heads-up is a game for two players, therefore raising on cards of A2 or K9 is a must. You cannot afford to wait and play premium hands only when playing heads-up, as you are on the blinds in every deal and they eat up your stake. My advice is to play almost every hand on the button and keep a sharp lookout on the big blind.
Play in position. Position at the table is a remarkable factor in a heads-up game. Everything is very simple! On every hand you are either in good position (small blind) or in a bad one (big blind), and there is no other situation. As I have already said, play every hand on the button and use this position to gain the advantage over your opponent. Remember, when you are on the button, you are also the small blind. You are the first to act before the flop, but the last on all the other streets after the flop. For the big blind, it's the other way around.
This is precisely why I advise you to play very aggressively when you are on the button and make raises with a big amount of hands (any pair, any suited set, any two high cards, any ace etc). When you are on the big blind, be cautious and do not forget that you are now out of position.
When you are out of position, be conservative and respect raises from the player on the button.
Remember the value of hands. As I have already mentioned in Hint #1, the value of the starting hands increases in heads-up play. It increases on the showdown as well. An average winning hand in heads-up will be much weaker than an average winning hand at a full table, so be ready to adapt.
Even a middle-pair and second-highest pair on board can be a winning combination; therefore you always have to bet on it.
Use semi-bluffs when possible. One of the best ways to win a great deal of pots in heads-up is to make small check bets at the moment when there are no bets and raises before you. When I play heads-up, I always raise on all flops. Any straight draw or flush draw is worth betting and you should try to take the pot at once. If my opponent calls, I can either stop with bets for a while, or attack and make him pay from a good combination, depending on the turn and my combination. Remember: Most players usually fold any hand except highest pair or a middle hand with a big kicker. An average semi-bluff bet should start from between 50 and 70 percent of the size of the pot.
Try to catch your opponent bluffing. This hint sort of contradicts Hint 4. If you are playing against an aggressive opponent, sooner or later you will have to make your contribution to prevent constant attempts to semi-bluff and raise on pre-flop. Remember, if you catch a player bluffing, he will slow down in 90 percent of such cases and will get out of the groove of his normal way of playing. I like to make raises on pre-flop and call the greater part of my opponent's bets on flop to see the strength of his hand and his actions on the turn. Even if you have a middle pair, you have to check his honesty sometimes, otherwise he will suppress you in every pot and you will lose your playing style.
Do not forget about value-bets. This hint can be combined with Hint 3, because even with low winning hands you still have to try and value-bet into your opponent, because he might call you with third-highest pair. Let's say when you have a middle pair and all five cards are open, you still have to make a bet because in most cases you will be ahead and you will be called to with third-highest and fourth-highest pair, and sometimes even with just an ace. Also, when you have the nuts, I recommend half slow play, i.e. make a small bet on the flop and on the turn, then a huge bet on the river so you can value-bet to the maximum and beat your opponent. Remember, your opponent can figure out the pattern of your bets quite fast, so change their size frequently.
Learn your opponent's playing style and adapt to it. During a heads-up poker-playing session you will make a lot of notes about your opponent. You will know the way he plays a draw, pairs and when he bluffs, but don't forget that your opponent will be making notes and learning your playing style as well. By collecting data, it gives you an opportunity to reveal your opponents weak points and to adapt to his style and overcome him.
For example, if you know that your opponent always checks on the flop and bets on the turn, it means he has top pair, so be cautious and fold when such situations occur. By playing heads-up poker you will begin to see clearly what I am talking about.
Adapt your own playing style. This hint contradicts the previous one. While you are gathering the information about your opponent he is doing the same thing. That is why you have to change your playing style in order to confuse your opponent, so that he eventually makes a mistake and gives all his money away to you. If you're playing for more than an hour at the same table, mix up your game a little. Let your opponent guess what you have. Check and bet in different situations; do not forget about bluffing and check-raising as well.
Finish off your opponent. This hint is one of the most important for heads-up poker players. When you have finished your opponent, and he only has a small stake remaining, you have to be able to set your mind and finish the battle in your favor. Do not give him even the remotest chance of winning his chips back. In order to prevent him from doing so don't give him opportunities to double his stack – don't be lazy and start calling his all-ins with a weak hand. The easiest way to play your chips back for your opponent is to call to his all-ins with a weak hand. Yes, I understand that you want to beat him as fast as you possibly can, but you shouldn't allow him back into the game just because you've become impatient. Remember, simply continue to play in your usual style and you will finish him off fast enough
Keep a close eye on your bankroll. One of the biggest mistakes beginners make is to play with their whole bankroll at one or two tables. It's really a huge, serious mistake and 99 percent of the time you will end up bankrupt with nothing left. I recommend that you never play for more than seven percent of your bankroll at any one table. If you are a professional – like me – you'll only ever bet one fiftieth of your bankroll.