Huck Seed answers your questions about ‘Heads-up’ strategy

2009 NBC Heads-up World Champion Huck Seed dishes out Heads-up advice

Huck Seed burst onto the poker scene while still a student at the elite California Institute of Technology. In 1990, he won his first tournament and has since established himself as a master of all games, in all formats, with a particular fondness for Razz. Seed won a main event bracelet in 1996 and has four WSOP victories to his credit. Tall and lanky, he’s notorious for winning athletically-oriented prop bets and recently aced this year’s National Heads-up Poker Championship. Seed has made the money every year since the invitation-only event launched in 2005. We caught up with him soon after he closed out the tournament and put your questions to him (and some of our own) on all aspects of heads-up play…

Congratulations on recently winning the National  Heads-Up Championship. How did you prepare for the  tournament? Did you play a lot online?

I believe that many tournaments are won or lost before the first hand is dealt. So much has to do with a player’s state of mind. I have certain pre-game routines, but I think that everybody needs to figure out their own.

Currently, what works for me is a good night’s sleep, a light exercise routine outdoors – followed by a meal of raw, low glycemic index vegetables – and a little mental activity such as reading or speed chess or playing on FullTilt. That said, I’ve also had success fasting the night before and not eating anything during the tournament. I avoid anticipating the poker I’m about to play. I believe in the power of now, and I try to be as in the moment as possible. If I think about an upcoming event, during the hours prior to it, I have no focus when it starts. On the other hand, if I focus really hard on what I’m doing, such as chewing my food, right before the first hand, I will be in the habit of focusing when the tournament begins.

I like to play online to get in the flow of how players think and strategise. This is especially important because most live events now have many entrants who are online specialists.

Who was your toughest opponent in the Heads-Up Championship and why?

HS: Sam Farha. The last two times we played heads-up it was in a nosebleed live game, and he beat me both times. So that gave him a psychological edge going in. Also, I started off our match with low mental energy and struggled to play well.

Does your strategy in a heads-up tournament differ from how you play in a full-ring situation?

HS: In heads-up, I know that my opponent is paying attention to me. So I will make a lot more plays that create confusion. Even if everyone sees what I do in a hand at a nine-person table, I might not be involved in a big pot for hours and opponents might not remember the last hand I played. Heads-up, I am more likely to make a big call, lay down or bluff based on the flow of the previous few hands. Then there are the kinds of hands that I go in with. In heads-up it makes sense to see a lot of flops. So I need to know how to leverage bad hands like 10-4 suited or K-7 offsuit, which you would usually fold in most ring games. In heads-up I adjust for the fact that my opponent can easily have the same kinds of weak or random hands that I’m playing.

I always hear that cards don’t matter in heads-up. Can  you give me an idea of the range you like to play?
Malcolm McDonald, Ayrshire

HS: In the interest of confusing my opponent, I switch gears tremendously when playing heads-up. My slow gears involve limping on the button, as opposed to folding, since it’s scary for my opponent to raise out of position when stacks are deep.Then I might move into another mode and make big raises with terrible hands – like 7-2 or 10-2 or 9-3 – and limp with my big hands on the button. There is not much that I won’t try. I like to play just about every hand and win most of the small pots. I do this whenever I think I can get away with it.

How do you feel about letting opponents see cheap flops when you have a less than stellar hand?
Becky, Reading

HS: As long as I feel that I am better at reading and playing flops than them, I am happy to let them see flops cheaply. And don’t forget: if you have a less than stellar hand, you’re the one getting a cheap flop most the time.

Do you prefer being in the big blind or small blind, and why?
John, Stratford-on-Avon

HS: Heads-up, I prefer being in the small blind. Having position after the flop is a big advantage. It allows me to control whether or not a free card comes, and I get to read my opponent before risking chips.

When I play heads up, I get confused by calling stations. Sometimes I feel like I am building their pots. How do you handle them? 

Jack, Exeter

HS: I like to make small bluffs and big value-bets against calling stations. I won’t make any big semi-bluffs. I just keep betting the best hand until I think they are tired of calling. And then I will make a bluff.

What trapping strategies are unique to heads-up? Can you trap with weaker hands than you would at a full table? 

Craig, London

HS: I’m not sure that any trapping strategies are unique to heads-up, but you can definitely trap with much weaker hands. For example, you limp on the button with Q-4 offsuit, and your opponent checks. Then the flop comes Q-7-2 rainbow. Your opponent checks and you check, trapping. Suppose a suited 9 comes, putting a flush draw out there. Now there are a lot of open-ended straight draws and gutshots as well. If your opponent bets, I suggest making a big raise here with the intention of calling an all-in re-raise. Your opponent can easily put you on one of the numerous draws that have shown up and give you a lot of action with nothing.

In what instances, besides when you have the nuts, will you push all-in? Richard, Oxford

HS: In a tournament-style heads-up match, eventually the blinds get so big that you must go all-in, pre-flop, with a wide range of hands. For example, if you have 7,000 in chips, your opponent has the same, and the blinds are 300/600, you should push all in with 100% of your hands – so long as you think your opponent will fold hands like A-2 offsuit, low pairs, and K-9 suited. When stacks are deep, and I have a chip advantage, I like to go all-in on the river as a bluff when it seems right. If the play doesn’t work, then, hopefully, it will get me action when I do have the nuts.

How often do you continuation-bet in heads-up? Under what conditions will you or won’t you do it? Rachel, Blackpool

HS: It depends on the flow of the match. In general, after raising pre-flop, I continuation bet 100% of the time when the board is raggedy and a fair amount of the time when it isn’t. In the latter situation, I plan another big bet if a rag comes on the turn.

How do your aggression levels change over the course of a heads-up tournament? Glen, Coventry

HS: I play more aggressively against weaker, tighter players. Usually, though, they get knocked out. So, over the course of a tournament, I become less aggressive simply because there are fewer opportunities for aggressive play.

How closely do you watch your opponents’ body  language and betting patterns during heads-up tournaments? Koby, Llanelli

HS: I always watch my opponents as closely as I can – unless I am trying to seem disinterested. Then I rely heavily on my peripheral vision. During almost every hand I played in the National Heads-up Championship, I saw something and tried to exploit it. For me, reading players’ body language and betting mannerisms is most of the game. Betting patterns come next. Math probability and game-theory are last.

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