Beating heads-up limit hold’em online is all about getting in your opponent’s head and adjusting to his game plan
During my time as a prop at the Bicycle Casino in Los Angeles I primarily played limit poker. My job was to start games and keep games going, and I was often thrown into limit hold’em, stud, stud hi-lo and Omaha hi-lo games. After two years of this, I had quite a bit of experience playing short-handed. But it wasn’t until I started playing online that I learned the joys of playing heads-up limit poker.
For this article I decided to bring in reinforcements in the form of Chris ‘DeathDonkey’ Vitch, who makes training videos for the website DeucesCracked and is one of the better limit hold’em players you’ll find. We talked for about an hour and what follows is a distillation of our best ideas on heads-up limit play.
For show or for dough?
One thing we agreed upon straight away was that if you’re planning on playing heads-up poker, you need to decide if you’re doing it for your ego or for your wallet. If your ego needs stroking, go ahead and ignore game selection. Face off against the best pros out there and see how you do. However, if you want to make money, game selection is key. Remember, the game goes pretty fast with little time to stop and catch your breath, so you should try to play against players you know you can exploit.
You’re probably wondering what kind of player that might be. Without being too obvious, you want to play against players that aren’t comfortable playing heads-up. By that I mean they’re not comfortable being constantly in the firing line, playing over 50% of their hand range, being raised constantly and raising constantly with and without the goods. You don’t want to take on players who are happy to make tough calls often with only Ace-high.
There are a number of things you’ll have to do in a heads-up match if you want to be successful, and most new players will find it all a bit daunting. Some simple clues that you’re up against a novice are if they tend to call and limp a lot and fold hands too often. These are pretty much dead giveaways that your opponent either isn’t overly experienced at heads-up action or just isn’t very good. These are the players you want to seek out.
When I sit and play heads-up poker (regardless of the game), I’ll try to figure out what my opponent’s game plan is. Once I know what he is trying to do, I can figure out the best way to counter-attack. Always try to stay one step ahead of your opponent and look to get inside his head. Heads-up play is all about observing your opponent, setting him up and taking advantage of his habits. And, of course, not letting your own play become exploitable.
Think of it like a racing car driver who always passes on the outside. Eventually, your opponent will learn your move and adapt, so to be successful you might have to fake to the outside and go inside. It’s all about out-thinking your opponent and staying one step ahead.
If you want to make money in heads-up cash games, selecting exploitable opponents is key. Once you’ve found a weak player, beating them is simply a matter of observing their play, working out their habits and exploiting them relentlessly
Fight back or sit back?
A student of mine was playing limit heads-up recently and was constantly raising on the button and almost always putting in a continuation bet. His opponent was finally starting to fight back with frequent check-raises. My student thought it would be correct to stop putting in so many continuation bets so as to avoid being check-raised, but he missed the point. Instead of doing the obvious, he should have been thinking of how to stay one step ahead.
Make those continuation bets and then when you’re check-raised, you can smooth-call with a wide range of your hands. Remember, you’re still in position on the turn and your opponent has to act before you. If your opponent is check-raising light, he’ll be in a tough spot when he has to act first after the turn is dealt. If you’ve got a real hand, you can punish him on the big-bet street. No matter what, I’m not going to let my opponent stop me from playing aggressively.
Another thing I’ll do in a heads-up match is sometimes take the worst of it (a little), by gambling when I know I don’t have the odds so that I can get to showdown and get some information about how my opponent is playing. Information is key and it’s very difficult to adapt to your opponent if you never see what cards he has and how he plays them. The beauty of a limit game is that you can afford to do this sometimes without risking your stack.
I’ll also take the worst of it if I think my opponent is prone to tilting. Many players take a heads-up match very personally. It isn’t possible for them to play without their ego getting in the way. When I play against those players, I’ll go out of my way to disrupt their ‘inner harmony’. I don’t mind gambling as a slight underdog if I think my opponent will lose his head if I lay a bad beat on him. Many players will try to ‘get you back’ and end up tilting. Before they know what’s happened, they’ve lost three buy-ins as a result.
It may sometimes be worth gambling when you know you’ve got the worst of it, either to gather information or because you know a bad beat could tip your opponent over the edge
Pick your spots
Most players play better when they are winning, and if I’m in a heads-up match and my opponent wins a couple of early hands against me, I’ll continue on for a bit. But if I know they are playing at their highest level, then rather than continue banging my head against a wall, I’ll take my small loss and pick a better spot later on. This only holds true if my opponent isn’t making mistakes.
In most heads-up matches the chips go back and forth without much fanfare until someone gets momentum and then you’ll notice that one of the players has just won 14 of the past 15 hands. Why does this happen? Usually, it’s a matter of confidence, as a player loses a couple of hands and starts to doubt himself. Before he knows it, he’s lost half his buy-in and now he’s desperately trying to get his money back. Now you know you’ve got him. Once he’s in that ‘gotta get my money back’ mode, you can really start punishing him.
Playing heads-up can be a lot of fun, but it can also be very stressful. To be the most successful at it, you might want to play six-max games first and continue playing them when they become four-handed and three-handed. Playing more hands will help your game and will help you prepare for your first heads-up match.
One major benefit of playing heads-up is that you become very comfortable playing a wide range of hands. Remember, you’ll be raising probably 75% of your hands on the button and you’ll be defending your blind at least 50% of the time. Suddenly, you’ll find yourself becoming more and more comfortable playing marginal hands in marginal situations. You’ll become better at reading your opponents and reading the situation. This can only help you when you return to a full-ring game (just remember to adjust your betting ranges!).
Any of you who are familiar with my monthly articles know that I’ll almost always include a couple of specific examples, but I’ve purposely left them out in this one. The reason is that heads-up action is so player-dependent. The cards don’t really matter. It’s just like a puzzle you have to solve. Once you get inside your opponent’s head and you know where they’re going, you can devise a plan of attack. Adapting, adjusting and staying one step ahead of your opponent will keep the chips coming your way.