Mastering heads-up

Jeff Kimber, winner of the 2006 World Heads-Up Poker Championship, on what it takes in one-on-one confrontations


The first thing you need to do is see how the other person plays. There’s no point going into any kind of poker situation, especially heads-up, saying something like, ‘Today I’m going to play super-aggressive, I’m going to raise every hand and I’m going to re-raise every raise.’ If the guy opposite you is not actually making any moves and is only betting when he has a genuine hand it’s very easy to play against.

Don’t feel like you have to play like a Scandinavian – what’s the point in playing loose and trying to take people off pots? If your opponent has signalled that they’re strong by betting and you’re not super-strong, why would you want to play a big pot? There’s just no need to do that.


You get a feel, not necessarily a read, on the other player in the early stages. Pay attention to their betting patterns and how they behave with certain hands. Do they value bet on the river, or is the only reason that they bet on the end because they’ve missed their draw and think that you’ve given up on it? Are they check-calling or not? If they are then you’re best checking behind them with weak hands. If they’re check-raising a lot then you don’t want to give them that opportunity by betting at them when you’ve missed, so slow down on the continuation betting.

Heads-up is a game of setting traps, so don’t build a big pot unless you’re absolutely sure you’ve got a bigger hand than your opponent. There’s not much point re-reraising unless your opponent has got the second nuts to your nuts. Otherwise, try to keep the pot small, make it a skilful game, and try to put opponents on hands at all times. If I’m playing online I’ll generally only play one table at once. If I was playing four tables there would be no way that I could follow betting patterns and learn how people play.


You should look to play just about any connecting cards and any pair or high cards. Any Ace is a massive hand and a naked King is strong too. On a nine-handed or even six- handed table any two ‘picture’ cards might not be enough to play, but having K-10 heads- up is huge. It’s important to lower your hand standards from what you’re used to. There’s only one other person at the table and the chance of them also holding a premium hand is slim.


Despite the need for aggression, you don’t always have to come in raising. In a heads-up tournament I’ll sometimes fold on the button. I don’t like hands that have absolutely no connection and few possibilities post-flop.

Hands like J-4 and Q-5 you can happily muck. I’d much rather play 5-4 and 4-3. If you’re only raising from the small blind with decent hands and your opponent folds every time, you can start raising with a wider range of hands. If they’ve been calling every time to see a flop then you should wait to raise with genuine hands.

You’ll often find that if you start to fold the button it will encourage the other person to do the same. You’ll fold and then he’ll fold the very next hand. Likewise if you raise every time or call every time, then your opponent will often start playing in a similar way. A lot of copying happens in heads-up matches.


When playing in the Heads-Up World Championship I never limped with a big hand. It’s too difficult to lay them down post-flop so it’s better to build a big pot when you’re fairly sure that you’re ahead.

You can try and get clever with them but I don’t really see the point. The only way you’re going to trap someone is if they catch some of the flop and it’s going to cost you to find out whether that’s better or worse than what you’ve got. It’s different in the later stages when the blinds are high.

Here, if the other guy is pushing in every hand then obviously you want to trap him, but in the earlier stages you’re more likely just to get yourself in trouble.

However, if you’ve limped in with a couple of marginal hands and your opponent has made a move back at you, then it could be worthwhile if you think there’s a good chance they’d do the same again. I may well check a big hand when I’m out of position and then check-raise on the flop, but if there’s been a raise I’m quite happy to get my money in when I know I’m ahead.


You have to be clever, in terms of putting opponents on a hand, to know whether you should fold or bet. And if you’re going to bet, what size bet you need to put in to get paid off. Sometimes you can put in a huge bet that will get called because the other guy has just hit on the river.

You don’t need to start re-raising on flops and turns. If your opponent re-raises you’re probably best just calling, whether you’ve got the nuts or merely a strong hand that may or may not be the best. It’s best to piece all the information together first. On the river you can stick in as much as you want if you think you’re ahead.


There’s a lot to be said for betting bottom pair on the flop. If the other guy isn’t showing much strength or doesn’t look comfortable when betting (which is obviously easier to tell when playing live) you should think about check-calling. Hopefully you’ll pick up two- pair or trips, but if you think you’re ahead with a low pair [on later streets] then you should call anyway.


People think you have to be really tricky and pull lots of moves when you’re playing heads-up, but that’s not strictly true.

Another pro said to me, ‘I can’t believe you won the world championship, I thought you were just a bit of a plodder.’ What kind of moves do you think you need when you start with 20,000 starting chips, small blinds and a slow clock? You just need to be able to put people on hands.

I’ve watched other good heads-up players and there’s no crash, bang, wallop with them, there’s no unnecessary re-raising and showing bluffs. They play completely solid. People think that there’s some kind of dark art to heads-up play and that you have to pull all these moves to do well. Simply by chance you’ll have the best hand 50 percent of the time anyway so you just have to recognise when you do and make the most of those times.


If you’re out of position and not sure if you’re ahead try to keep the pot small. If you’re certain that you’re winning and you’ve got them on a hand then check to them. If you feel that they’ve got a flush draw they’ve missed and you check, invariably they’ll have a bet at it because they can’t leave all that money sat in the middle.

Out of position I’ll just call with medium strength Aces. If you hit your Ace it’s well disguised, but if you re-raise and the Ace comes, what are you going to do? You bet out, they fold and that’s the end of the hand. But if you just call and check to the raiser, you can let them bet and then make your move from there.

Playing something like A-10 can be a scary hand. If you re-raise and your opponent comes over the top what are you going to do? In most situations you have to pass. I’d rather see a flop and play it from there. I want more information before I start committing a lot of chips.


A lot of American players come out firing at the flop after calling your raise pre-flop. If you raise their ‘probe’ bet they will fold 95 percent of the time. They bet out to ‘see where they are’, which is a great opportunity for you to shove it right up them. If you raise in this spot they’ll fold, claiming that they’ve now got their information. But what’s really happened is that you’ve taken advantage of the fact that you know if they had a big hand they’d check to let you continuation bet and then raise!


Against aggressive players I’ll still make continuation bets a lot if I’ve missed with something like A-K, because they’re going to have to raise a lot to not offer me the pot odds to call to catch my Ace or King.

They might be making that move with middle pair, bottom pair or a flush draw, so once you’ve called their raise they’ll be worried. What are they going to do on the turn?

Have another bash at the pot? Calling in that situation just exudes strength because it says, ‘You keep betting and I’ll keep calling.’ It can be quite effective to call on the flop, call on the turn and, if they check on the river, stick a big bet in to get them to fold. But if you’re first to act it’s very hard to fire three times when your opponent keeps calling. It’s very hard to believe that your big Ace is still good.


You can win without cards but you can’t win without chips. There’s no point letting yourself get so low that even if you double up you’re still in trouble. Once you’re something like a 5/1 chip underdog then you should be moving in with almost any two cards.

If the blinds are really low then you can still play some poker and you don’t need to move in with absolute filth – make sure you’ve got an Ace or some kind of suited connectors.

You have to make your big hands pay in heads-up and you’re especially conscious of that when short-stacked. If you get a big pair you should raise small or check and try to let them catch up rather than shoving. It’s a risk, but one that you probably need to take. With something like A-8 or a small pair you should just get it all-in pre-flop. If you’re called you have a good chance to double up.


You have to be very careful moving up and down the gears as the big stack because it means your opponent is approaching a point where their only move is to fold or re-raise all-in. Once you get a 3/1 chip lead it’s quite easy to start battering your opponent by raising every hand, but once you have something like a 7/1 advantage they’re not going to fold anymore and will have to start shoving.

There’s no harm in folding the button at that stage and waiting for a hand to take them on with. You’re not the one in trouble so you’re not the one that has to create pressure. They’ve got their back up against the wall and have the increasing blinds to worry about. Giving them a couple of blinds won’t get them back into it and you don’t need to finish it in one hand.

I watched Simon Nowab play Paul Jackson heads-up and Paul had about a 7/1 chip lead so Simon started moving all-in every hand. Paul was showing rags each time, saying he couldn’t call, but when someone is short-stacked and shoving each hand you do have to lower your calling range.


I know pros that base their livelihoods on online heads-up matches (e.g. Keith ‘The Camel’ Hawkings). By playing the contests solidly and winning more than you lose you can build up a bankroll quite easily. Just make sure that you’re playing games that aren’t too big for you. It’s quite easy to lose a few matches in a row by going out to coin-flips. I’ve played $200, $1,000 and $5,000 heads-up games, but the variance on the $5,000 matches is just too big.


Play your big hands strongly. If you’re not 100 percent sure whether you’re ahead, just check-call. I played like this in the World Series heads-up event. I cruised through my first round and a spectator said, ‘You hardly looked like you got out of first gear.’ Often there’s no need to.

Play solidly and you give yourself every chance to win. If you put your opponent on top pair and you’ve just rivered an Ace, bang in a big bet and they’ll often call thinking that you’re bluffing and trying to buy the pot. It’s quite a simple game and a straightforward process. Don’t over-complicate matters.


In contrast to heads-up matches, the final stage of a full ring tournament requires a different strategy. You need to quickly adapt from full-table tournament play to short- handed and, ultimately, heads-up.

As the number of players dwindle your starting hand requirements must loosen up and, at heads-up, with the blinds usually very high, you have to be prepared to play any two cards. The swings at this stage are huge, with one hand often proving decisive in a close game, so it’s important to keep your opponent under maximum pressure while ensuring you don’t marry yourself to any meagre holdings that won’t stand up in the face of resistance.

Try to keep the pots small with marginal hands and play a tricky, trappy game when you find that tournament-winning monster.

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