Heads up is a unique opportunity to learn to play poker extremely well, because you tend to play all sorts of hands in heads up. In this article, we'll teach you how to improve your heads up game by playing nearly every hand in the only form of poker where that kind of play is encouraged.
Playing over 30bb
The preflop round is arguably the most important round in heads-up, because you are forced to post blinds and play your hand. When you have the button, you have position on your opponent throughout the entire hand. There are three different preflop strategies that you should use, depending on how your opponent plays.
Vs A Loose-Passive (Calling Station) Player
You should start limping most of your hands and trying to get value when you flop a hand postflop. If you do elect to raise, try to raise 2.5x the BB. You should raise about 50% of your hands against this opponent.
Vs A Tight (Nit) Player
You should start raising most of your hands and trying to get value when they fold pre-flop or to your cbet on the flop. When you raise, raise 3x the BB, and cbet around 3/4ths of the pot every time. You should raise about 90% of your hands against this opponent.
Vs A Loose-Aggressive (Maniac) Player
You should raise strong hands and suited connectors on the button. You make your money against a maniac by flopping a strong hand like a straight or top pair top kicker and letting them bluff into you. Do not play trappy before the flop. Just raise and hope that they 3-bet you when you have aces. You should raise about 66% of your hands against this opponent.
The basic pre-flop strategy has one goal – get to the flop when we have an advantage. This is either a card advantage (by playing only strong hands out of position) or a position advantage (which is an extremely strong advantage).
I usually discourage calling out of position with weak hands. It is important to either 3-bet or fold when out of position. There are very few hands that warrant a call, though they do exist.
Tip: If your opponent only min-raises his button, you should call with any two cards; you are getting great odds.
On the flop
Bet nearly every flop, but check “wet” flops unless you have top two pair or better. Wet flops are flops with lots of potential draws. Wet flops look like 89T, 8QJ, 78T.
Out of position, after calling
Play very tightly. Fold poor hands, check-raise good hands and very strong draws (eight or more outs).
Out of position, after reraising
Bet every flop. If your opponent calls and you do not have top pair or better, check and fold.
Tip: When betting, always bet 2/3 the size of the pot.
Let’s talk about why I selected this flop strategy. We are betting in spots where most opponents fold too often, for instance, after calling a pre- flop raise or calling a 3-bet. If our opponents call us, we often shut down unless we have a strong hand.
When we are out of position, we have a card advantage going into the flop, so we’ll often have an advantage on the flop. We’re going to fold hands like middle pairs and check-raise strong top pairs and draws with more than eight outs.
Turn and river
Your turn and river strategy will depend on how strong your hand is. You can use the following chart to figure out a strategy that will maximize your hand’s value.
- Top pair, 2 bets
- Top two pair, 3 bets
- Trips, 3 bets
- Set, get all in
- Flush, 4 bets
- Straight, 4 bets
For example, if you have top pair and you’ve bet the flop, you’ve put in one bet. You should put in another bet on the turn or on the river, but not both. How do you decide whether you want to bet on the turn or the river? If the board has a lot of potential draws, bet on the turn. If the draw has few potential draws, check the turn and bet on the river.
Overplaying your hand is one of the biggest mistakes you can make in poker. If your oppo- nent is building a big pot, there’s a good chance he’s trying to get money from you. Knowing the relative strength of your hand is the first step to not allowing your opponent to get value out your second-best hands.
Board texture and opponent tendencies affect how many bets you can put in on the turn and river. On dry boards, a hand like two-pair is a very strong hand. On wet boards, where a flush or straight is possible, it could be a middling hand.
Playing between 30bb and 15bb.
This is very short stacked, but not short enough where you should start playing push-fold, so it's interesting to look at how hands in this range play out. There are a few things to take into account at this level.
1) You don't have any implied odds at all. You can't make speculative plays anymore.
2) Three-bets tend to become pushes all-in. If your opponent is raising too frequently, you can exploit this by shoving over his raises with just about any two cards. You generally don't want to do this deeper than about 27BB, though. It's very good around 20BB.
3) Winning small pots becomes more important. You want to stab at them, and if your opponent is letting you take them away, then you've found a big edge.
4) Proper short-stack strategy becomes very important.
You shouldn't be at all concerned with waiting for a bigger edge at this stage in the game. If you've found a strategy that you know gives you an edge, you should use it.
Preflop, you should look for some mixture of limps and raises on the button. Earlier hands should give you some idea how the villain will respond, but any of these button preflop strategies can be effective against the right villain.
Strategy 1 - Minraise 70% of your hands, fold the rest
If the villain rarely 3-bet shoves, folds many of his big blinds, or plays fit-or-fold on the flop, this might be the right strategy.
Strategy 2 - Minraise 40% of your hands, limp 40% of your hands, fold the rest
If your villain is a bit more active in raised pot, you want your range to be stronger, and you want to be able to call a three-bet shove more often. If you're playing a 70% raising range, you can't often call a three-bet. If the opponent is letting you limp without punishing you and is letting you take down limped pots reasonably often with a stab on the flop, you may want to try minraising 40% of your hands and limping a bunch more.
Strategy 3 - Mix strong hands into your limping range
If your villain has been attacking your limps preflop, then limp with about 10% of your strong hands.
Strategy 4 - Raise hands when you'd call a reraise
Maybe the villain is aggro-spewy in raised pots. He'll shove 52o when you make your first minraise with AQ after limping the last gazillion hands. If you're getting reraised a lot more, definitely reduce your raises to hands in which you'd call a shove. This is a maximally exploitive strategy.
Out Of Position
Tighten up your calling range from the big blind. Playing fit-or-fold is way too expensive at this stage, so you want to enter pots out of position armed with significant flopping power and/or the power to handle the villain when he has position post-flop. If he has exploitable traits postflop, like if he only cbets when he hits, or if he three-barrel bluffs, then you'd want to enter pots with this player.
Against a player raising 100% of his hands, you should jam 100% of your hands at this level unless you have reason to believe your opponent would call a three-bet all-in really light.
Mix in small three-bets against nitty players who are opening buttons half-heartedly but not committing to hands.
Keep a very close eye on stack-to-pot ratios. If you and your villain start putting in bets on the flop and beyond, it's very easy to get past commitment thresholds inadvertently. This will price you into making calls with hands like top pair and flush draws as the pot grows relative to the stacks left. Look ahead before putting chips into the pot and adjust your plan for the hand. Avoid lines that require you to call a bet or two on early streets to "reevaluate." Sometimes those lines are inevitable, but stacking off when you're sure of your equity is key as the effective stack sizes shrink.
Playing Under 10bb
Under 10bb, you should typically default to a maximally-exploitive all-in strategy like the Better Than Nash Equilibriums.