How to Play Heads Up Poker
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There are many articles floating around the internet that provide ample strategies for playing heads up poker, and the best advice for any novice player would be to ignore all of them completely. All of the normal rules that apply to betting go straight out the window once all but two of the hands are folded at the table, and at this point there are only two distinct strategies. A smart player is going to try and maximize profits in these types of situations every single time, so the only two goals are to force the opponent to fold or to sucker them all-in. This article will discuss both strategies.
First of all, it is important to actually define what heads up really means. While two players are technically playing heads up poker when others at the table fold, the definition really applies to hands that only have two players pre-flop. This may be because there are only two players left in a tournament, or it could apply to a straight up cash game between two individuals. These heads up tactics are not designed to be implemented when five players start a hand and only two remain on the final card, because at that point the bet by either player is much less likely to be a bluff.
The strategy behind heads up poker is simple; make your hand appear stronger than your opponents. On average, a pair of jacks is the winning hand when only two opponents are involved, but that statistic is quickly forgotten once large chip stacks start to move around the table. This type of play is about stealing blinds, forcing the action with calculated bluffs, and making the opponent place a bet that he is not comfortable with. It really does not matter who has more chips or what the hole cards actually are, because only one in six heads up hands actually make it to the river.
With only two players active at the table, both will be betting the blinds before a single card is ever dealt. Since five in six hands are folded before the river, that leaves plenty of chips on the table that neither party really wants to actively pursue. For this reason alone, the initial move in any heads up game should be to raise or fold. The amount raised will vary by hand, and at this point in the game it is normally more about forcing the opponent out of the hand than to actually indicate card strength. In the optimal situation, the opposing player will surrender his blinds enough to cover any losses when the hand is called. This means a starting hand of A/J should be automatically raised, but so should 7/10 off-suit, 6/7 suited, or even a pair of twos.
The only time this strategy should vary is when an exceptional starting hand is revealed. In these types of situations, there is little benefit in forcing the opposing player to fold, and with luck he will catch a good enough hand to remain playing until the river. These types of hands should also be consistently raised, and if the hand pays off the correct bet would eventually be all-in once the opponent is fully committed to the hand.