There's been some buzz about playing poker lately, and in particular about playing heads-up poker. We've had some grudge matches in the past with Andy Beal vs. The Corporation, and the Durrr Challenge, but now it's time for our own Fedor Holz to step into the ring against the Polish crusher Wiktor 'Iimitless' Malinowski.
In light of the upcoming match against Malinowski, Fedor shared some insights on how to become a better heads-up player so you know where to start to become good enough to battle the giants yourself soon!
There is a three-step process you can apply to your heads-up poker strategy. Think of the beginning of a heads-up match as your baseline of sorts.
To begin, you should know what your optimal heads-up strategy is when beginning a match. All other things equal, the ability to execute this strategy will give you the best chance to win the match.
The second thing as you implement this strategy is to look for what mistakes your opponent may be making. You should begin to notice certain tendencies your opponent has that leave them up to exploitation in ways that will tilt the scales in your direction. Similarly, you may need to also identify where your opponent is taking advantage of mistakes in your game.
Once you’ve identified some weaknesses in your opponent’s game (or your own), the third and final part of the process is to make the necessary adjustments to exploit those mistakes (or prevent yourself from being exploited) to your own advantage.
This evolution of strategy through the match is an organic process. It naturally unfolds in this manner, and these steps should not be favored unequally, nor should they be performed in a different order.
When looking into identifying opponents’ tendencies in heads-up poker, you want to categorize players broadly at first. In other words, simple classifications such as a player being aggressive or passive can enable you to find answers for questions such as:
Passive players make up the majority of the population. Should you find yourself against a passive opponent, being able to identify them will enable you to exploit that by increasing aggression within your own strategy. You can do this by three-betting more frequently, calling to play more pots in position and put them to tougher post-flop decisions, etc. At the same time, it is important not to overdo this exploit.
Beyond that, identifying players even in broad terms can help you better make close decisions. For example, a passive player that is applying aggression in a certain situation is usually doing so because of strength, which can enable you to confidently find folds in those situations. Conversely, aggressive players will require you to play a more linear, value-heavy range without needing to deviate too far and/or try to outplay those types of opponents.
Board textures have a huge impact on post-flop strategy, too, given that they are very much tied to the ability to realize equity of your overall range. With such a wide range of potential flops in the game (along with different runouts on turns and rivers), it is important to identify patterns among different board textures.
Doing this will allow you to find similarities that translate to a variety of different post-flop scenarios since different board textures call for the execution of different strategies as the hand develops. Further advancing your understanding of these dynamics will improve your understanding of how to best apply your strategy from a more theoretical perspective.
Keeping a sound mindset is paramount in any game of poker, but it is even more magnified in heads-up play. Being attune to the momentum and flow of a match, and more importantly how it affects decisions can help you maintain your strategy when you begin to feel uncertainty through the swings of the game.
When you lose sight of this, it can affect your ability to make good decisions just the same. At that point, emotion overtakes your decision-making processes, which even further overrides your fundamental understanding and ability to think through decisions. This leads to making even more extreme decisions, and ones that can spiral into big mistakes that cost you tons of money in the short- and long-term.
The solution? Be mindful of the flow of the match and how it affects your game as a whole, both positively and negatively. Take each decision one at a time so that you can really focus on capitalizing on your opponent’s mistakes as much as possible.
One of the best ways to learn heads-up situations is to extrapolate your thought process while you think through the hands that you play. Think ahead to future streets and how you will play hands in every possible situation that could transpire, as you never know what cards are going to come on later streets.
From there, take another step back and think about how you will play your entire range in these same ways. This will train you to be more prepared for a wider set of circumstances as the hand plays out.
It’s also huge to pay attention to what others are doing in similar situations. If you see players succeeding at executing certain strategies (or in certain situations), take some time to look into what they’re doing and see if you can incorporate anything of benefit into your own strategy.
You will likely encounter new scenarios this way, and when you do, you should dive into those concepts even further and figure out what you can learn. Solvers can help from a different, mathematical perspective that can be valuable, and you can also look to get coaching from players that have a more advanced thought process and better fundamental understanding of the game.
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