Heads-up tips

Top British poker pro Marc Goodwin gets to the bottom of some of the game’s trickiest concepts

What’s the single most important thing to do when you’re heads-up?

The first thing you should work out in heads-up play is how much it costs to make someone pass a hand. If the blinds are 100/200 and you bet 400 on top from the button and they pass, you now know that amount will make them pass a non-premium hand. Next time make it 300, and if that works try 250. You’ll eventually find their pre-flop threshold. It’s important to discover that sweet spot where you’re risking the least amount of money to steal the most amount of blinds.

How loose should you be when calling a short stack all-in?

When you’re facing a shove from a short stack on the button and you have a dominating chip lead (4/1 or better), I’d suggest calling with a huge range of hands. I’d call with all suited connectors from 5-6 upwards, any combination of face cards, any pair and any Ace.

When you’re trying to finish someone off the only thing that should matter to you is how many chips the other player has. If they win, how many chips do they go up to? Will you still be chip leader? However, if you feel that they’re a very dangerous opponent and the blinds are still low, you can let them take the hand.

What’s the best way to play against a tight player who consistently looks to set traps?

You should steal a lot more hands against passive players and just realise that when they play back at you, you’re probably in trouble. That’s why finding out their betting threshold is essential. Start with a 75 percent pot bet and slowly work your way down. You’ll get to the point with some players where you can bet 10 into a pot of 100 and they’ll pass!

They’re so tight that they think you must be trying to milk them. If three diamonds come down and they haven’t got one in their hand they’ll fold. If they smooth-call they’ve probably got one, so if it doesn’t come on the turn you can bet again and they’ll probably pass. When you’re only making small bets you don’t have to get it right too many times for it to be profitable.

How do relative skill levels affect your play?

If you genuinely think you’re the better player you need to play lots and lots of small pots and try to avoid too much pre-flop mayhem. If you fancy that you’re an underdog in the match, then sticking it up them is certainly not the worst approach. Push strong hands hard, try to get it in pre-flop, and take a gamble. Applying pressure to the better player might force them into a mistake.

How important is it to remember previous action?

The longer a heads-up match goes on for, the more of a feel you’ll get for your opponent. If they smooth-call a raise in the big blind and check all the way to the river with A-K you need to take note of that. If they’re not willing to raise out of position with A-K then you have to be wary when they do decide to raise. If they didn’t bet with an unpaired A-K you can surmise that a post-flop bet means they’ve hit something.

What’s the best way to combat an aggressive player?

Check-raise, check-raise, check- raise. You have to teach the aggressive player early on that they can’t take a check from you as a sign of weakness. I’ll often smooth-call against aggressive players when I have position to allow them to hurt themselves and make the big bet on the river. If you’re out of position on the big blind you should always be looking for an opportunity to check-raise fast players. Check-raising heads- up is a huge weapon.

What should you look out for when preparing for the knockout blow?

The aim heads-up is to get into a position where you can take a gamble to knock your opponent out but still be very much in the game if it doesn’t work out. Say you start with 1500 chips and you take 300 chips off your opponent – that’s a huge swing. You’re now in the position of a 3/2 chip lead, so you can step up a gear, because even if you do get it in pre-flop you’re still in the game if you lose.

When your advantage is even steeper, around 3/1 or 4/1, you can be even more aggressive. If someone has 600 left and raises to 100 pre-flop, you can stick them in with almost anything. If they pass you’ve whittled them down further and if they win you’ve still got the chip lead. It’s worth taking that shot to finish the heads-up there and then. Unless you’re unlucky you’re never that far behind.

By making these aggressive moves you’re putting them under real pressure. It stops them from raising and, if they pass a couple of hands from the small blind, it can have a huge effect on their stack.

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