Are you bored with sitting tight at 10 player sit and go tournaments? Have multi-table tournaments become too farfetched for you? Have a case of adult ADHD? Want to build your bankroll faster than ever? Want to improve your sit and go profits? There are so many reasons for players to learn how to consistently win at heads-up poker that it constantly amazes me that so few take the time to improve this area of their game. In this four-part series, I’m going to explain to you why every poker player should learn to crush heads-up poker tournaments, and provide the firepower you’ll need to accomplish this.
When a player considers himself a specialist, the implication is that he plays a particular game exclusively. While becoming a heads-up tournament specialist may or may not be your long-term goal, I will be writing this series with discussion pertaining to those who are. As someone who has played thousands of heads-up matches and considers himself a heads-up specialist, I want to get into some topics that are rarely discussed in heads-up strategy articles. Beyond that, as someone who understands the benefits that every player can gain from becoming a great heads-up player, I highly recommend that every player take a couple months off of their regular games and focus on improving their heads up skills as far as they can. Once you’ve accomplished a high level of success at heads-up tournaments, you’ll be able to use these skills in other forms of poker and dramatically improve your results.
Before we go any further, consider some of the benefits of becoming a dominating heads-up player.
* Becoming an outstanding heads-up player will improve your profits in every game you play.
* Quickly build your bankroll.
* Action junkies are more focused when they play heads-up, improving their chances to win.
* Sitting down at a cash game and doubling your money is much more difficult than it is to simply beat one player.
* Experience in heads-up tournaments transfers into cash games, sit and go tournaments, and multi-table tournaments. In sit and go as well as multi-player tournaments, there is more money to be made from 2nd place to 1st place than any other point in the tournament.
* Heads-up play will help you detect betting patterns in opponents, useable in any form of online poker.
* Heads-up play improves your intuition, making it easier to make correct decisions.
* Learn how to win with weaker hands.
* Playing a lot of heads-up poker will improve your ability to manage tilt. When you play nearly every hand, you will lose so many hands that you ‘should have won’ that you learn to deal with it better.
Play Your Best By Playing Smart
The first rule that anyone who wants to become a successful heads-up tournament player should follow is only playing one table at a time. While there might be a few heads-up players that can earn a positive win rate while playing two or three tables at a time, most people can’t successfully process that much information. In every game you play, you must be thinking about how you’re going to beat this opponent. Since most heads-up players only play one tournament at a time, they’re giving all of their efforts in beating you. You should be giving them at least as much focus if you want to put up a fight.
In the early stages of a sit and go or multi-table tournament, you can afford to fold a lot of hands while you get your head in the game. However, in heads-up tournaments you’ll be playing nearly every hand you’re dealt, which means that you need to be ready to go as soon as you sit down. While you’ll fold hands like 5, 8 offsuit in a 10 player sit and go, you’re going to be playing these types of hands in heads up matches. In heads-up tournaments, your mind must be ready to go from the moment you sit down. You must be feeling attentive, methodical, smart, and aggressive from the very first hand.
A lot of players sit down saying to themselves “I’m gonna destroy this guy”. That’s the wrong attitude to have, and it will cause you to make all sorts of mistakes. The main problem with this is that it’ll keep you from paying attention to the information your opponent is giving you. Instead of thinking about how you’re going to play, think about how you’re going to pick apart his game and use his weaknesses against him. You should sit down with the mentality that you’re going to outsmart him. Heads-up poker is a battle, but it’s a battle of minds, not ego. Get rid of your ego while the match is in play. You can get your ego boost after you’ve taken his money.
The 60/40 Strategy
This first strategy idea I’m going to talk about does not apply to heads-up situations in sit and go or multi-table tournaments. This only applies to heads-up tournament matches, and when the buy-in for the tournament is equal to or less than 5% of your total bankroll. Also, this is only a strategy that I recommend for matches with a $20 or smaller buy-in. Above this level, I suggest using more caution with the following strategy as players at higher levels tend to be more sophisticated. This is a concept that isn’t discussed frequently, but many successful heads-up players use this method to make quick & easy profits.
Within the first few minutes of a heads-up tournament, you should be looking for situations to get all of your chips in the middle any time you think you’re a 60/40 favorite or better to win. In low stakes heads-up matches, it’s not uncommon to see players move all-in pre-flop on the very first hand. Some will even do this on the first 2 or 3 hands.
Why would someone do this? Well, there are a number of possible reasons. First, heads-up poker is an aggressive game, often played by people with naturally aggressive personalities. This aggressive player in front of you may have just taken a bad beat in his last match and be feeling the need to do the online equivalent of ‘kicking someone’s ass’. He may have just had an argument with his girlfriend. He might be drunk. He might’ve had a bad day at work and wants to take his aggressions out. Maybe he’s trying to declare his dominance, trying to tell you he’s a wild & crazy player to be afraid of. In small buy-in matches without too much money on the line, a lot of players are more interested in the adrenaline rush than anything else.
There is another reason why a player might do this too, but this is much less common. More experienced players realize that there are a lot of terrible heads-up players at the low stake levels. While most skilled players won’t want to waste a premium hand by forcing you out of the pot, there are benefits of moving in with these hands as well. Let’s go over a quick example.
You’re the small blind (also have the button in heads-up). So, you’re first to act pre-flop, but second to act after the flop, turn & river. Let’s assume that you hold a hand like A, Q, with blinds of 10/20, on one of the first hands of the match. You raise it to 60, three times the big blind. At this point, one of two things are generally going to happen. Most commonly, your opponent will fold, which means that all you won is 20 chips, a waste of a big starting hand like A, Q. The other common result is that your opponent calls, which now means you’re going to see a flop, giving your opponent a chance to make a real hand.
The flop comes down something like K, 9, 6. Now, your opponent is first to act, and he comes out firing two-thirds the pot, for a bet of 80 chips. Now what do you do?
Choice 1 – Fold: You lose 60 chips.
Choice 2 – Call: You’ve called with nothing, hoping that you either hit one of the 3 remaining aces on the turn, or hope that he’s on a bluff and will check the turn, giving you the chance to rebluff and steal the pot. This situation is sketchy at best when you’re playing a low-stakes match.
Choice 3 – With 120 in pre-flop, and the 80 chips your opponent bet in front of you, there is 200 in the pot. What will it take to get him to believe you have him beat and make him fold? You decide the amount it’ll take is a raise to 240.You now have 300 chips in the pot to try and steal 140 of his chips. While 140 chips is a decent pot to win, is an unmade hand worth risking 300 chips to win 140? That’s a high risk, low reward concept that will often cost you a big chunk of your stack.
Now let’s assume that you are the big blind in the exact same hand. The small blind flat calls the big blind of 20. Now you come in for a raise to 60. Your opponent will either fold, again earning you only 20 chips. Let’s take it further and assume he calls you. So, the flop comes down the same K, 9, 6. Being in first position in heads-up, and also being the preflop raiser, it’s always wise to make your continuation bet after the flop, hoping your opponent will fold right there. With 120 chips in the pot, you now decide to bet 80 chips to try and steal the pot. You have a total of 140 chips committed, for a chance to take 60 chips from your opponent. If he folds, great, but you had to risk 140 chips to win 60 from your opponent. If he calls, you’re back into a bad spot when the turn comes down and it doesn’t improve your hand. If he raises, you should be folding, losing 140 chips in the process.
While a couple of the possibilities described above can create a winning possibility, in either situation you had to risk more than twice as many chips as you could win. In other situations, you lost the hand.