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Keeping Ahead

No matter how good you are at playing the early and middle stages of a no-limit hold’em tournament, if you don’t learn how to play a mean heads-up game you’re always going to finish second-best. Gambling’s Duncan Wilkie takes a look how to properly play poker in its purest form

I’ll level with you – if there’s one thing that irritates me about poker strategy more than anything else, it’s the amount of hot air that you read about closing out a tournament in the heads-up stage. The internet is littered with forum posts and articles from so-called experts on the subject, but for the wealth of words expended on one-on-one play, there’s very little advice out there of genuine substance. Time and time again I find myself reading the same well-worn clichés; “one-on-one poker is about getting inside your opponent’s head”, “post-flop, it’s simply a matter of feel as to whether your hand is ahead” and, of course, “you’ll be forced to play every pot, so widening your range of hands is vital”.

However, while there is certainly sound reason behind each of these statements, my main gripe with such arbitrary advice is that it doesn’t actually tell you anything about how you should be adjusting your game to accommodate for heads-up play. Yes, you should be playing more hands, but what constitutes a reasonable raising range? Yes, with just two of you, more pots will be won with marginal holdings, but how do you gauge the strength of your hand post-flop? And yes, psychology is important, but how do we take advantage of an opponent who is clearly getting frustrated? At the risk of making a rod for my own back, this month’s strategy article will attempt to tackle each of these points with some concrete, practical advice.

Consideration 1: Pre-Flop Play

Naturally, it goes without saying that with just two of you around to contest pots, the standard of your average starting hand doesn’t need to be anywhere near as high as if you were playing against multiple opponents. Heads-up you are far less likely to run into a genuine hand when you raise and, as such, the relative value of most starting hands sky-rockets exponentially with just two players remaining. Take small pairs for instance – pocket twos from early position in a nine-handed game will often yield a fold, but heads-up it’s an almost mandatory raise. Here, you are only in truly awful shape if your opponent picks up a bigger pair – the chances of which are slim at around 289/1 – so pressing home your pre-flop advantage is an absolute must.

Similar to small pairs are aces, both suited and unsuited, which become something of a powerhouse heads-up. Again, you will be ahead pre-flop unless you encounter the unfortunate scenario of your opponent holding a bigger ace or dominating pair. Of course, the same rule applies to any king, but the further down the hierarchy you go, the higher the likelihood of your opponent turning up with a better hand. As such, a good opening range for a beginner playing heads-up should include any pair, any ace, any combination of broadway cards (10, J, Q, K, A), king-nine or better and a few suited connectors thrown in for good measure. This starting range should be tinkered with depending on how your opponent responds to your raises, but ideally you want to be raising with around 30 percent of hands as a base before adjusting your play accordingly.

You should also be aware that if you know this, your opponent probably does as well, so your re-raising range should be adjusted accordingly to accommodate the wider-than-average selection of hands that they will be playing. This means that you can re-raise with a lot of hands that you would normally call a bet with pre-flop as a lot of your opponent’s holdings simply won’t be able to take the heat. Medium pocket pairs, good aces and a few suited broadway combinations now all become viable re-raising hands, while bona-fide monsters like aces, kings or queens can be more readily slow-played as you are unlikely to be in terrible shape post-flop and, given the right board, you will be able to extract a lot of value from top-pair type hands.

Consideration 2: Importance of Position

With the two of you entering pots more frequently and with a wider range of hands, the second consideration that should significantly influence the way you play heads-up is position. Unlike in the early stages of a tournament where you can simply fold hands when you’re out of position and wait for the button to come round before making a move, in heads-up play you will be forced to play a large number of hands when you are both first to act and last to act post-flop. Given that you will miss the flop roughly two times in three, the significance of having the dealer button becomes even greater as you will get to see what your opponent does before acting yourself.

As such, you have a lot more information about the strength of your opponent’s hand at your disposal when it comes to making a decision, allowing you to play your own hand accordingly. Let’s assume that you’ve raised the action pre-flop with pocket sixes and your opponent has flat-called. The two of you now see a K-8-4 board and they check the action over to you, leaving you with two pieces of information on which to base your decision. Firstly, your opponent did not raise pre-flop when given the opportunity, so their hand is unlikely to be that strong and secondly, they have confirmed that suspected weakness by checking on the flop. In this situation, you should bet as your opponent’s actions indicate they do not have a hand to call with.

However, let’s assume the tables were turned and this time you had the same pocket sixes in the big blind. After flat-calling a raise from your opponent, you are first to act on the K-8-4 flop. If you bet out, you leave yourself open to being raised by a better hand or a bluff, but if you check you know your opponent will read you for being weak and continuation bet regardless. From this you can see the inherent problems of playing a hand out of position and should adjust your game accordingly. While simply folding all hands when you are out of position is not an option heads-up, what you should be looking to do is increase your aggression and pile on the pressure when you have the button, while at the same time trying to keep the pots small and manageable when you are out of position and decisions are a lot harder.

Consideration 3: Post-Flop Hand Strength

The logical progression of the last two points combined is that, in heads-up play, you will constantly have to use your understanding of your opponent’s calling range pre-flop and their play post-flop to gauge how good your hand is in any given situation. Of course – as stressed earlier on – being last to act in the hand will mean that you are party to far more information about the strength of your opponent’s hand, but on an even more rudimentary level than that, in heads-up play the two of you will be playing with comparatively weak hands so often that even a marginal holding such as ace-high or bottom pair will often prove enough to win the pot.

In heads-up play, you know that your opponent will only be hitting the flop one in three times and they will know likewise. As such, continuation betting is likely to be even more common-place than it is at a full table and you must be prepared to look up your opponent’s flop bets with little or no hand. Of course, the texture of the flop is an important indicator of whether or not your opponent is likely to have hit, but on innocuous-looking, non draw-heavy boards, calling a continuation bet with as little as a gut-shot straight draw, back-door flush draw or two overcards becomes a viable strategy. Here you are hoping that your opponent either slows down and allows you to take the pot away from them on the turn or a card falls on fourth street that actually improves your holding into what may actually be the best hand.

Naturally, if calling a bet on the flop with no hand is an option, should you actually hit the board you can afford to play hands such as bottom or middle pair much faster than you would normally consider. This type of holding can raise a continuation bet with the intention of taking down the pot on the flop, but can also be bet for value on later streets providing you have a good read on what your opponent will call along with. Top pair, meanwhile, can be an absolute monster holding heads-up and can be slow-played on the flop providing there are not too many potential scare cards that could arrive on the turn and leave you in a tough spot. Essentially, the key is to study your opponent’s behaviour post-flop and play your hand accordingly – if they are prone to firing multiple bullets with weak hands, you can call more readily and if they fold to pressure on the flop, you should be raising their continuation bets liberally.
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