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Heads Up Poker Strategy

Article By: Michael Monroe

Whether you’re playing at home or have made it through a field of thousands in an online tournament, your game has to change drastically if you want to win at heads-up play.

Only one person can win a tournament, and the smart player knows that this situation is unlike any other in the game. Playing heads-up against another poker player requires you to adopt a completely different playing style. While many players think heads-up is just a matter of luck, these are generally the same players who tend to loose whenever they play one-on-one.

Starting Hands:

When its just you and one other player, you can change the hands you play by quite a wide margin. In general, a playable hand in heads-up is anything above J-7. Why J-7? Statistically, J-7 is likely to win 50% of the time in a heads up situation. So if you play anything above that, you are more than 50% likely to win. Of course, starting hands aren’t the only variable you need to consider, but as long as you recognize that the J-7 is your measuring stick, you are doing better.

Number of Hands:

Even if you don’t know much about heads-up, you should already realize that you are going to play a lot more hands. Playing more aggressively by betting on these hands will force the other player to either call or fold. By forcing them into the decision, you are making the game tougher for them.

Getting the Bigger Chip Stack:

In heads up play, the only way to win is to knock the other guy out. To do this effectively, you have to have a bigger stack than they do. Why? Because by having the larger stack you can continually exert pressure by placing more, and bigger, bets.

Of course, this strategy only works when the blinds are significant. By forcing the small stack to commit to a hand, you will force them to go all-in or fold. Since most of the time their hands will not be good enough to justify an all-in, placing a bet that is large enough to force them into a decision will more often than not yield more chips for you.

Playing Short Stacked:

On the other side of the coin, a short-stacked player has to be able to risk their entire stack at any time to try to steal enough chips to get ahead. If you have a stack that is at least somewhat dangerous—one that would require the other player to risk a significant portion of their chips—you can afford to take some chances by moving all-in more often than you normally would. By moving all-in with moderate or strong hands, you’ll force the other player to commit to his hand or fold.

If you do this a few times and they fold, they will probably start thinking you are bluffing them. This will allow you to move all-in with a strong hand and be much more likely to get a call. You’ll probably have to double up some time, and you may as well force them to decide whether to call rather than be faced with the decision yourself.

Beware the Limper:

In heads-up, you want to be doubly careful of someone who limps in. A limper often has a big hand, one they think they can use to sucker you with. If you see a player limp in pre-flop, then call a bet after the flop, this is almost a sure fire sign they are sitting on something big. Unless they have a drawing had, expect them to hammer you on the turn or the river.

Catching a Piece of the Flop:

If you hit a pair on the flop, the odds are you are ahead even if you only have mid or low pair. It all goes back to the fact that there are only 2 other cards out there, and it’s very unlikely the other player hit their flop at the same time.

Getting Into the Other Player’s Head:

In heads-up, if you can win a number of hands back to back, you may start getting to your opponent's psyche. Since it’s down to you and them, and poker players don’t like to lose, winning a number of hands in a row can often force the other player to do something stupid. Watch for this and be ready to pounce if it happens.