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Heads-up play is a vital part to any tournament player's game - the difference between coming first or second simply comes down to who can play heads-up the best. Heads-up is of course the same game as regular texas holdem with more than two players but the difference is in the way you have to approach the absolute basics of the game. Below are some pointers to improve your heads-up game which are well worth learning and practicing repeatedly in order to be a winner:
1) Changing gear - the secret to tournament play is changing gear as the number of players decreases by playing more hands which you would not normally play against a table with more players and bluffing a lot more. With only one opponent, the likelihood of you coming up against a better hand is as low as it ever can be as only four cards are dealt each hand. There is no more important time to make sure you are in the right gear than when you are heads-up and you must make sure that you are ready to come out fighting right from the off to make sure that you do not find yourself in a poor chip position by losing early pots playing meekly.
2) Playing strong - part of changing gear specific to playing heads-up is playing a strong game and not letting you opponent gain an early chip advantage. Every hand will cost you money - either the value of the small or big blind - so folding your hand is really not advantageous to you, even if it is 7,2 offsuit! The odds of your opponent being dealt a premium pocket hand are very low and so more often than not, you can at the very least call the big blind from the small blind position and with any luck see the flop for no more cost. If your hand is truly weak and your opponent raises the big blind after you call, then you may consider folding but doing so before you know anything about your opponent's hand is often a good way to lose heads-up if done consistently.
3) Mixing it up - it is very important when playing heads-up to mix up your game and not get predictable. Heads-up can last for quite a while and if you play the same way, you run the risk of your opponent working out how you play each type of hand. Since heads-up there can be a lot of pre-flop folding following re-raising, it can often be worth stone cold bluffing with a poor hand while other times it may be worth laying it down or calling hoping to get something on the flop. Either way, keep adapting you system based on your opponent and mix it up well.
4) Bluffing - heads-up is the ultimate time to bluff in texas holdem and without placing a great emphasis upon it, you will find it almost impossible to win. As previously mentioned with only 4 cards leaving the deck heads-up, statistically, the odds of your opponent being dealt a good hand are as low as they can be in the game and it is the safest and most effective time to bluff with any starting hand or having got nothing from the flop.
5) Finishing your opponent off - the odds are that sooner or later, one player will find himself with 80% or more of the chips. Assuming YOU have the 80/20 chip lead, it is time to bully your opponent to make him get all his chips in on a potentially poor hand he would not otherwise risk 1st place on. Every blind should be raised regardless of your cards in order to put the squeeze on his short stack and you should not back down because you can afford to take a hit and still be 60/40 up if he doubles through.
6) Making a great hand count - when you are dealt a premium hand pre-flop or you hit a great hand on the flop, you have to do your best to maximise your returns. Of course, sometimes your opponent will fold no matter what you try but if you have a great hand heads-up, you need to do your best to trap your opponent. Since the odds are low that he will also have a good hand, slow playing might be the answer (although it can of course lead to trouble). If you catch something on the flop, check or bet a small amount and see how he reacts. If he is weak, he will check or fold (unless he is trapping you!) but assuming he checks or calls, continue to bet the turn and river with slightly increasing amounts to keep the pot building. With any luck, he will either fold at the river if he is chasing and misses or he will feel pot-committed and call your final bet only for you to (hopefully) win.
7) Play the man not the cards - theoretically, every hand heads-up except the last one can be won without showing your cards. A large majority of hands will end before the river card is seen and rarely will there be a showdown. This is the way you want it to be ideally because if your opponent is strong, there can sometimes be no telling when he has caught a hand and it can be dangerous to just keep steam-rollering him in an attempt to buy his hand.
8) Attack the weak players - if your opponent is weak, exploit it ruthlessly with pre-flop raises and large raises even if you miss the flop. A weak opponent will often fold, even when in the small blind, so raise anything and everything and steal like crazy. Be aware when he suddenly stops folding and starts betting and early on, test the water with a few raises to see how he reacts. If he is truly weak, you will soon tell if he only bets when he has a good hand and with your bullying tactics, the odds are well stacked in your favour to win because he will not get a run of premium cards that lasts. There is no easier way to win a tournament than meeting an inexperienced heads-up player and if you can identify this weakness quickly, you will win quickly and often.
9) Look for patterns in your opponent's play - weaker players heads-up will exhibit definite patterns making it easier to get a read on them. Obviously, if someone folds 4 out of every 5 hands and then suddenly starts betting on the 5th, it can be pretty clear that he has a strong hand. However, not all patterns are this easy to spot and it is worth noting the actual betting patterns of a stronger player. Often, a strong player will check the flop if they have made a hand and bet it if they have missed. If they check and you bet the flop, you have to take notice of whether they check-raise or if they simply call. Players with great cards can sometimes make this very obvious by checking then calling on the flop, and then suddenly betting an innocuous turn card. You need to look out for such strategies and know when you are beaten - players who do not have much heads-up experience can be very bad at mixing it up and hiding these patterns and gaining a tell like this can significantly improve your chances of a win.Play at Party Poker - the largest poker room in the world!