I play a lot of heads-up limit hold’em. In fact, it probably accounts for about 30% of the hands that I play on a day-to-day basis. A few forum members know this and have asked for help with their heads-up game. Unfortunately it is probably more difficult to give advice on this form of holdem than any other. Any hand in isolation is virtually meaningless. The correct play in any given circumstances it almost always dependant on what you know about your opponent and how similar hands against them have played out previously in the session.
So I will discuss heads-up limit hold’em in detail, looking at fundamental winning strategies, including how you need to adapt your play from what you are used to at longer-handed games. as well as the different types of opponent you are likely to face and how to adapt to them.
To begin, we will be looking at the more fundamental question. Should you be playing heads-up limit hold’em at all? In order to answer this question, I will go through the pros and cons of the game and hopefully help you determine if it is something that you would like to try. It is certainly not a game that is right for everyone.
Reasons to try heads-up limit
1. Exploit bad players
These days it can be tough to find really bad players at anything other than the lowest limits. If you find one, then playing them heads-up can be the best way to maximise your expectation and take their money most efficiently. After all, if you are playing 6-handed then a bad player’s losses have to be divided up amongst you and four other players. If you play heads-up then everything they stand to lose, you stand to win (minus rake of course).
2. Lots of money to be won
As a result of the above, heads-up play can potentially be very profitable. In fact, if you find yourself in a good game and catch some cards, then you will probably make many times what you could hope to make in a full ring or even a 6-max game in the same number of hands. A bad opponent will probably get several opportunities to make mistakes each hand and you will profit from each mistake. I remember once winning over 100 big bets in two hours at one table playing heads-up. Can anybody remember doing that in a full ring game?
3. Fast and action intensive
If you’re one of those people who find full ring games to be a bit dull because they are too slow and you aren’t involved most of the time, then you will probably love heads-up play. You will be putting money in the pot most hands, and the hands fly past very quickly indeed. Depending on the speed of your opponent, you will probably get through a couple of hundred hands per hour.
4. Take advantage of your aggressive tendencies.
Very aggressive players tend to do very well in heads-up games, sometimes even those who have quite big holes in other areas of their game. You only need to make one opponent fold to win any pot and this is easier than you think, especially if your opponent is slow to adapt. If you are naturally a very aggressive player, maybe even too aggressive for full ring or 6-max games, then heads-up play might be for you.
5. It will improve your full ring game
You will find that playing a lot of pots heads-up will improve your overall game significantly. In this day and age, lots of full ring and 6-max pots are played heads-up and a player with lots of heads-up experience will often be able to win more pots than he is entitled. Obviously you can’t blindly transfer you heads-up mentality to full ring games, but your blind play will improve and you will develop a good instinct for when your opponent can be pushed off his hand.
6. It will make you more comfortable when games start to break
If you can play 6 handed and you can play 2 handed, then from there it is fairly easy to fill in the gaps and work out how to play 3, 4, or 5 handed. This will make you more comfortable when games start to get short and more confident to stick at it in a breaking game where you know you have an edge.
Reasons to be wary of heads-up limit
Of course, there are two sides to every coin. As appealing as heads-up limit could be to some players, there are also a lot of reasons you might want to steer clear of it. These are summarised below.
1. Radically different from full ring games
We discussed a few paragraphs ago how playing short-handed can help you with your full ring game. Likewise, being a good full ring game player will obviously give you a head start when playing heads up. However if you try to take your full ring game and simply transplant it into heads-up play without making the necessary adjustments, then you will almost certainly come unstuck. In next months article we will discuss this concept further.
2. Huge swings
It’s possible to win a lot of money in a short time playing heads-up, but consequently it’s possible to lose a lot too. Heads-up games are extremely swingy and a bad run of cards can do a lot of damage to your bankroll, confidence and psyche. If you are really scared by variance and downswings, then you should probably stay clear of the heads-up tables.
You will usually end up paying more rake if you play heads-up. Rake is capped a lot lower than for a longer-handed game, but on a per-person basis it still works out to be more. This makes it very important to make sure you have an edge in any game you play or you will just be shuffling money back and forth and paying the house for the privilege.
4. Finding a good game is paramount
Game selection is an important and often underrated skill in poker. However, game selection in heads-up play is everything! You can be a great player, but if you are playing against a better one you will lose. Or you can be a bad player, but still win if you manage to get a game against a worse one. Some winning poker players are quite blasé about game selection and will just sit at random tables assuming they can win, but you simply can’t do this playing heads up.
5. Difficult to assess your opponents
Although game selection is of paramount importance, it can be difficult to execute. Given a few orbits at a full-ring game you can usually separate out the good players from the bad, but at heads-up limit there is a thin line between insanity and genius. A poor player can easily look like a good player over a small number of hands if he is catching cards and getting lucky when timing his bluffs. Likewise a good player can look bad if he is getting unlucky and his timing is off. Poker Tracker stats are not terribly helpful because, as we will see next month, there isn’t really any correct style for heads-up limit, it is all style and opponent dependant.
6. Tough to multi-table
Heads-up games have the advantage of being very fast-moving, but if you are a habitual multi-tabler, then this will obviously mean that you won’t be able to play as many tables. I find two heads-up games simultaneously to need a lot of concentration and any more than that virtually impossible. Obviously some players will be able to manage more than others.
Whether you have decided it is a form of poker you would like to try, or you already play and are struggling, this article will hopefully point you in the right direction.
Heads up limit play is the ultimate expression of the poker cliché ‘it depends’. If you are shown a hand example in isolation it is usually very difficult to determine the correct play, far more so than for a full ring or 6-max hand. There are three main reasons for this:
1. You will need to know what kind of opponent you are up against. Obviously this is also true in full-ring games, but in full-ring games you can usually generalise about certain types of player and narrow ranges a lot more. Heads-up players tend to fight for far more pots, which widens ranges a lot and leaves a lot of scope for subtle nuances of your opponent’s game to play a major factor in your decisions.
2. How a hand plays out will depend a lot on how previous hands have played out. In a heads-up game, nothing happens in isolation. Your opponent is trying to figure you out just as you are trying to figure him out. The correct play in any situation will depend a lot on what happened in previous hands, especially similar ones. We will be discussing this in detail next month.
3. In heads-up play there is far more scope for individual styles and creative play. Generally I am a big advocate of the Sklansky axiom that in any situation there is only one correct play. But heads-up, what this correct play is can depend a lot on what your overall strategy is for the contest and what image you are trying to portray. This is very difficult to express in the context of only one hand.
Although so much depends in heads-up limit play, there are a few universal concepts that will form the cornerstones of your game. In fact, sometimes some pretty clueless opponents can actually do fairly well when playing heads-up because (probably by chance) they get these few important things right. Let’s look at these key concepts.
You must play loose pre-flop
In full ring or 6-max games there is a strong logic for tight play. In each pot there is only one winner. There is no prize for having a pretty good, but beaten hand. You either want to finish with the best hand or fold as soon as possible, you don’t want to be the contributor that builds the pot and then wins nothing.
Heads-up this goes out the window as the whole equation is simplified. Each hand there is one winner and one loser. You want to be the winner and don’t want to be the loser. Obviously there is plenty of scope for losing the minimum when behind and winning the most when you’re ahead, but you have to be at least competing for the majority of pots. If you sit there and wait for good hands you will get run over by any halfway competent opponent. They can just repeatedly pick off blinds and then back off when you finally wake up with a hand.
Besides, what is a bad hand heads-up exactly? If you have junk like J7o, you are only a big underdog to a better Jack, a better 7 or 77+. If your opponent has a hand like AT, KQ or 66 you are only a slight underdog even though your opponent’s hand looks far better. If you hit the flop at all then you are probably ahead, and even if you don’t you may have the opportunity to steal the pot, especially if you have position.
As a general guide, you probably want to be playing at least 70% of hands from the button. This will include such platinum hits as 84s and J5o. Many good players will play even more, some even 100%, depending on their opponent’s pre-flop and post-flop tendencies. The tighter they play pre-flop and the worse they play post-flop, the more hands you want to play. But against nearly all opponents, if you play less than 70%, you are giving away too much when you have position.
Out of position it is a bit more difficult, because it depends on your opponents raising standards. On the minus side, you are out of position, but on the plus side if you call you are closing the action and so won’t be exposed to a possible re-raise (if we assume the standard blind structure where the small blind is the button). You will probably want to call or re-raise with at least 60% of hands except against very tight players and potentially a lot more against more liberal raisers. Remember, if your opponent plays too tightly pre-flop, then they are likely to fold too often post-flop too so you will be able to steal more often.
You must play aggressively
No matter who your opponent, you have to play at least somewhat aggressively heads up. If you have a good hand you need to build the pot and if you have a bad hand you need to be evaluating whether the pot is ripe for stealing. Heads-up play is all about maximising your winning hands (however mediocre) and winning unwanted pots. You can’t afford to sit around and wait for top pair or better before you put money in. In fact, it is amazing how often good things happen to players prepared to bet and raise, even with extremely marginal holdings. Against loose players you will maximise your equity edge and against tight players you will win many pots to which you are not entitled. It should go without saying that semi-bluffing is a huge part of your heads-up strategy.
However, this doesn’t mean that you should be playing with mindless aggression. Sometimes you encounter players who do this, and they might be successful in the short term, but these same players can come seriously unstuck when they aren’t getting the cards or when they came up against a thinking opponent. Aggression is a precision weapon, which you need to understand your opponent’s tendencies in order to use optimally. There is no point continually bluffing an opponent who rarely folds or value betting light against a player who almost certainly has you beat if they call.
Against certain opponents you will need to temper your aggression somewhat. For example, you will often meet heads-up opponents who will usually bet or raise the flop and will keep betting until they meet resistance at which point they will make a decision according to the strength of their hand. Against these opponents you need to take a back seat a lot. Often just call the flop and turn with a view to either calling or raising the river. Another example are opponents who are so loose and aggressive that you can never really be certain that any hand is beaten. At this point you often need to simply call all streets with hands like ace high when the pot is too big to fold.
You usually need to mix up your play
This is something that full-ring players often don’t appreciate. When playing 10 or even 6 handed, you can get away with playing ABC poker a lot of the time. Many of your opponents won’t be observant enough to notice that you always play certain holdings in a certain way or may not have enough data to know for sure. If you play heads-up, most opponents will notice if your play is predictable, because you are the only player they have to concentrate on and they will play a lot of hands against you very quickly.
Therefore you need to make sure your play is not predictable. Break the habits that will allow your opponent to narrow your range too much. If you always raise when you flop a flush draw, sometimes wait and raise the turn instead, or don’t raise at all. If you always fast play a flopped set, then sometimes wait for the turn or even the river to raise. If you only bet the river with a legitimate hand then occasionally throw in a bluff bet or raise.
Even plays that you would never consider making at a full table sometimes warrant consideration in order to balance your play heads-up. For example, you might want to just call with top or even middle pair on the flop and raise the turn. Or just call your opponents pre-flop raise with AA or KK rather than re-raise in order to spring your trap later. Sometimes these plays will cost you a small amount of expectation on that hand, but will reap rewards in the longer term, as your opponent will find it harder to put you on a hand in future.
Note the word ‘usually’ in the sub-heading. Sometimes you will be playing an opponent who is so bad that they are not observing your tendencies and adapting to your play at all. Obviously in this case there is no real point in mixing up your game. Just work out the lines that are most effective against this opponent and keep using them to maximise your expectation.
These three concepts are the cornerstone of heads-up play. As I said earlier, you can afford to get a lot of things wrong, things that might get you in a lot of trouble in full ring games, if you get these three things right. Indeed there are some opponents I encounter regularly who I consider donkeys when playing four handed or more, but I have trouble beating them consistently heads-up. They have no idea about large areas of poker strategy and are terrible at putting me on a hand, but they play a loose, aggressive and unpredictable style that is difficult to counter.
Obviously this only really scratches the surface of heads-up strategy. To properly explore every aspect of it would take a book rather than an article. Most of the skills you will need to be successful playing heads-up are the same as those you will need for full ring games, just applied differently. There is no reason why a successful full ring player can’t be a successful heads-up player providing they can adapt to the increased urgency and aggression required.
Thusfar we have looked at the basic strategy needed to be successful at this game. The first truth we identified is that nearly every question can be answered with ‘it depends’. While this is true in other forms of poker too, it is especially true heads-up. However, we did identify three cornerstones that must be part of your game. You must play:
Loose – Always pre-flop and usually post-flop against the majority of opponents.
Aggressively – You need to play with frequent (but not mindless) aggression.
Unpredictably – Against all but the very worst opponents.
Get these three things right and you have the core of a good heads-up game. Combine these with the skills that you can bring over from full-ring games and you could potentially be very dangerous indeed. So let’s pick up from there, open up the discussion to look at something that is very rarely discussed in full-ring limit strategy – the metagame.
What is the Metagame?
One big difference between heads-up and full ring games is the idea of a dynamic metagame. Sometimes when playing full ring you will know an opponent well enough that you are aware of how they play in certain situations and you can use that information. In a heads-up game you will play so many hands against the same opponent in such a short space of time that you will start to see the same (or very similar) situations occurring over and over again. You may find that after only fifteen minutes play or less you already have a good feel of how your opponent likes to play in certain situations and be able to exploit that knowledge over and over again.
The bad news is two-fold. First, they will also see how you play in certain situations and be able to adapt. This is why it is necessary to play somewhat unpredictably. Second, if they are a halfway competent player, they will recognise your attempts to exploit their play and deploy countermeasures. You, in turn, can identify these countermeasures and adapt again and so on, as you and your opponent dance a complex dance through the heads-up metagame. This is a fundamental difference between head-up play and longer handed games. The latter rarely (if ever) reach this level of complexity because the same situations won’t occur nearly as often.
If you are struggling coming to terms with what I am talking about, here is an illustration from a heads-up match I played yesterday. My opponent was a reasonable thinking player, but by no means a shark (or I wouldn’t have been playing). He was very loose, seeing virtually 100% of flops, but a little too passive overall. He would often raise draws and occasionally as a pure bluff, but generally didn’t raise enough on the expensive streets either as a bluff or for value.
I quickly determined that he liked to limp from the button (in this case the button, as is most common, was the small blind), only raising the top 20-25% of hands. I also found that if I bet into him on the flop after he limped, he would often fold, more than the 1 time in 3 that made it immediately profitable. So I started betting nearly every flop when he limped, regardless of whether I hit anything or not. After a while he wised up to what I was doing and started to call a lot more and raise when he hit any part of the flop (and sometimes as a bluff). I adapted by ceasing to bet every flop and only betting when I hit the flop in some way, or if the flop was the right texture to represent something. He then adapted again and started betting every flop that I checked in order to steal the pot. I countered this move by check-raising the flop when I had a hand. He responded by betting the flop when I checked, but folding to a check-raise unless he had a hand. Once I realised this, I then started bluff check-raising the flop.
This dance could have continued longer, but I eventually quit the game to go and play on another table I was waiting for. Note how both of us were continually trying to manipulate the metagame to get the upper hand. You might think that this took many hours to play out, but this entire battle of wits took place in a under an hour. And not only that, there were several other similar tussles going on in other phases of the game. After all, this particular battle only concerned flop play when he had the button and didn’t raise pre-flop.
Controlling the Metagame
As you can see from the above example, navigating the metagame is about both adapting to your opponents play and also adapting to changes in their play that take place over the course of the session. This is more or less what you would be doing in a full ring game anyway, albeit to a far greater extent because of the vastly increased amount of information that you are being fed. It is unlikely that you will ever observe a sequence of play anything like the above in full ring play, unless you played with the same person for a very long time (probably over a number of sessions).
Now let’s take things a stage further. The heads-up metagame is, in many ways, like a game of chess. At any given point you can see how your opponent is playing, and employ the best possible counter-strategy. But good chess players will do more than that. They will think several moves ahead to decide not only what they want to do now, but also what they want to achieve several ‘moves’ down the line. As poker players in a heads-up game we must do the same. Rather than just adapting to your opponents game on the fly, try to shape how the game will go. Put yourself in your opponents shoes and try to pre-empt, and eventually control, how they will adapt to your play. When playing, you should be asking yourself the following questions:
1. What does my opponent do that I would like him to keep on doing?
2. What does my opponent do that I would like him to stop doing?
3. How do I want my opponent to perceive me?
What does my opponent do that I would like him to keep on doing?
One of the best ways to win money in a heads-up game is to exploit one or more specific weaknesses in your opponent’s game. Of course, you can only do this if your opponent fails to correct this weakness over time. Don’t play in such a way that you force your opponent to stop doing the very thing that is making you money, or in a way that allows them to easily spot their error.
Example 1 – You have an opponent that folds too often post-flop. You decide that you can make the most money by betting or check-raising every flop unless the board looks very bad. Then, if you meet resistance, just back off unless you have a hand. However, if you do this on every hand, then your opponent will realise quite quickly what you are doing. So sometimes just check all the way to the river with a weak hand, and fold if they bet. By doing this you will give the impression that you are just hitting a lot of hands and are not just bluffing all the time.
Example 2 – You notice that your opponent always bets the river with position when you check to him. To exploit this you can check-raise (or ‘sexy’) the river with your good hands to value bet rather than just bet out. This will frequently earn you two bets instead of one, or one bet instead of none if they have a busted draw. However, do this too often and they will soon wise up and start checking through. Therefore it is best to save the check-raise for when you are fairly confident you can get two bets from your opponent. Sometimes just bet your good hands instead or, if you suspect they might be on a busted draw, check-call, which looks cautious rather than exploitative. Obviously you should also check-fold your lost cause hands, to make it look like their bluffing is working. With any luck, they won’t realise how much money they are losing through their over-liberal betting of the river.
What does my opponent do that I would like him to stop doing?
This is the opposite of the above. If your opponent has a facet to his game that works particularly well against you, or makes you uncomfortable, then you might want to explore ways to encourage them to change or at least temper this aspect of their game. This might mean making plays that are –EV in the short term, but will mould the game into something more to your liking in the long term.
Example 1 – If your opponent bluff raises the turn a lot, then you may need to call down with some weak hands that are slightly –EV against his range. Eventually he may decide that it is not worth bluff raising you, at which point you can return to your usual game. Or, if he does it out of position, then skip some of the thinner value bets and check behind on the turn more.
Example 2 – If they are the kind of opponent who always keeps betting until they meet resistance, never allowing you a cheap showdown, then start waiting until the river to raise your good hands. This will sometimes mean you miss bets overall when they have a good second best hand, but after repeatedly folding their junk to a river raise, they should eventually get the message and give you some free cards and cheaper showdowns.
How do I want my opponent to perceive me?
If your opponent is adapting to the way that you play then it is good if they misread you, or misunderstand exactly what you are doing. At the very least, you need to make sure that your game is one step ahead of their efforts to adapt. Often the early hands of an exchange go a long way towards formulating an opponents overall impression of you. As the sayings go, “first impressions count” and “it’s easier to gain a good reputation than lose a bad one”.
Hence it is sometimes worth investing a little time at the start of a match in your ‘image’. Hopefully you will be playing a loose-aggressive game, so you might want to goad your opponent into prematurely labelling you as tight and/or passive. Obviously you don’t want to give up too much, but maybe fold a few borderline hands that you might otherwise play or take a more passive line if the difference in EV is only slight.
Of course, the goal in creating a false impression of yourself is to cause your opponent to play incorrectly against you, or at least be slow to adapt, when you show your true colours. If you gain a tight reputation, you will encourage your opponent to make poor bluffs that you can snap off. If you gain a passive reputation, you will increase your own opportunity for bluffing. Of course, under certain circumstances, it might pay to go the other way. Showing a couple of bluffs to an over-aggressive opponent may lead to them increasing their aggression still further, allowing you to win bigger pots with your good hands.
A Word of Warning
The idea of the metagame and how to manipulate it is a powerful one in heads-up limit holdem. With only one opponent to concentrate on, both players will constantly be adapting and readapting to each other in an effort to stay on top. However, you mustn’t lose sight of the fundamentals of the game. On the whole you must stick to your loose, aggressive style, adhering to fundamental poker principles and hand reading skills.
The ideas in the second half of this article especially must not be taken too far. I have never been a big fan of ‘advertising plays’ in full ring games, because what you stand to lose is often more than you think and not offset by what you stand to gain. In heads-up play, it is more of a necessary evil because of the importance of the metagame and the potential gains from forcing your lone opponent to repeatedly play sub-optimally. However, you still need to be mindful that you are not playing too sub-optimally yourself in order to achieve these goals. If you are unable to win by playing a solid and comparatively straightforward game and are relying on constantly trying to manipulate your opponent to maintain an edge, maybe it would be better to find an easier opponent. Online poker is not yet tough enough that we need to scratch around for tiny edges in a game that is already extremely high variance. Not at the lower limits anyway.
Now will be looking at the different types of opponent you will encounter and give tips on how to play against them. Remember that opponent selection is everything when playing heads-up. If your sole opponent is as good or better than you, or even slightly worse, then you will lose money in the long run. Also the game will be vastly different depending on who your opponent is. Think how different a full ring game becomes when a maniac sits down. Well imagine that times ten and that is how much a heads-up game changes when you get a different opponent. There is no such thing as a ‘regular’ heads-up game. How you play should depend entirely on your opponent and each game will be a little bit different.
Remember, the key to successful heads-up limit play is to have a loose, aggressive and unpredictable game. Naturally, this means that opponents who are tight, passive or predictable are the easiest to beat. So to start with we will look at these types of opponents, those who are missing a piece of the three-piece jigsaw.
Traditional Loose/Passive Fish
In full ring games, every winning players best friend is the loose/passive player. They pay you off on all your good hands, but make the minimum with theirs. They give action, but don’t get it. These players are also money in heads-up games and you are in luck if you find yourself sitting across from one.
Exploiting loose/passive players heads-up is ridiculously easy. They are probably going to play every pot and they are likely only going to raise if they have a big hand (exactly how big you will have to determine through trial and error). Therefore you have the relatively simple task of value betting your good hands until you meet resistance and if you are raised, fold unless you have a hand that matches has a good chance of still being good. As a result you will be playing big pots when you are likely ahead and small pots when you are likely behind, which is a very easy way of making money in the long run.
One thing that you will need to discern as soon as possible against loose/passive opponents is how often and under what circumstances they fold post-flop. This will tell you if and how often you should bluff (including continuation betting) and slow play. However, the hallmark of loose/passive players is that you will usually not need to do much of either in order to win.
Full Ring TAGs
The tight/aggressive model is the hallmark of good full-ring limit play, but it has no place in a heads-up game. Often players who are used to full-ring games will instinctively play far too tight when they try heads-up play. As a result they will struggle to make money against most players and they are easy to run over if you make the correct adjustments to your game.
Tight players will fold too often both pre-flop and post-flop. As a result, if you up your aggression, you can win many pots to which you are not really entitled. Pre-flop you should play even more pots than usual (and you should play the vast majority of them anyway). In fact, against tight players, it is probably not a mistake to raise every pot from the button, (although see last months article to see why you may want to let a few go). Post-flop you should continuation bet and bluff liberally. In fact, it is a good idea to re-raise a lot pre-flop in order to set yourself up for taking down the pot post-flop, especially with hands like suited connectors that will be well disguised if you hit.
Of course, you will be playing inferior hands on average than the TAG player, so if you meet resistance you should be more willing than usual to fold. Sometimes this means that you will end up folding to a draw (which TAG players will usually play aggressively heads-up), but you can’t afford to play to their strength and repeatedly get into big pots against their better-than-average hands. Your edge comes from picking up all the little pots where neither of you has a hand, which adds up to a lot in heads-up games.
Honest Joes play loose and aggressively, but also very predictably. They will play most hands, and raise those that are likely best post-flop, but they usually don’t bluff very often and when they do it’s in very predictable places, such as when you check to them on the river when they have a busted draw. Or sometimes they will bluff a lot, but their bluffs will be predictable as they will bluff every time in certain situations. Either way, it is easy to put them on a hand, as they don’t vary their play enough to make it challenging. Once you have played with them for a while, you will have little problem taking their money.
Most Honest Joes are full-ring players who are used to multi-tabling or otherwise playing formulaically, which is often profitable in full ring games, but not in heads-up play where their opponents attention is focussed solely on them rather than divided between all the players at the table. The key to beating them is just a simple exercise in observation and adaptation. If they never bluff raise the turn, then fold to most turn raises. If they love to bluff in certain spots, then incite and pick off those bluffs. It’s just like you do against any other player, except it’s so much easier because they are that much more predictable. In the information war, your opponent will be armed with stones, while you’re in a tank.
Rocks are a combination of all the bad traits of the players listed above. They are tight, passive and predictable. The types of players who display these characteristics don’t usually find their way into heads-up games, so if you find yourself playing against one, thank your lucky stars. Their game is so ill suited to heads-up play that it is very difficult to lose unless they are getting stellar cards. Bet relentlessly and fold at the first sign of resistance unless you have the goods. You will win the vast majority of pots and the ones you lose will be small because they don’t value bet their good hands nearly enough and you can spot their monster hands a mile off.
Obviously if you meet any of the types of opponent above, then you can expect good positive expectation. But in this day and age, you can’t always sit around waiting for such a plum game. Or if you do you could be sitting on your own for an incredibly long time. Sometimes you have to take on better players and operate with a smaller edge. Just because a player has the fundamentals right and is somewhat loose, aggressive and unpredictable, doesn’t mean that you can’t beat them. Just like in full ring games, you can still beat tight/aggressive players if they make plenty of mistakes or if they are not tight and aggressive enough.
The following are five sub-categories of loose/aggressive/unpredictable players. Each have their own tendencies and require different skills and adaptation to beat.
Remember what we said back in Part 2 of this article?
“(Looseness,, aggression and unpredictability) are the cornerstone of heads-up play…. You can afford to get a lot of things wrong, things that might get you in a lot of trouble in full ring games, if you get these three things right.“
Some players do just this. They get by in heads-up games not because of any deep understanding of the game but because, often by chance, they have stumbled upon a loose, aggressive and unpredictable style. They make lots of other errors, including chasing draws they don’t have the pot odds to chase, bluffing in hopeless situations and refusing to let go of hands that are obviously beat. But the fact that the have the fundamentals right means that they will pick up enough pots to not be major donators. They may even be long-term winners if they play against weak players.
You will be able to beat LAGfish in the long term, because you have an all-round tidier game. One major leak they tend to have is putting in way too many bets with good (but not great) hands, so don’t be afraid to keep piling on the raises when you have a monster, even if it isn’t the nuts. On the other hand, you will save a lot of bets when you are beaten due to your more astute understanding of the game. Also you will almost certainly be better at adapting. Fish, even the LAGfish variety, tend to just play their game and are very slow to adapt to their opponent. As the game goes on you will slowly build up a picture of their tendencies, which will allow you to increase your edge still further.
Maniacs are probably best described as LAGfish on steroids. They will also have little understanding of the finer aspects of poker, and will have a loose and very aggressive style. However, unlike LAGfish, their aggression is a lot more mindless and they will make plays that defy all logic. In a way, this actually makes them more predictable. You know their raises mean very little, so you can play more or less off the strength of your own hand.
Your edge against maniacs can be through the roof, but you are also going to suffer from extreme variance. Out of necessity you’re going to be playing some enormous pots with hands that you would probably rather not be playing enormous pots with. Law of averages you are going to lose a lot of them because you get drawn out on or because they happen to have a monster (which can be very difficult to spot until it’s too late). Lose more than your fair share of big pots in the short-term and suddenly you will be wondering where that 40 big bets went.
The best way to play against maniacs is to value bet ruthlessly. This will often mean capping pre-flop with KJ, capping the flop with middle pair and raising the river with a weak top pair, not really knowing where you stand. The temptation is often just to call down with a decent-but-not-great hand in the face of such brutal aggression, but you are giving up way too much by doing so. Remember, when you have a good hand, you have to make up for all those little pots where you both flop nothing and you are forced to fold because the alternative is calling 2.5 big bets with Q-high.
Preflop, the temptation is often there to keep the pot small and see what comes on the flop unless you have a premium hand. However, it is often best to ram and jam if your hand has some showdown value and you think you have an edge for two reasons. Firstly, getting money in the pot when you are ahead is a pure value winner. Secondly it makes the rest of the hand easier to play as once the pot is big, you can call down with hands like Ace high and baby pairs even if you miss the board completely.
Much in heads-up limit comes down to who can pick up the most small pots when neither player has a whole lot. Stealers have this down to a fine art, knowing a million ways to try and get you to fold a better hand. They will raise and re-raise pre-flop with trash, raise the flop with air, or float the flop and raise the turn or river. You can be certain that every pot you are involved in, they will try to steal at some point.
Stealers can be tricky opponents, especially if you’re not getting many good hands. Unlike maniacs, they will use aggression as a precision instrument rather than a blunt weapon. If they raise and get resistance, they are able to let go of their hand. As such they can put you in a lot of tough spots where you must decide between fold and call down, re-raise or call down, or sometimes even fold or re-steal. Their weakness is that because you know they are going to try and steal the pot at some point, you can plan for it and spot it far easier. Their aggression is too consistent and predictable to be completely effective.
The key to beating this type of opponent is to plan the hand well. Don’t make bets where you are unsure how you are going to handle a raise. Don’t decide to value bet, decide to bet/fold, bet/call or bet/re-raise. And have a plan for what to do on later streets too. If you have position, sometimes turn down thin value bets and check through in order to ensure a cheap showdown. If you are out of position with a marginal hand, sometimes it is better to ‘value check’ the turn or river, rather than betting, as you will regularly pick off bluffs from hopeless hands that would have either folded or put you in a difficult spot by raising.
Jekyll and Hyde
These enigmatic opponents can be very confusing, as they seem almost schizophrenic. They have a Mr Hyde side of a loose/aggressive game, sometimes even maniacal, and then they have a more placid Dr Jekyll game that is a lot more passive and sometimes tighter. They will switch between these two games at various points and you can never sure which version will turn up on any given day. In fact, if you only play the player once, you might never know that they are a gear-changing player.
The two keys to understanding and beating this type of player is firstly (obviously) to know how beat each game they bring to the table and secondly to work out what makes them switch between the two styles. In some cases one of their personalities is a form of tilt. In other words maybe they are naturally loose/aggressive, but go tight/passive after taking too many bad beats. Some might even be the other way around and ‘tilting’ actually causes them to unwittingly play better. In other cases it might be a conscious switch between two styles in an attempt to throw you off your game. For example, I have one regular opponent who will switch to their passive persona if they get caught bluffing too often and then switch back to their aggressive persona when they feel you are trying to take advantage by bluffing too much.
In fact, you can sometimes use this to your advantage. If somebody has a very dangerous LAG persona, you may be able to get them to switch to a more passive persona by making a few –EV call downs in the hopes of catching them bluffing. This was covered in more detail in last month’s article.
Don’t play with sharks. Unlike in full ring games, where you will tolerate a few other good players at the table, you shouldn’t play heads-up with a player who is as good or better than you. In fact, even if they are slightly worse than you, you might not be able to beat the rake. All of the players described in this second section are competent, but exploitable. If you can’t identify any obvious weaknesses then get out the game. More than one good heads-up player has gone broke by insisting on playing with other good heads-up players.
Obviously these are not all the types of players you will meet. In fact, what makes heads-up play so interesting is that every opponent is different. But identifying key stereotypes will help you when you encounter similar players again. If you ever encounter a player who has you totally baffled, then don’t be afraid to stop playing and take stock. While you will sometimes take a while to figure out an opponent, you can’t continue that indefinitely. It’s possible they are a very good player and are intentionally keeping you off-balance. There are plenty of other far more predictable opponents out there.
This concludes this series on heads-up limit hold’em. As games get tougher, sometimes the difference between success and failure is game selection and maybe finding that one donator who is giving away money. If you find them, there is no better way to take their money than getting them in a heads-up game.