Heads up poker
In general terms, aggression wins heads-up matches. One thing to notice as you read this article is that we won't tell you how to play any particular hand. The reason is that the hands you hold mean so little until it comes time to put your opponent away. Do you really need to be told how to play a straight or a flush heads-up? If you do, you won't be playing any heads-up matches for a while anyway.
Heads-up play is an entirely different game and it has little to do with the cards. Stop playing your normal game of poker and start playing your opponent. To improve your heads-up poker game, go to Full Tilt Poker and start playing in the $5.25 heads-up poker matches. Heads-up players at Full Tilt have a wide variety of skill levels and hand action is lightning fast.
Heads-up poker facts
Most of the time, neither you nor your opponent will make much of a hand, if any hand at all. It's crucial to pick up as many of the little pots along the way as you can. The way to do that is to bet at everything. If you aren't comfortable bluffing, you won't be any good at heads-up poker since bluffing will win a good portion of the hands. The problem most players have however is that they overbet for no particular reason. If it only takes 100 chips to bet someone out of a pot, why then bet 300? What if you're wrong and your opponent is slow-playing the nuts? The key to proper aggression in heads-up poker is making correctly sized bets. You simply cannot know what a properly sized bet is without having taken the time to learn what your opponent is willing to fold for.
Once you've taken the time to learn how your opponent plays, use it against him. If your opponent has shown the ability to fold for minimum raises pre-flop, continue to do that when you're on the small blind. If it takes a raise of 3 times the blind to get him to fold rags, then raise it 3 times the big blind. When you're on the big blind limping is ok as long as you keep it consistent. If you only raise from the big blind when you have a big hand, you're giving away information. So, for the most part it's a good idea to make your pre-flop raises or limps consistent as well.
Although consistently limping is usually bad, if you can outplay your opponents post-flop it's not an entirely bad idea. If your opponent is a good post-flop player, then it's more important to take down pots pre-flop. In heads-up poker tournaments the winner is often the player who bets first. When in first position post-flop, it's best to come out firing after the flop. How much to fire depends on what was put into the pot pre-flop and also depends on what it takes to get your opponent to fold.
If you know that your opponent is willing to fold unmade or weak hands for very small bets, then keep your bets small. If your opponent isn't giving you a reason to bet a lot, why would you? Only risk what it takes to get your opponent to do what you want them to do. If suddenly your opponent is playing back at you, it's pretty obvious they either have a made hand or are drawing to a hand they like.
Heads-up poker tips
Often times I find myself playing against a guy that is so easy to read that the game just isn't fair. With consistent aggression comes the benefit of also knowing when your opponent has a hand. After you've stolen 8 out of the last 10 hands, when your opponent all of a sudden makes a raise, if you don't have a hand simply fold it and steal the next one. Keep the rhythm of the game going and get back to work after you lose a pot. Another mistake that aggressive players often make is that they start to give up. Once you have the momentum it's crucial to keep it going.
There is a time when consistent raising can backfire on you. The key is learning to recognize when it's happening as early as possible. If your opponent starts reraising you consistently, then it's time to step back and let your opponent take the lead. Often times after getting tired of being bullied hand after hand, you'll see your opponent start to tilt and begin to make lots of big reraises. That's perfect, and it once again puts you back in the drivers seat. Although you are no longer the aggressor, your opponent will often overbet just about everything.
If that's the case, just step back and let him walk into a trap. Stay patient until you notice your opponent has slowed down and started to come back off of tilt. Then, get back to your original aggressive behavior and start stealing pots again. If he begins to tilt again, sit back and trap him again. If you can learn to make these quick gear changes you will confuse your opponent and remain the one who's in charge. While players are tilting during heads-up, most players feel as though they are the one in charge. That's great, let them think that. It's likely that they're now at a point of frustration that will cause them to make an exceptionally bad play at some point. So, stay aggressive until they're tilting or you've beat them, if they start to tilt and make a lot of reraises, step back and tighten up.
Don't give your opponents an inch while they're tilting. If you have rags, fold it pre-flop. It's particularly irritating when your opponent folds pre-flop when you hold a real hand. Don't give them anything, save your chips for later. Usually tilting players will begin to come down from their tilt after winning several little pots. In truth, they haven't won many chips, but psychologically it makes them feel better and usually they will go back to the type of play they are most comfortable with. As soon as they do, jump all over them and start raising again. At this point the minimum bets that were winning pots earlier may need to be slightly bigger now. If your opponent was folding for minimum bets, now start betting twice the minimum and put even more pressure on him. It won't take long until he starts tilting again and opening himself up to losing big pots.
Making small bets does have it's drawbacks though. There are a lot of players who prefer to make larger bets, increasing the pressure on your opponent to fold. While the logic makes sense, the larger bets are best used to protect your actual made hands and to keep them from drawing out on you. The purpose of making lots of small bets is to get your opponent to fold the pots where he hasn't connected or picked up a draw. Of course, if you only make bigger bets when you have a hand, you'll once again be giving away information that can be used against you.
So, to keep from becoming predictable, it's a good idea to show your opponent a bluff from time to time, and also a made hand from time to time. One of the most important aspects to heads-up play is the element of mystery. You simply cannot be predictable and expect to consistently win at holdem heads-up play. Although there are a lot of players who make poor reads online (if any reads at all), the people who typically make final tables are generally better than players who donked out early. So, give your heads-up opponents enough respect to expect them to pay attention to what you're doing…at least until you've polished them off.
Until next time, may the chips fall your way.