To many, heads up is the purest form of poker. Playing heads up forces players to utilize many different skills in order to be successful. Some of the many skills include the ability to read hands, bluff (in correct situations), adjust constantly to your opponents playing styles, and value bet thin.
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Another important skill that heads up players must develop is hand selection. When first starting out, some players will play nearly every hand (even out of position). They seem to think that they need to over compensate for heads up play. Other players will not play nearly enough hands causing them to lose money due to the blinds and/or their opponent's steals.
But just like anything else in poker (some will say life too), balance is important. In regards to heads up poker hand selection, you must find a middle ground between playing too many hands and not playing enough. And to help with that, I have created a basic starting hand guide below.
The button in heads up poker is no different then the button in a 6-max or full ring game - you will have position throughout the entire hand.
Because of the positional advantage, the button is where you should have the widest hand range. Many players will start by opening 100% of their hands and slowly shave their range back to adjust to how often they're being played back at by their opponent.
At the bare minimum, I will open up every suited connector, 1 and 2-gapper, broadways and pairs. I will also open any ace, king and most of my queen and jack hands with a kicker of 5 and above (all queens and jacks if suited). Any suited ten-x hand is good enough for me to open as well. If you were to look at all of these hands in Poker Stove, my range would be in the neighborhood of 70% at minimum.
Keep in mind that your range should fluctuate somewhat depending mostly on your opponent, game flow and at times even your image. If your opponent is 3-betting you relentlessly, you should open less, folding out hands you can't defend to 3-bets with. A majority of the hands you open you should be able to defend or 4-bet. On the other hand, if your opponent folds a lot pre or plays fit or fold on the flop, you can widen your hand range, sometimes playing as much as 100% of hands dealt.
When facing a 3-bet, I will have a slightly smaller range. I will generally defend versus 3-bets with any pair, any broadway, any suited ace and about half of my suited kings and queens (like K9/Q8 suited and above). I also defend with some suited connectors and one gappers like J8s or T9s. It's really villain dependent, but this should give you an idea of where I start at least.
When playing heads up poker, the player in the big blind will be the player who is out of position for the entire hand. This is a huge disadvantage and because of this, you should tighten up the range of hands that you defend with.
As a rule of thumb, I will defend any pair, any suited ace, A9 off-suit and up, almost all of my broadways and suited connectors/1-gappers like J8s and maybe T9s. Looking at Poker Stove, my hand range will be close to 35% or 40% out of position. About 10% of these hands (suited connectors, suited kings, some suited queens) I will 3-bet with preflop.
Again, it's important to realize that this is more or less a default hand range. You should be adjusting the hands you're defending with according to how tight/loose your opponent is. The tighter your opponent, the tighter the hand range you should be defending with. The looser your opponent, the wider you can defend.
It should be painfully obvious that your opening hand range in a heads up game is much wider than what it would be in a 6-max or full ring game. If your preflop hand range isn't this wide (or close), you're too tight and you should widen up as it is likely costing you money.
At the same time, I hope that you noticed that none of my preflop ranges outlined above are set in stone. Starting hand ranges in any poker game shouldn't be. You should be basing your preflop hand ranges based on your opponents, game flow and image. Your exact hand range will always be fluctuating.
So while a guide like the one I posted above will definitely help you in becoming a better heads up player, knowing how to adjust for the different in-game variables will help you in becoming not only a profitable heads up player, but a profitable poker player overall.
In this lesson we’re going to run through a number of heads-up match-ups that will help give you an idea of where you stand in a variety of pre-flop situations when playing hold’em. Be aware that we’re only going to focus on individual hand match-ups. When playing hold’em it’s essential that you put your opponent on a range of hands, rather than specific holdings. However, knowing the odds of common pre-flop match-ups is a good starting point. Pick out and study what will help you. While it’s not essential that these statistics be committed to memory, it won’t hurt you if you do.
Let’s start by looking at hand match-ups when holding a pair:
Pair vs. Pair
The higher pair is an 80 percent favourite. We can get very technical and highlight the fact that if the underpair didn’t have any clean suits and/or the maximum number of straight outs then the high pair’s equity would increases by one or two percent.
Pair vs. Overcards
This is the classic coin flip hand that you’ll see many times late in tournaments with one player being all-in. The term coin flip indicates an even money situation which is really a 55 to 45 percent situation, as the pair is a slight favourite.
Pair vs. Undercards
In this situation the pair is normally about a 5-to-1 favourite and can vary depending on whether the two undercards are suited and/or connectors.
Pair vs. Overcard and an undercard
The pair is about a 70 percent favourite. Another example of this holding would be J-J against A-9. The underdog non-paired hand has three outs while the favourite has redraws.
Pair vs. Overcard and one of that pair
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The classic example of this situation is the confrontation between a pair of cowboys and big slick. The A-K has three outs and it becomes a 70-30 percent situation or a 2.3-to-1 dog for the cowboys. This is a far cry from the next situation where even though one of the pair is matched the other card is lower.
Pair vs. Undercard and one of that pair
The non pair has to hit its undercard twice or make a straight or flush to prevail. The pair is better than a 90 percent favourite or slightly better than 10-to-1 odds. I’ll take those odds anytime.
Pair vs. Lower suited connectors
You see this match-up late in tournaments when a player is getting desperate and pushes all-in with middle suited connectors. A hand such as Q-Q against 7-6 suited would be a prime example. The pair is a strong favourite to win.
Pair vs. Higher suited connectors
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Here is the real coin flip situation. A pair of eights heads-up against a suited Q-J is a fifty-fifty proposition. The higher suited cards would have an edge against a lower pair, such as 2’s or 3’s, since the board itself can sometimes destroy little pairs.
The following heads-up confrontations contain no pairs.
Two high cards vs. Two undercards
The two higher cards are usually a 65% favourite to win, but it can vary depending on whether any of the cards are suited and/or connectors.
High card, low card vs. Two middle cards
In this match-up the high card gives it the edge. But it’s only a marginal winner, approximately 57% to the hand containing the high card.
High card, middle card vs. Second highest, low card
The edge is increased by around 5% when the low card becomes the third highest card, as shown in this example, which gives approx 62% to 38% for high card/middle card combination.
High card, same card vs. Same card, low card
In this example the A-J is in a very strong position. If we discount any flush or straight possibilities, it only leaves the player holding J-8 with three outs (the three remaining 8’s).
Same high card, high kicker vs. Same card, low kicker
The high kicker gives this hand a fairly big edge. It’s very common for A-K run into A-Q, A-J, and lower, and it’s why Ace-King is such a powerful hand, particularly at the business end of no-limit hold’em tournaments when people move all-in with any sort of Ace.
For any math maniacs reading this who do not find these odds precise enough, I acknowledge that the math is rounded and for the most part does not take into account the possibilities of ties and back door straights and flushes. What players need to be equipped with is the general statistical match-up – not the fact that in the example of a pair of eights against a suited Q-J the percents are exactly 50.61 for the eights to 48.99 for the suited connectors with the balance going to potential ties. I call that a fifty-fifty proposition.
Of greater importance than quibbling over tenths of a percent is the fact that in most heads-up confrontations you can never be a prohibitive underdog. That is one reason why poker is so challenging and fun. Of course, while true, I’m not attempting to embolden the reader to ignore the odds and become a maniac. Math is the underpinning of poker and if you regularly get your money into the middle with the worst of it you will go broke.
One statistic that hasn’t been mentioned, and it’s one that I particularly like is this – the odds of both players being dealt Aces when playing heads up (one on one) is 270,724-to-1. It’s my favourite statistic because it provides me with almost total confidence when I’m playing heads up and receive pocket Aces that I’m the boss! That confident feeling lasts right up to the river when my Aces get cracked by some rotten piece of cheese which my opponent elected to play. As mentioned already, rarely are you a prohibitive underdog – so remember that to keep those losing hands in perspective.
By Tom 'TIME' Leonard
Tom has been writing about poker since 1994 and has played across the USA for over 40 years, playing every game in almost every card room in Atlantic City, California and Las Vegas.