The game is no limit Texas Holdem Poker, and you’ve made it to the end of a tournament. You’re playing “Heads-Up”. The one thing that never ceases to amaze me is how people rarely practice this part of their game, indeed it’s usually an after thought. “I’ll deal with the end if I’m lucky enough to get there”.
The reasons for poor play are easy to see. Most players never get to Heads-Up in major tournaments and in poker as in all other things in life, practice makes perfect. I’d like to start by recounting a common problem, and one I witnessed last night at the 7th pg168 monthly $1000 Texas Holdem Freeroll for members. When the tourney got down to the last 2 players the respective chipstacks for first and second were $300,000 for the chipleader and $120,000 for the shortstack. Blinds at this point in the game (originally a field of 327) were 15,000 and 7,500 respectively. The chipleader, as was to be expected, played the part of the bully raising each and every hand (as you should). The second stack, and ultimately second place in the tournament was waiting for good cards. Obviously you can’t do that in this position because if you lose a few blinds there is no coming back. In the end he folded every raise – even at the end. The game ended with small stack now on 18,000 folding a blind of 15,000 because he felt he couldn’t win with whatever cards he had. What was all the more amazing about this really poor play was that the guy who came last was in all other respects a good Texas Holdem player. I played with him throughout the first half of the game and he forged ahead on our table becoming table chip-leader early on. A position he maintained that until the final table.
Enough about what not to do, what about your strategy? Well first of all you have to accept that the dynamics of the game have changed, and so must your play. Earlier, when sitting among 9 other competitors you must be cautious of other people’s potential hands. In heads up this doesn’t really apply. The obvious statistic is that you are a 50:50 chance of winning – far better than normal. It also means that if you hold a King or an Ace then you are odds on favorites to win the hand.
Blinds at this point in a major tournament will be huge and well worth stealing. Typically you won’t find it too easy to steal short of going allin pre-flop and I would suggest that is the way to play A or K hands. If you’re called you are probably ahead, and if not, you’ve just gained by adding a couple of significant blinds to your pot. Whatever you do, you should be raising every hand. A raise each hand (even with 2,7offsuit) will more often than not cause your opponent to fold his weak hands rather than take the chance with something lousy. Conversely, if someone bets at you (especially when you are big blind) then you should call it to see a flop. Hit anything on the flop and you should be allin. There are two times to consider a fold, when you are small blind, you have low mismatched cards, and have been going allin successfully for the prior couple of hands. The act of folding makes it look like your allins were considered plays with high cards or significant pairs. When you wade back in with the next significant raise or allin play it’ll create the illusion of a strong hand. If your bluffs are called, you still have a 1 in 3 chance even with your 2,7 against say AK. It goes without saying that if you come up against AA, KK, or QQ you will probably lose. This possibility should be dismissed however because each is a 220/1 event and your average heads up match lasts 10 hands or less.
It’s time to review the game described at the start of the article. It’s fair to say the big stack had the right strategy, but it’s always easy to push people around as the significant chipleader. The correct play with 120,000 in chips against 300,000 is to allin each of at least the first 5 hands. If the chipleader calls and loses (almost a 50:50) then you become chipleader at 240,000 against 180,000. That’s a psychological blow that your opponent may not recover from and he’s likely to want to conserve chips having just lost a big allin. Once your ahead you can be more selective about your opportunity, and given the standard of Heads-Up play around it’s quite likely you’ll be given the time to make a play on your terms. The only time where I would call the blind or slow play is with what should be the winning hand no matter what – the AA, KK, QQ situations that you rarely get heads up. If you follow an aggressive allin strategy as described above the sudden switch to simply calling the Big Blind will be misinterpreted as weakness and will in all probability be met with misplaced badly timed aggression.