I got a request in the IAG mailbag to discuss heads-up play. I have never read much in-depth analysis on proper heads-up play, so this all all based on personal trial and error. Feel free to comment.
I used to end up heads up quite often in tournaments and got 2nd place a whole lot more often than 1st place. So I decided to practice heads-up a lot more. I got into a habit of playing 2-man SNGs on poker.com. I started out losing, but eventually turned it around and won. According to Sharkscope, my lifetime poker.com winnings are:
So, I ain't exactly the world's highest rolling, money-making, ass-kicking heads-up poker player, but I have found a tiny niche where I can make some money. Here are the rules by which I play:
All tactics support the basic strategy hanging in there and waiting for your opponent to make a terrible mistake.
Seven rules for the period of time when the blinds are small:
#1 Keep the pots small.
After all, if you want to hang in there, it is going to be tough if there is a lot of pre-flop action. I make my raises small: typically just 1xBB. I am not at all interested in getting into a pre-flop pissing contest since I consider myself to (possibly) be superior to my opponent in post-flop play. If not, and if they play the same strategy as I do, we will end up in a coin toss when the blinds are huge (see below). Don't piss away your huge advantage of superior post-flop play by pressing tiny pre-flop advantages.
#2 Always, always make your pre-flop raises for the exact same amount.
This is decent advice for a full table, but you can get away with varying your bets at a full tabel, and many opponents will be oblivious to the information you are giving away. In heads-up, even the most unaware opponent will be on to every nuance in your betting patterns. Decide on a standard pre-flop raise amount ( 1.5xBB or 1.0xBB are fine) and stick with it.
#3 It is usually right to call for 3:1 pot odds.
Whether you are in the SB and call when first to act or in the BB and call a raised pot, either way, you are getting 3:1 pot odds. With deep stacks, your implied odds are even better. There just aren't many hands that should be folded. I probably play north of 90% of all hands out there. If the cards have anything in common with each other, I play them. If they are suited, I play. If they are connected or 1-gappers or 2-gappers, I play them. If either card is 10 or higher, I play them. I fold a limited range of hands, the best of which is probably 96o. Anything better, I play.
This advice is limited to the earlier rounds. Once the BB gets very big, your implied odds go down, and it is right to fold a wider range of hands.
#4 It is usually wrong to call when getting much worse than 3:1 odds
Your opponent is raising more than 1.0 or 1.5x the BB because he likes his cards. You should not dance with him unless you have very good cards. Teach him a lesson: you can be pushed around. If he pushes you around enough, he will eventually do one (or both) of two things: raise less with a good hand to get you to call (and you draw out on him) or try to steal your blind when you have a monster. Both could be devastating. Remember, in heads-up play, the value of a decision rarely is defined by what happens on that hand; it is just one point in a portfolio of decisions. It is like "running the ball to set up the pass."
#5 K6o is better than you think
The hands I consider raising with are: all pairs, all hands with an Ace and all hands from K6-KQ. Note that this criteria means that you will raise 52% of the time with what are, roughly the top half of all hands in heads-up poker. Yes, that is right. K6 is quite a bit better than QJ. Also, being suited is never part of a justification for raising. Calling, maybe, but not raising. You just don't hit the flush that often, and if you do, you might not get paid off.
#6 On the flop, I'll bet if I connect. If I don't connect, I will bet.
If I pair at all, which I will do 1/3 of the time, I bet it. If I miss, there is a 2/3 chance he missed, too, so I will bet it. I bet the flop often, but I don't bet much. Half the pot will do. And since we kept the pot low pre-flop, this won't cost me too much if he pops me and I fold.
If he bets, I will call if I paired anything at all, but the big drawing hands are all "throw away hands" to me. I am not going to pay him off for 2 streets hoping to make my straight. Remember, keep the game small potatoes. I might even fold a draw when getting pot odds just to hang around.
Any sort of big raise, re-raise, check-raise or other indication of strength sends me packing.
#7 Don't get caught with your pants down
I never, ever, ever go all-in on a stone cold bluff on any street. Nor do I make a bluff of such magnitude that I am crippled if re-raises.
If my opponent comes at me with all or most of his chips, I will fold just about anything short of the stone cold nuts. If you wait, wait, wait, your time will come. He who turns and walks away, lives to fight another day.
Advice for when the blinds are big compared to the stacks
In a sense, the advice for this stage is the exact opposite of the seven rules above, except perhaps number 5.
Getting 3:1 pot odds, as stated earlier, doesn't lead to big implied odds when the M is small. I typically raise all-in with just about any hand K6 or better. I fold most other hands. This strategy turns the whole enchilada into something of a coin-toss, as your opponent will likely be doing the same. If the tournament gets to this point, oh well, you tried.
Often (I'd say >20%), if you play small pots long enough, you can avoid getting to the point of huge blinds, as your opponent will make a deadly mistake. The most common mistakes are:
- overplaying a dominated hand (e.g., trips into your boat)
- slowplaying and letting you draw out
- bluffing into your monster
I would say that, in my experience, probably 20% of the head-up SNGs I play in end in an early or middle round when my opponent "nutted himself before he could even take off his pants." Many of those times, I only managed to get the opportunity to watch said nutting because I avoided a big pot early. The other 80% of the SNGs turn into coin flips at the end. Winning half of the 80% is 40% plus all of the 20% gets me to 60% winning percentage (appr. ties to table above, NFWCN).
Funny, the above strategy is basically the same one I used to win money at pool in college. I was an above average player, but I won money by employing a strategy against better players: don't take risky shots, leave the cue ball where your opponent has a difficult or risky shot and wait for them to eventually make a mistake. The mistake was typically scratching while making a shot on the eight ball, but it was sometimes just leaving me with an easy run on the table. A similar strategy worked for me in a big (at the time) prop bet I made in Junior High. I bet a guy who was much better than I at tennis that I could beat him once in a set. If I came at him with everything, he would have won the bet. But, I sat back and just returned the ball over and over, never trying to do anything too fancy. Sure enough, on the third game, he made a couple mistakes getting too aggressive, and I won $20.
The above poker, pool and tennis strategy only work against ok players. Do not employ the above strategy against Daniel Negreanu, or he will eat your lunch. Since most of the time we all play against players that aren't all that good, you can take this strategy to the bank.