Friday, April 24, 2009

How To Win At Heads-Up Poker

The countdown to the WSOP continues...

Heads-Up Play

I have email from poker players asking me for advice on how to play heads-up. They are frustrated with finishing 2nd, when the bigger money is in first place.

I really enjoy heads-up play more than any other form of poker. The reason is that the game is more about the saying "play the player, not the cards." Of course, one of the bonuses of online play is that you don't have to worry about collusion:)

How to Win Heads-Up

Let me give you some advice on how to play heads-up. Be warned that this is my perspective, and you will certainly get differences of opinion. The over-riding strategy is to learn your opponent's playing style, usually by watching his betting patterns, and adjust your game to that style.

1. Figure out how your opponent plays heads-up, pre-flop in position.

When your opponent acts first pre-flop, you will get a signal on his playing style. In general, there are the "always raiser," the "I raise based on the strength of my hand," and the "folder."

a. The folder
A player who folds pre-flop in position is not going to win too often. He is going to be giving up too many chips. I don't care if you have 7-2 offsuit, don't fold!

If you are up against this opponent, your life will be easier than ever since you will be getting so much free money.

b. The I raise based on the strength of my hand
This player is so nice to play against since he plays like he is at a full table. If he raises, you know he has a hand. What you need to do is to gauge how often this occurs. If it rarely happens, then he is just playing too tight. In fact, against this kind of player, a fold out of position against his raise is almost always the right play.

However, if he raises more often then the cards would naturally dictate, then you have an opponent you are going to have to outplay after the flop. We will review how to play against him later.

c. The always raiser
This player is tough to beat since it is impossible to put him on a hand. And if you re-raise, he will often call since he is in position.

If you play against the always raiser, you are going to be put to the test. Re-raise him out of position and see if he is a folder or not. If he folds, well, your life got easier. If not, you are going to be in for a challenge from the flop on. More on this later.

2. Pre-flop out of position

When you are out of position heads-up, you are at a disadvantage. In general, you don't want to be raising or re-raising without a premium hand. The reason is that you often will lose too many chips when you miss on the flop.

You get A-J. Your opponent is a tough player and raises more often than would be typical of getting premium hands. He raises you. What should you do?

Don't re-raise! You are putting more chips in the pot out of position. What will you do when he calls and the flop is K-7-2? Bet out and lose more chips? Just call.

Of course, if you have never re-raised out of position, you can do so. And if you are against the always raiser, you can re-raise as well. But lean toward calling rather than raising against tough opponents.

3. Flop play, out of position

Watch for how your opponent plays on the flop. If he has the lead, does he always bet and how much does he bet? Some players will min bet the flop after taking the lead. Against these players, check raise and see what happens. Other players will bet half the pot if they miss. Again, check raise and see what happens.

Your objective on the flop is to play the player and the board. If your opponent signals the strength of his hand by his flop play, put him to the test with a check raise. Again, you want to test your opponent. You don't need cards to win heads-up. It is about the player.

Most players will give up on the flop if they are weak and have no drawing opportunities. Find out if your opponent is one of them.

4. The tougher opponents on the flop

The always raiser is a tough opponent. You really need to put this opponent to the test by calling with a wide range of hands. If he is really good, when you check the flop, he will bet the flop like he hit it. Guess what? He is not always getting big hands. Check raise him a few times and make him stop. You have to put fear and doubt into your opponent. You do this by showing strength.

Now, if you do get a big hand, you can get a real big win if you call the flop and make the check raise on the turn. It depends on your read of your opponent.

The opponent who bets a wide range of hands pre-flop is someone you want to be and not someone you want to play against. He is a tough opponent. The best way to approach flop play is to look for betting patterns. If he changes the size of his flop bet, figure out what these mean and play against that pattern.

For example if the small continuation bet means he is weak, look to call or check raise. One of the things I believe is that sometimes you are going to end up calling down your opponent with 3rd pair, just so you can figure out his playing style. I try to do this earlier than later, for learning purposes. And if you do win with 3rd pair, that really will put doubt in your opponent.

5. What is a winning hand
Top pair, 2nd pair and third pair are often winning hands. I find it very difficult to lay down 2nd pair against an opponent heads-up. Of course it depends on the board, but I am willing to try to keep the pot small and see the river cheap.

If you get a monster hand heads-up, try to figure out how to win a big pot. Don't scare your opponent out of the hand with a play you have never made before. Don't just push all-in, unless you are sure you will get a call. Take on a little more risk at the bad beat, for a bigger win. It's gambling for a reason.

6. What to do when you are losing

Yes, you are playing your game heads-up and you are losing! It happens. Stop and think for a second. Is it because your opponent is just getting better hands or are you playing scared?

If you are playing scared, change your betting pattern. If you have been too passive, which is most likely, you have to start raising and re-raising. If you really think you are outclassed, you can leave the game or move all-in. Any hand K-8 or better is a hand you can move all-in on.

My style of play is to allow my aggressive opponents to hang themselves and allow my passive opponents to turn on auto-fold. However, when I do go up against an opponent, who is outplaying me, I stop and change my style.

Conclusion: It is all about betting patterns and to "Play the Player and Not Your Cards."

The best way to figure out how an opponent plays is by betting patterns. Last year, after finishing my poker book, I went to play online heads-up poker. To my surprise the poker pro Huck Seed was playing heads-up. I decided to watch him to identify his betting patterns/playing style.

He was beating his opponent to death playing super aggressive. He was not crazy aggressive. But it was clear that his opponent was playing his cards and Huck was playing the player.

When he took all of this player's buy-in, I decided to sit down and play Huck. Frankly, I did this with trepidation because it was a cash game at higher levels than is typical for me. I told myself to let Huck take over the action, and let him think I was like his last opponent.

Sure enough, it worked. I won so many hands against Huck by taking on more risk and calling him down, or by playing the boards and raising his bets making him fold. But, Huck is a great heads-up player and he adjusted.

When I realized he adjusted his style for me (I knew this because his betting pattern changed and I was starting to lose my money to him), I adjusted my play as well. I became the aggressor and Huck tried to play the board against me. Fortunately, I got lucky and hit some big hands when this happened.

After about 15 or so minutes of play, Huck was losing and he left. I was excited about beating him since he was a pro, but I figured he may not be the best heads-up player in the world.

I guess I was wrong again! A few weeks ago Huck Seed won the National Heads-Up Championship! Wow!

1 comment:

JustPlayPoker said...

Great article Mitchell. You helped me spot at least one leak in my HU play. I'm an "always raiser" but I'm tight when someone raises me- even when I'm in position. I'll use some of your tips to tweak my game and let you know how it goes.

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