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Part V-B: Heads-Up Play

Author's Note: This article is part of a larger course for new players. Course links are provided at the bottom of this page.

Most online poker sites have rooms designed with only two seats, for heads-up, or one on one play. These rooms used to start at the 1/2 Limit blind level, before micro-games gained in popularity. As far as a 1/2 or lower Limit heads-up room goes, they might be the only heads-up blind levels where you are likely to find some soft competition. However, at blind levels this small, the rake that the house is taking is so large relative to the allowed buy-in amount and bet size, that I would say its not worth playing in them even you feel like you can win. After a five hundred hands or so, literally 15% of the money that you and your opponent started with has gone to the house. That makes a long term profit pretty difficult in this kind of room.

When you move up to only a 2/4 limit heads-up room, you are likely to find much stiffer competition. The players that sit in the 2/4 and up rooms are very often heads-up sharks. Heads-up is mostly or exclusively what they play, and they sit there waiting for full ring game curiosity seekers to wander in and fall prey. The skill set for heads-up is quite different from a full ring or even six player game, and heads-up sharks take advantage of that fact.

Personally, I am not a stellar heads-up player, and I don't care all that much for the dynamics of the action. But I can give you a quick run-down of some of the basics:

Since you're playing against only one other player, you have to loosen up your pre-flop decisions considerably. In a heads-up game, with an aggressive strategy, you are calling and/or raising pre-flop about 60% of the time, as opposed to about 18 to 20% in a full ring game. You are still throwing away your worst hands, but all the bad Ace hands become good hands, and a King High hand becomes statistically favorable to call down to K,4 off suit.

Bluffing, blind stealing, and the image you present to your opponent become even more important than in a full ring game. Reading your opponent and cracking his play style and strategy is also immensely important in heads-up.

Having the position of being on the button is also more valuable in a heads-up game than in a full ring game, where it is already extremely valuable. This is due to the fact that in a full ring game there are circumstances when being in last position does not always mean that you are the last to act in relation to a raise when there are several people in the hand. In heads-up the button position can not be compromised in this way.

There is also a different top 20 starting hand ranking chart for heads-up play based on the fact that your hand is only being compared to one other hand rather than 8 or 9 other hands (see bottom of this page for a list of top heads-up starting hand rankings). Pocket pairs go way up in value while the value of suited cards is diminished, as are hands that might make a straight. In heads up you are playing more for the value of a high card, or a decent pair-hands that you make more often, rather than for straights and flushes.

This is because in a full ring the value of straights and flushes comes in when you consider that since there are more people, at least one other person is a lot more likely to draw a strong enough hand that he will pay you off for making your flush or straight. In heads-up, having only one opponent, he is not likely to make a strong enough hand to compensate you enough for making your straight or flush to enhance their value as playable cards.

Whereas the core strategy of tight aggressive play still holds, the skill set involved in bringing it all together effectively against an experienced heads-up player is such a significant departure from a full ring game, I would suggest that novice players avoid those rooms all together, until devoting significant time to the study of the heads-up style of play in itself.

If you want to get the feel for heads-up play there are two ways that I would suggest that you start out. The first is to go to a low value sit-and-go where you can play a heads-up tournament for only a 5 dollar risk. The second way would be on the chance that you were sitting in a larger ring game in which everybody decided to leave except for you and one other person. At least in this case you can play knowing that most likely your opponent isn't a heads-up shark.

Heads Up Top Hand Ranks

headsuphandranks.jpg

The following links for this poker course are listed sequentially. Beginners may want to go through in the order in which they are listed to get the whole rundown. More advanced players may want to skip around to the parts which hold interest for them.

Poker



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