Heads-Up Poker

Some people consider heads-up poker to be the purest form of poker there is. We’ll be looking at how you should be adjusting to heads-up poker.

Some people consider heads-up poker to be the purest form of poker there is. Just two competitors going at it, mano y mano, for all the marbles.

We’ll be looking at how you should be adjusting to heads-up poker and how to exploit players who don’t make those adjustments.

Heads-Up Poker Explained

Heads-up poker is a game of poker that is played between two players. It can be any variant of poker in any format, but it has to be exclusively between two players. There are a few ways that heads-up poker can come about.

The most common scenario is the end of a tournament or a sit-and-go where only two players remain. Heads-up poker is an essential part of tournament poker as it is what’s used to determine a winner. There are also heads-up tournaments, where there is a bracket-style format, and players are pitted against each other until there is a winner.

Heads-up poker isn’t as common in cash games compared to 6max and full ring but it is still played. Some people specialize in heads-up poker and there are heads-up tables where people can play. Two players may also play heads-up poker to start a cash game, hoping that other players see a game has started, and join in.

Cash Game vs Tournament Heads-Up

Like other game formats, heads-up poker strategy is slightly different in tournaments and cash games.

Cash Game

As with all cash games, you’re playing for the value of the chips in front of you rather than any prize pool. This means that there are no other considerations to make when you’re playing other than making +EV decisions. You will often play with deeper stacks in a cash game than a tournament as the standard buy-in for cash games is 100bb whereas the average stacks in tournaments are often below 50bb.

The good thing about cash games compared to tournaments is that if you lose your stack you can immediately buy back in and carry on playing. Without the threat of being eliminated from the event, you’re free to take higher variance lines if you think they’re +EV.

Depending on the situation, you can come across a wide variety of skill levels. If you are playing heads-up poker to start a 6max or full ring cash game, the other player you’re playing against likely won’t have much experience at heads-up poker and won’t understand the nuances of the game.

However, if you sit down at a heads-up table online you’re much more likely to be playing a heads-up poker specialist who has dedicated their time to learning the ins and outs of the game.

Tournament

A player holding a generic poker hand

All tournaments, apart from satellite tournaments, end in a heads-up match to decide the winner. The biggest prizes are always reserved for the top two players so most of these heads-up poker matches are for thousands of dollars and yet, most people who play tournaments don’t practice their heads-up poker game!

Some players find that they freeze up and don’t play well at all when they’re playing for a large amount of money in a heads-up situation like this. If you get the sense that your opponent is getting overwhelmed by the situation then you should ramp up the aggression and really put the pressure on.

The most important thing about tournaments is that once you lose your stack, you’re out. There are no second chances when you’re heads-up so if you feel like you’re playing better than your opponent you may not want to make decisions that massively increase variance for a small increase in EV.

If you’re playing heads-up poker at the end of a final table, you should have a good idea of how your opponent plays. You’ll have seen how aggressive they play postflop, how tight or loose they’ve been preflop, and how willing they are to go all in. Even though people should be more aggressive when they get to heads-up, it’s important to establish that baseline and note how much they deviate.

Playing Aggressively 

When you play heads-up poker, there’s no room for playing tight-passive.

You can’t fold the majority of your hands, waiting for a premium pocket pair as you’re in the blinds every hand! You’ll lose your stack from being blinded out long before you get one of those premium hands, and when you do end up getting one your opponent will know to play cautiously against you.

You should be playing around 70% of your hands preflop – a lot more than you would usually play in a 6max or full ring game. When you’re paying either the small or big blind every hand, folding preflop costs money so even very weak hands show a better EV return than folding.

Now that we know we should be playing very loose preflop, how does that change postflop? If you get to the flop with 70% of hands, chances are that most of the time you’ve not connected. Therefore, playing a ‘fit or fold’ style when playing heads-up isn’t going to work and will end up losing you even more money than folding every hand pre. 

This makes bluffing a huge part of heads-up poker and you’re going to need to be doing a lot of it if you want to win. Most winning heads-up players make their money from the ‘red line’. For those who haven’t seen Hold’em Manager/PokerTracker graphs, the red line is money won without showdown or getting your opponent to fold before showdown.

However, there are two sides to this coin. While you’re there blasting away with all your air, your opponent also knows that you should be playing a very wide range preflop. Your opponent also knows that you’re often going to miss the flop and that you should often be bluffing. Knowing all this, your opponent is often going to call you down, expecting you to be bluffing a lot.

Therefore, you can’t be bluffing every single time you miss the flop or your opponent can just call you down. On the other hand if you never bluff, your opponent can always fold when you bet. There’s no substitute for learning the deeper subtleties of heads-up poker and learning how and when to balance your bluffs and value bets; otherwise, you’re just guessing at what your opponent thinks of your game.

This ‘I know that they know’ kind of thinking is called the meta-game and is more pronounced in heads-up than any other form of poker. Having a strong handle on how your opponent thinks you think allows you to change your game to subvert their expectations and exploit their thinking.

However, there are two sides to this coin. While you’re there blasting away with all your air, your opponent also knows that you should be playing a very wide range preflop. Your opponent also knows that you’re often going to miss the flop and that you should often be bluffing. Knowing all this, your opponent is often going to call you down, expecting you to be bluffing a lot.

Therefore, you can’t be bluffing every single time you miss the flop or your opponent can just call you down. On the other hand if you never bluff, your opponent can always fold when you bet. There’s no substitute for learning the deeper subtleties of heads-up poker and learning how and when to balance your bluffs and value bets; otherwise, you’re just guessing at what your opponent thinks of your game.

This ‘I know that they know’ kind of thinking is called the meta-game and is more pronounced in heads-up than any other form of poker. Having a strong handle on how your opponent thinks you think allows you to change your game to subvert their expectations and exploit their thinking.

Strategy Against Aggressive Players

We’ve just covered that playing aggressively is by far the best way to play heads-up poker, so you should be hoping to not play against aggressive players! However, there’s aggressive, and there’s aggressive. Players who are overly aggressive and don’t know how to reign it in are much better to play against than good aggressive players.

When you play such a wide range of hands preflop, it’s common that you’ll miss the flop and end up with nothing. If you bluff every time this happens, you will be bluffing way too much as you won’t have enough strong hands to be balanced. This means that sometimes you have to give up when you have nothing and let your opponent win, losing the battle to win the war.

However, some players just cannot do this. Either it’s not in their nature to give up or they just don’t understand that it’s a necessary evil, but these players will take every hand that has missed the board and will start bluffing with it. When players bluff too often there’s an easy counter, we just need to get any kind of showdown value and hold on until the river. The problem is that these players apply a lot of pressure as you’re always being bet into, and even though you know the best counter is to keep calling it’s tough to do so when you have the worst hands to call with.

Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. If you know your opponent is bluffing too often but you don’t have a hand that can call down, bluffing back into them can be a good strategy. This requires a bit more caution than just calling down with showdown value as sometimes they’ll have a hand that can call you, and sometimes they might re-bluff right back at you! To make these kinds of moves you’ll want to have some kind of equity just in case they do have a made hand.

If you’re unlucky enough to play against a good aggressive player who understands heads-up poker, there is no easy counter to beat them. The only way to beat them is to have a better understanding of the game and exploit any weaknesses in their strategy. Most players that you’ll be playing at the lower stakes will be making a lot of mistakes as poker is such a complicated game. Studying the game and using solvers such as Piosolver to get a greater understanding of it will make it easier to spot when your opponent makes these mistakes.

Tips on Beating Tight Players

A selection of poker cards

Playing heads-up against a tight player is often a lot of fun as you know you’re going to end up winning the majority of hands! However, the tight player aims to lose the small pots and win the big ones so there are some things to remember to make sure you win the majority of the money as well as the majority of the pots.

Tight players aren’t going to be playing enough hands preflop, so we want to punish that by playing even more hands preflop and picking up the blinds as often as possible. Being tight preflop is much more of a leak in heads-up compared to 6max or full ring because of the fact you’re in either the small blind or big blind every hand.

If players are overfolding the big blind against your button raises you should be increasing your button raise percentage as high as 85-90%, maybe close to 100% if they’re tight enough! Conversely, if they’re playing tight from the button we’re going to want to fold some of the worst hands we would usually defend in the big blind as we’re going to be up against a tighter range than usual and those worst hands that were slightly +EV are going to be -EV.

Being tight preflop is going to change the postflop dynamic. When a player is tighter preflop, they’re going to arrive at the flop with a stronger range of hands, meaning that they’re going to hit some boards more often but it also means that they’re going to hit some boards less often.

For example, if a player isn’t playing a lot of low card hands such as 63s 74s, 85s, etc. from the button, their range is going to be weighted more towards high card hands. Therefore they’re going to hit boards such as KQ9 more often than a standard heads-up range. However, because of this, they’re going to have fewer hands that hit boards such as 652.

This means that there are some boards we can bluff more or call down more often on (such as those low boards) as we expect our opponent not to have as many strong hands and on other boards (such as the high boards) we can play a lot more cautiously as we expect our opponent to hit them harder. Knowing what ranges your opponent plays and making these adjustments can make you a lot of money in a heads-up match.

Getting a Read on Your Opponent

With heads-up poker ranges being as wide as they are, it can be very hard to accurately narrow them down when you’re playing. Therefore you should take advantage of every piece of information, or tell, you can gather from your opponents to help in this task.

Hand Movements

The way players put the chips into the pot can tell you a lot about the strength of their hand. Often you’ll find that weak players deal in opposites. If they put their chips into the pot in an aggressive, forceful manner, it often means they’re weak. They’re trying to convey strength with how they bet. 

However, if they gently place the chips into the pot, trying to make as little fuss as possible, it often means they’re strong. They’re trying to convey weakness by betting as timidly as they can.

People who play regularly know this and will try to reverse it, meaning that when they act strong they are strong and when they act weak they are weak. This is why it’s important to know who you’re playing and what level they’re thinking on before you try to use these tells.

One tell that is fairly uniform is that hand shaking usually means strength. The player is excited that they have a strong hand that could win a big pot and they’re unable to control themselves. This usually happens to weaker players as they don’t play often enough to control their emotions.

Betting Patterns

It’s easy when you’re playing to fall into patterns with certain types of hands. Poker is an incredibly complex game and most people find it hard to analyze and differentiate each individual spot. Therefore we tend to group hands and situations together to create a shortcut in our brains, otherwise, our brains would fry with all the analysis!

What that means is that we often tend to play similar types of hands similarly. We play a lot of our strong hands the same way, a lot of our showdown value hands the same way, and a lot of our weak hands the same way. That’s why it’s important to take careful note of what hands your opponent has at showdown as you can glean information on how they play.

Now, some players do a good job of mixing up the way they play which makes it hard to find patterns, but even players at the highest level follow some sort of pattern if you look close enough.

Timing Tells

This is another tell that can be used both live and online. The amount of time a player takes to make a decision can give you information on the kind of hand they’ve got. Until the turn and river, players are usually very honest with their timing tells. 

For example, if they have a simple decision preflop, such as AA on the button, they’ll act instantly because they don’t need to think about it. However, if they have a tough decision like 95s on the button, they may not be as sure what the right decision is so they may take a few seconds to act.

Similarly, on the flop most decisions are straightforward so they’ll act within a couple of seconds but if they’re faced with a tougher decision they’ll take 10-20 seconds. I’ve found that on the turn and river people start to deceive with the amount of time they take, making it seem like they have a tough decision with the nuts to make their opponent bet the river.

Bet Size

This tell is closely linked to the betting patterns tell as it follows along the same lines. Just like players will group hand types together and play them the same way, players will take those same groups of hand types and use the same sizes.

When playing preflop, most players agree that opening to a standard size for all your hands is a good idea to prevent your opponents from picking up these sizing tells, so there usually isn’t a lot to pick up here. On the flop, it’s becoming more and more common to use a very small sizing for most boards. While this isn’t optimal in a lot of cases it’s hard to read into hand strength based on sizing.

Where this tell comes into its own is on the turn and the river. This is where the pots get bigger, hand ranges become narrower, and players decide how they want to extract value. You’ll find that players will size slightly bigger with their very strong hands as they’re trying to eke out every bit of value they can and they’ll go smaller with their more marginal value bets.

Hand Reading

Hand reading is one of the most important skills a poker player can have and its importance is more pronounced when playing heads-up poker. Essentially, hand reading is taking all the information we’ve gathered from the hand; including preflop ranges, betting patterns, bet sizing, and physical tells, and using that to narrow your opponent’s range to a subset of hands.

It’s important to keep a cogent thread while analyzing a hand, some players make the mistake of including a hand in the analysis of one street after they’ve ruled it out on a previous street.

For example, Player A raises on the button, Player B 3bet with A7, and Player A calls. The flop is 762, Player B bets ⅔ pot and Player A calls. The turn is the Q, Player B checks, Player A bets the pot, and Player B folds.

When asked about the hand and why they folded, Player B says that they were “scared of the queen”. However, if we use our hand reading skills, we should know that there aren’t many Qx hands that call the flop against our ⅔ sizing. Therefore when the Q comes on the turn, even though it’s a higher card than our pair of 7, we shouldn’t be worried as we’ve worked out through hand reading that our opponent doesn’t often have a Q in their hand once they’ve called the flop.

A list of tells to look out for in heads-up poker
Tells you should look out for when playing heads-up poker

Heads Up Poker: FAQ

We’ve collected and answered some of the most common questions on heads-up poker:

What is heads-up poker?

Heads-up poker is a game of poker played between two players. It can be any variant of poker and can be any format (cash or tournament), but there is a maximum of two players.

Are cash game and tournament heads-up poker different?

The mechanics of the game are the same, regardless of whether it is a cash game or a tournament. However, in cash games, the chips represent real money and a player can cash out at any time. In tournaments the chips have no fixed monetary value and players must play until there’s a winner.

How can an aggressive style of play be effective during heads-up poker?

Playing aggressive poker is by far the best way to win at heads-up poker as it’s hard to make hands that win at showdown. The only way a passive strategy will be better is if your opponent is a complete maniac and bluffs at every opportunity.

Can you tell what your opponent is holding?

When ranges are as wide as they are in heads-up poker it’s almost impossible to tell exactly what your opponent is holding. However, being able to hand read as well as taking into account timing tells and any physical tells should help you narrow your opponent’s range.

Should you play a tight game for all heads-up poker games?

You should not be playing tight when you play heads-up poker. You’re in one of the blinds every hand that’s dealt so folding preflop costs money. Playing aggressively both preflop and postflop is the best strategy if you want to be a winning heads-up player.

Do heads-up matches have different poker odds?

No, the fact that there are only two players playing heads-up does not change the odds of making straights or flushes. There are still 52 cards in the deck with 13 of each suit and 4 of each rank so no matter the number of players the odds of making hands remain the same.

Are heads-up matches playable with Texas Hold’em variant only? 

Heads-up poker can be played with any poker variant, whether it’s Texas Hold’em, Omaha, Stud, etc; as long as there is a maximum of two players.

Heads-up poker is a very intense game format as you’re having to play almost every hand but if you want to win more than your fair share of tournaments or hold down the cash game lobby it’s a format you should learn.