The Foundations of Poker

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Chapter 6: Playing Heads Up

The final format in which a game can be played is heads up. Heads up is a one-on-one game of poker. Typically, the only time people will play heads up is at the end of a tournament or sit and go. Sometimes, casinos will run heads up games, but this is rare. There are high-stakes heads up tournaments that professionals and high rolling amateurs play in, though the average poker player will not be participating. However, a player playing in a tournament or sit and go will have to learn how to get really good at heads up as the difference in winnings between 2nd and 1st places is typically equal to 40% of the value of first. That is, 2nd place takes roughly 60% of what the 1st place takes. This is true in 9-player SNG’s and is true in the world series of poker main event, where the 1st place player pockets around $8,000,000 and the 2nd place gets $5,000,000. Suffice to say, having a solid heads up game is pivotal to securing profits in various formats of tournament play.

Because there are only two players in the game, the game takes a format where the dealer is the small blind and the other player is the big blind, with the dealer being the first to act in hands. Even though players will defend a wider range of hands, they will still defend perhaps 40% of their hands. Due to the opposing player folding 60% of the time, in heads up players almost always come in for a raise. During the initial stages of a heads up match, the blinds are still relatively large, particularly if the heads up match were the result of a sit and go. This means this when a player consistently raises from the small blind and collects the big blind as well as the ante from the opponent, over time the chips add up. If the other player usually either folds or calls pre-flop as opposed to raising, one can see a lot of flops for free. Against a more passive opponent like the one described, aggression usually becomes the best way to win. If the other player ever makes a move, unless one has a big hand, one should give the other player credit for having a hand and not losing chips foolishly. Hands like top pair top kicker in heads up are considered incredibly strong hands. Oftentimes, players will go all in with a wide range of hands. Against a player who will open a lot of hands, which a good player will, one should be 3-betting as often as one can get away with it. Of course if the other player is going to 4-bet often, then one should only 3-bet with big hands. However, because players will raise any 2, the pre-flop raisers will fold most hands to 3-bets. In heads up, a player should only try to bluff when the blinds are short or when there are otherwise good opportunities to do so. For instance, imagine a player 3-bets with 98 knowing that the opponent normally folds, yet even if they call, 98 plays fairly well. In this situation, the board can come out something like 267. The other player could easily have a hand like A7, where it is too strong to fold to a 3-bet but perhaps too weak to 4-bet in the case of deep stacks, which will not be the case in SNG’s but may in MTT’s, and thus decides to call. When one c-bets on this flop, one’s opponent will at least call, after all they made TPTK. When the turn comes, even if it does not help 89, it is a great spot to bet again which, sizing-wise, may work out to be an all-in or set up the river for an all-in. A7 now only has 2nd pair and is legitimately afraid of the semi-bluffing player having pocket pairs higher than 7’s as well as any jack, all of which have 7’s crushed. This is a great spot to semi-bluff all-in on the turn, and while the opponent is ahead, they will usually fold and even if they do not, the semi-bluffer has 14 outs, which are defined as cards that can turn their hand from the 2nd best hand to the best hand. However, if semi-bluffing player were to get called but instead of showing up with a semi-bluff hand like 89, show up with a bluff hand like A3, they have 0 outs. It is a novice move to make bluffs with 0 outs in normal circumstances, there is simply too much money at stake to make such a foolish play. In the world series of poker main event, the buy in is $10,000, and the difference between 1st and 2nd is $3,000,000, or 300 buy ins. When a player will call with a good hand instead of a great hand, there is no point in risking 300 buy ins drawing dead, in other words with 0 outs, to get a player off a good hand instead of just outplaying them in other hands. While one would prefer for the opponent to fold when one semi-bluffs, one still has some equity and thus can still win the hand if one’s opponent calls one’s bet.

To win a heads up match, players should try to win most hands by coming in for a raise as well as c-bet, but if the other player indicates that they have a hand, the pre-flop aggressor should give up and wait for another hand. In general, the pre-flop aggressor should lose small hands and win big hands. To win big hands, the aggressor needs to play certain hands tricky and try to approach game theory optimum, which will be discussed at length in the following chapter. Sometimes, one should just call with big hands pre-flop to try to let the opponent bluff as the hand is disguised, or play a hand they would not have otherwise played as it is of no extra cost to do so. One strives to keep them self level headed while taking creative lines to get one’s opponents to bluff into one when one has big hands. In addition, one will bet large after successfully convincing the opponent that one does not have a hand when one does in fact have a big hand.

A solid heads up game, strategy aside, has to do with focus. Whatever strategy works for someone against the opponent one needs to figure out as soon as possible and stick with it. If one is to deviate from a strategy while it still works, one is putting a lot at risk with no proven upside. There is a classic American saying for anyone who wants to change their strategy unnecessarily, “if isn’t broken, don’t fix it”; it is simply best to stick with a strategy that works. In a heads up match, one needs to focus on doing what works and make sure one can employ those tactics throughout the match. Usually, one has been playing for a long time by the time the heads up game comes around, and is exhausted. However, if one thinks hard about the money on the line during a heads up match, they realize that it is worth focusing. Of course nobody including a top professional against an amateur can say with absolute certainty who the winner will be, however if a player is able to focus and only change their strategy when the opponent reacts in a way that neglects the strategy, they stand a solid chance at victory. One can only play to the best of their ability, however, if they are not fully focused they will not be able to maximize their efficiency and thus will not play their best. A worse player with 100% focus could have an effective edge against a better player with less than 100% focus.

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