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How to Play Heads Up Poker and Win More Often

Pokercode

Heads-up poker is the art of playing against just one opponent. I say art because, unlike ring games or tournaments, heads-up poker truly is an art form.

In most poker games, you will face many opponents and only be directly involved in a small percentage of the overall hands. In heads-up, however, you will pay blinds each hand and be put into many difficult situations.

For that reason, you will need to learn to play poker quite differently than you may be used to playing in other formats of the game.

In this guide to playing heads-up poker, we will tackle some main concepts of such games, teach you how to approach playing in and out of position, and give you a few pointers to lead you in the right direction.

Mind that this is only the first step towards becoming a great heads-up poker player, as it can take years to master, even for the best of us.

How to Play Heads Up Poker and Win More Often

Main Differences between Heads Up and Ring Games

The obvious difference between a 6-max or ring game and heads-up is the number of players at the table, and this one would be obvious even to a completely ignorant bystander.

Since it’s only you against your opponent in a heads-up match, many things change quite drastically. First and foremost, both you and the other player are in blind positions on each hand.

The player on the button also acts as the small blind, while the other player pays the big blind. Like in all other formats, the player with the button plays last on all following streets but will act first pre-flop.

As you are always in the blinds, and the number of opponents is minimal, you have every reason to play way more hands than you would in a ring game. In fact, in many heads-up matches, it is correct to play almost all hands from the button and a very high percentage of hands in the big blind as well.

While you could previously profitably play various hands in position and wait to make a big hand in a loose game, you don’t have that kind of privilege in a heads-up match.

Instead, you will be forced to play each and every hand yourself and battle for every chip out there with everything you got.

So how do you do that? Let’s start at the beginning and talk about preflop play and the way you should construct your button and big blind ranges.

How to Play Heads Up Poker and Win More Often

Playing from the Button in Heads-Up Games

Holding the button in a heads-up game gives you a huge advantage. You know your opponent has a random hand, and they are the only thing standing between you and the dead money in the pot.

For that reason, you will need to start by making a raise with a very high percentage of hands, much higher than you ever did in other game formats. If you are wondering how much exactly, this will depend on several factors.

First and foremost is the way your opponent responds to your raises. As a general rule of thumb, you should be raising more hands against opponents who fold a lot and fewer hands against opponents who fold infrequently.

  • If they fold a lot, raise 100% of your hands.
  • If they fold more than average, raise 90% of your hands.
  • If they fold on average, raise 85% of your hands.
  • If they never fold, raise 75% of your hands.

However, something must be said about how much you raise the button before the flop since your raise size should depend on your raise frequency.

The more often you are going to raise, the smaller your raises should be, and vice versa. If you are going to raise 100% of your hands, a min-raise will suffice.

As your raise frequency goes down, so too should your raise size. Since you are raising a stronger range, you can get away with raising 2.5x, 3x, or even 3.5x.

To test the waters, you can start by opening about 85% of your hands from the button and using a 2.5x raise size. As you see how your opponent reacts to your raises, you can adjust your raise size and your raise frequency accordingly.

How to Play Heads Up Poker and Win More Often

Playing from the Big Blind in Heads-Up Poker

Playing on the button will give you an advantage and the ability to play nearly every hand in your range. However, you will still have to play 50% of all hands from the big blind.

The question becomes, how often should you continue with your hand once an opponent raises the button, which is what they are going to do most of the time.

The answer to this question will depend a lot on the raise size your opponent uses. Against min-raises, you will be able to profitably defend a wide range of hands, while against bigger raises, you will need to fold more since you are getting less favorable pot odds.

However, you must also remember that you should aggressively play a good chunk of your hands in the big blind as well, 3-betting the original raise instead of just calling.

Since we know that even the tightest players out there still raise about 80% of their buttons in heads-up poker, we will want to 3-bet quite liberally.

The wider your opponent raises, the more hands you can afford to play for either a call or a raise.

You can use the following rule of thumb to construct your 3-betting range:

  • Against a wide opening range, 3-bet a polarized range of hands
  • Against a tight opening range, 3-bet a merged range of hands

A polarized range includes all your best and all your weakest hands in the 3-betting range, while a merged range contains the strong and the semi-strong hands in your 3-betting range.

The overall 3-betting range will depend heavily on the raise size your opponent is using. However, against a min-raise, which is fairly standard sizing, you should be 3-betting a lot.

Against a formidable opponent who raises 80% of hands to 2x, you should be 3-betting with all the big pairs, A8s+, AT+, QJ+, 64s+, and T8s+. All other gappers and suited hands can be played as a call, along with many off-suit hands.

If the same opponent was raising 100% of all hands, you could switch your range to include more bluffs, hands like X2s, and X3s, while just calling with hands like K8s, 86s, 64s, etc.

The weaker your opponent's range is, the more you will want to polarize your own 3-betting range to include more bluffs while calling with medium-strength hands that still play well against the 100% range of hands.

You will also want to think about your 3-bet size. Against a min-raise, a 3-bet size of about 8x the big blind is recommended, and you should keep upping this along with your opponent’s original raise size.

Why Balance Matters in Heads-up Poker

There is a lot of value in balancing out your ranges across the board in every form of poker. However, it becomes that much more important in heads-up games.

In tournaments or cash games, you only encounter the same players occasionally, and you may even play with certain players just once in your life. On the other hand, once a heads-up game has started, you and your opponent will quickly start to get history with each other, which can lead to certain conclusions.

If you play a heavily exploitative style of poker against an opponent in a heads-up match, there is a big chance they will realize it and start to counter you.

This is especially true if you are playing a heads-up game against a player you know to be a competent heads-up player, but it can be true even against weaker opponents.

If you try to bluff every street in every hand, you will start to get called down quite wide. If you only bet when you have a big hand, you will not get value in such situations.

While you can still play exploitatively if your opponent is very bad and not aware of the situation, you should strive towards balance while only exploiting to a certain extent.

For instance, if you notice your opponent likes to call bets a bit too wide, you can counter this by bluffing a bit less and value betting a bit more.

However, you can't just stop bluffing altogether, as this will result in your opponent realizing what you are doing and easily countering your simple strategy.

Many of the best heads-up players in the world swear by the GTO approach and try to play the same way against basically any opponent, realizing that playing in an unexploitable way is the surest way to win in the long run.

While no man can mimic the solvers to perfection, a semblance of a GTO poker strategy does seem to do wonders in the heads-up streets and is likely the best way to beat anyone in the world at heads-up poker.

Exploiting Players’ Tendencies in Heads-Up Poker

While the GTO strategy works very well in heads-up matches, an exploitative approach still has a lot of merit, especially when you are playing against less skilled players.

Playing at lower stakes or in tournaments, you will often come across players whose game is far from balanced, which you can exploit to a great extent.

Since you will be the only player at the table, you may be able to print EV from each mistake your opponent makes. Once you spot a pattern of mistakes, you can create perfect strategies to counter them.

A great example of this is a player who c-bets every flop after they raise pre-flop or one who only ever c-bets with very strong hands.

In both scenarios, you can develop a strategy that heavily exploits their tendencies. You can bluff more against the former and fold more against the latter, making extra EV in both cases.

This is a simplified example of how an exploitative approach can work wonders in heads-up matches, but it is one that actually happens in real games quite often.

Many players might also fold too much to c-bets or 3-bets and 4-bets before the flop, all of which are exploitable tendencies.

Using your poker tracking software between sessions to look for such tendencies is the best way to prepare yourself to play a certain player you are likely to face again.

The Mental Game of Heads-up Poker

Technical and strategic baselines are very important in any form of poker, and probably even more so in heads-up. However, heads-up can also turn into mental warfare at times.

With both you and your opponent doing your best to win every chip that's ever put into the pot, the leveling wars are almost certain to happen.

As you attempt to adjust to your opponent’s tendencies, they try to adjust to yours. In other cases, your opponent might just tilt and start playing a different game than their baseline, which you should still look to adapt to.

In either case, heads-up poker will require you to remain focused and keep your head in the game. Playing like a robot won't get you far unless you can truly mimic the solvers to a high extent, which is a very difficult level of play to reach.

Mental acuity and preparation will be key if you plan to make a career of any sort out of heads-up poker, so make sure you practice poker regularly and remind yourself of what's important and what's not at the tables.

Expect variance in heads-up games just as you would in any other poker format, and be prepared to go on downswings and see your bankroll go up and down as you battle your way through the ranks of heads-up poker players.

Read about proper bankroll management.

How to Play Heads Up Poker and Win More Often

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