Understanding the game of poker on a full table can be quite a daunting task – reading your opponents, playing in and out of position, calculating pot odds. But what if you find yourself heads-up, facing only one opponent. Once you've made it to heads-up play in a game of poker, be it Texas Hold'em, Stud, Omaha or any other form of the game, playing styles and strategies can change tremendously.
There are structural differences in the game. For example, during heads-up play, you will be faced with blinds in every hand, either small or big blind, which is drastically different than playing at a nine- or 10-person table. At a full table, blinds come by two out of every nine or 10 hands, whereas your money is in the pot during every hand when facing only one other opponent. In these situations, consider playing a few more hands than you would typically play. It is recommended by most poker professionals that you play any “reasonable hand” pre-flop, which includes suited connectors, decent connectors or potentially strong flush draws.
The relative strength of your poker hand also changes drastically when the field of players has been narrowed down to just two. When dealing nine hands around the table, then dealing the board, there's a good chance that the strongest hand will typically be a decent one (at least a big pair).
Likewise, if you deal out hole cards to the two players going heads-up, the odds of the winning hand being a strong one will go down. A weak pair, or even a high card, may be the ultimate decider in a heads-up pot.
Let's take a look at a hand like Ace-6. If an ace comes out on the board to give you high pair, you may likely be beat if sitting at a nine-person table, though that same hand in heads-up play will often nab you the lead. In this situation, consider using a value bet to keep your opponent around while sweetening the pot.
Poker professional Dan Harrington addresses heads-up play, stating, “Suits matter little, high cards matter a lot.” This mirrors the “any ace” concept of the game. Statistically, when you are against only one other opponent, if you are holding any ace, regardless of your second card, you have a 52 percent or better chance to win against a single random hand.
With the “any ace” concept in effect, it only makes sense that a pocket pair against your opponent is even stronger. Consider playing these hands with a little more force than you would with them at a full table. When sitting on a hand like 7-7 heads-up, it is not necessarily a bad idea to make that all-in move.
Heads-up play comes down to knowing your opponent and recognizing your advantages. By the time you make it to heads-up action, especially in a tournament situation, you will likely have seen at least a few hands played by your adversary. Keep in mind what type of player (conservative or aggressive) your opponent is. If you witnessed them bluff off a lot of hands earlier in the game, strategies like the check-raise may be your best bet.
At a full table, your position in reference to the button and blinds can play a vital role to the types of hands you play. It is even more of a factor when you are heads-up, because you are either in the worst starting position (big blind) or best starting position (dealer/small blind). Most players who can survive the heads-up battle will play aggressively pre-flop when on the button and passively when in the big blind.
It's important to notice the size of the chip stacks as you head into heads-up play. Sitting on the short stack against a lone opponent may warrant your playing a little more aggressively and taking a few more gambles than you typically would at a larger table.
Many, if not most, players with the chip lead in a heads-up battle will do their best to defend their stack and may be more inclined to play conservatively. This can be used to a small stack's advantage by making strong bets, and even all-ins, with pocket pairs and strong connectors. If your chips only amount to 10 big blinds, you should consider pushing all-in roughly 50 percent of the time, or at least be ready to gamble.
If you find yourself behind the larger stack during heads-up play, play smart but play strong. A raise four times the big blind can potentially intimidate an opponent sitting on 20 to 25 big blinds, but at the same time, be wary of your opponent's pre-flop raise. Don't call a raise heads-up with hopes of fishing for your hand. Because of the psychological thrills that come with one-on-one poker games, the art of bluffing is typically pushed to the extreme. When playing heads-up, blinds can often be stolen, which, in the long run, can greatly pay off.