Heads up tournament play

Playing heads-up takes nerve, skill and bluff. Rick Dacey steers you to the winning pot

Playing heads-up is the closest you’ll ever get to feeling like you’re playing Russian roulette with Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter. There might not be a gun to your head, but going toe to toe at the poker table is a high pressure situation.

And if you can’t conquer this aspect of the game then there’s no chance that you’ll be able to pull off your dream win, like American Chris Moneymaker.

Moneymaker busted opposition out through a number of online satellite tournaments on his way to winning the World Series of Poker Main Event in Las Vegas in 2003, scooping $3.6 million when he knocked out his last opponent on the final table. Neither Moneymaker nor this year’s winner, Australian Joe Hachem, had played in major US tournaments before but both proved that as well as playing the cards they were skilled at bullying an opponent in single combat.

Heads-up is much like a game of chicken – you don’t need the fastest car or, in this case, the best hand. The nerves to stay on target and not deviate from the line once the pedal has hit the metal are far more important qualities. This kamikaze attitude could get you into trouble if you crash your Route 66 racer into a King Kong pick-up truck, but without it you may as well walk away from the table before you even lay down your first blind.

The most important thing to remember is that you don’t need the best hand to win; it doesn’t matter what cards you get dealt if the other person folds. If they toss in their 10-8 and you’re sitting there with an 8-6 you still pick up the chips. In heads-up you can justifiably contest any pot with just a single court card and almost any pair is worth pumping.

Show some aggression

Forget the time that mother told you to play nicely with the other children – be a monster, be aggressive. Once you’re the chip leader, bully the other player off the blinds and use your position to pile the pressure on their dwindling stack.

If your normal game is a tight long-haul style then be prepared to change gear rapidly. You can’t expect to play tight and still win. You’ll get more blinds stolen than if Ikea left its Liverpool warehouse unlocked overnight. If you play a checking and folding game while you wait for a decent hand, you’ll be that much easier to read when the big slick is slid your way.

In heads-up one of the two of you will win every hand until all the chips are at one end of the table. If you attack the other hand you force your nemesis to make the decision to call, fold or raise and it should allow you more time to spot tells and expose bluffs.

The majority of the time neither hand will have a great deal of ballast to it. If your opponent checks then you have to bet. If a re-raise comes your way then you can always fold, but giving free cards towards a potential straight or flush draw is not an avenue that you want to pursue.

If you’re the small blind you should attack the big blind like a rabid dog. Salivate, bark, get on all fours and start humping the table leg if you think it will help, but you have to raise that big blind more often than not. Most players will have learnt the adage ‘don’t throw good money after bad’, and if you’re down to the last two so will your opponent. If they only call a third of the time on raises to their big blind you’ll be in profit and may win the hand if it’s called anyway.

F**k the flop

When the big blind is called and the flop hits the baize you can’t afford to look at the community cards in the same way as you would during normal play. If you hit a middle pair with a decent kicker during a standard game you’d probably be quite happy about it. In a heads-up this puts you in a very strong position. As a rule of thumb, if you’re on the button never just call – always raise to ensure you get a payout when you get dealt a decent hand. If you don’t know the person you’re playing you may not get many chances to get an insight into their heads-up technique. Watch the pre-flop raises to get an understanding of what your opposite number will bet as a bluff and what is a solid move aimed at pulling you towards a heavy loss. When you get to see cards on their backs make sure you remember the betting practice of that hand. If a similar rhythm emerges later, it’s odds-on they’ll be holding similar hole cards.

Against an inexperienced, passive player it’s best to raise as often as possible and lay as many bets on the flop as you think you can get away with without making your loose and wild play too obvious. It’s good to remember that the chance of starting with a pair is around 16/1, so a single court card is worth a punt. If the newcomer folds in the face of heavy raises and continues to look cowed, pile on the pressure until they show the first sign of strength. If they meet you head-on after folding their first couple of hands, chances are they’ll actually have a hand – then it’s time to assess how good your hole cards are and consider backing off.

However, it’s paramount to sustain the assault on your opponent’s stack of chips. If the stacks get tipped over 3/1 in your favour it makes the likelihood of a comeback from the sweating mess in front of you very remote indeed. Take them to the cleaners and start calling them all-in.


This advice is all well and good but it does assume that you have the larger clay army in front of you. What if you’re the lowly peasant fighting against heavy artillery? It’s a tricky decision whether to wage a war of attrition and call their bluffs or opt for the ambush, waiting until you get a ‘decent’ hand to wreak heavy damage. However, you need to strike a balance to ensure that your stack isn’t simply whittled away by blinds, which will make it that much easier for the opposition to call you out on pretty much any hand.

You know that the big stack is looking to bet you all-in and they’ll be likely to play you on most hands from the small blind just to pile on the pressure.

The best chance you have when you are very short-stacked is to act like a down-on-his-luck street urchin. Go all-in with a half decent hand and you’ll either double through, steal the blind – giving you more to bet with on the next hand – or get caught trying to pick pockets. But if you’re continually getting your blinds stolen your chances of getting back on level terms slip further away with every hand.

Whether you’re playing heads-up specifically or finishing a sit-and-go, you’ll find it embraces two of the most pure aspects of poker: the ability to disguise your own hand and figure out what your opponent has in front of him. But if you want tournament success then it’s vital to master the heads-up. Well, unless you’re happy coming second.

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