Heads-up poker is a card-playing game format that can provide competitive intimacy and fun to any two individuals who possess a deck of cards and other poker equipment.
Whether playing against a buddy for nothing at a kitchen table or competing in a prestigious major tournament, heads-up poker can present any player with a unique learning experience.
In this article, we’ll take a look at some very basic aspects of heads-up poker that beginning players should be aware of.
We’ll also lay out some rudimentary practice routines and mathematical equations that may assist in forming part of a knowledge-based foundation for poker enthusiasts who are not very familiar with heads-up play.
Before we begin, a quick disclaimer that this article is NOT intended to act as a substitute for poker lessons, poker training, or strategic for-profit play. Rather, it is intended to provide some very basic knowledge and tips that you may need to be aware of before seeking out a poker coach and/or attempting to become a professional player.
Heads-Up Poker and Heads-up Game Rules
Before we specifically get into poker, let’s take a look at heads-up, one-on-one games and how their rules can significantly impact one’s long-term expectation.
Take the 3×3 grid game of Tic Tac Toe, for example.
The rules of the game are very simple, and are constructed in a way in which the very best human players in the world are equally matched against the very best “computer” players.
Once the “best” skill level is achieved by a pair of heads-up opponents, players can only aspire to a perpetual series of tie games.
On the surface, one might not consider the mathematical aspects of such a game (especially when playing for the first time as a child) – yet a mathematical solution DOES exist.
So now you may be wondering to yourself, “How is this relevant to heads-up poker?
Heads-up Poker Rules
Heads-up poker rules are the same in terms of hand strength and betting rounds as they would be for a full ring game of the same variant.
The Small Blind player also has the button in heads-up poker play, while the Big Blind player will be out of position (and correspondingly will act first) in all postflop betting rounds in games like Texas Hold’em and Omaha, as well as draw poker games.
In ante games like Seven Card Stud, a heads-up format will not change betting positions – they will play out just as they would in a 7 Card Stud game with more players.
Heads-up Poker Basic One vs. One Math, Using Simulations
One fun heads-up poker experiment that beginners may learn from is the practice of playing offline versus a pre-programmed “bot” opponent – one that you can play against without the stress of real money competition.
In such a scenario, a first-time poker player may be able to more firmly grasp the concept of “math versus feel” or intuition as it relates to the game itself. By using a pre-programmed opponent, we can also clearly distinguish how a mathematical edge in heads-up poker is formed.
Let’s take the a play money scenario to illustrate a few things about heads-up poker.
Player 1 (You): 2001 chips
Bot 1: 4000 chips (programmed to go all-in preflop every hand)
Player 1: 3s-2h
Bot 1: ?-?
Preflop Action: Bot 1 raises the action and goes all-in from the button with an unknown hand. There are now 6000 chips in the pot – with the action now on Player 1 who must decide whether to commit a single chip into the pot or fold and relinquish the pot.
In this controlled, non-real money situation, is there any justification at all to make a case for Player 1 to fold? And if there is only a justification (from a poker strategy perspective) for calling, does Player 1 know this by way of feel, intuition, or simply because Player 1 is presented with a scenario in which the math is so skewed that it is obvious a call is the correct play?
Due to Bot 1’s programming, we can assign a range of “any two cards” to Bot 1’s preflop hole card range.
So with a single chip remaining for Player 1 to commit, is there any hand that Player 1 can hold that has worse than a 1-in-6000 chance of eventually winning the pot at showdown?
The answer is no. Even with the worst heads-up poker hand (3-2 offsuit), Player 1 cannot (or perhaps more appropriately, IS not) a 1-in-6000 underdog versus Bot 1’s range. And it’s not even close.
Even if Bot 1 holds the best possible preflop hand in Texas Hold’em (pocket Aces), Player 1’s 3-2 offsuit is only (approximately) a 1-in-8 underdog to win the pot. That’s a far cry from 1-in-6000.
So Player 1 is faced with a mathematical solution that is so far skewed in favor of contributing the single remaining chip for a “call” that even Player 1 can “feel” or “divine” what the correct play is… but it’s still a math problem at the end of the day.
Let’s create another hypothetical play money scenario with our pre-programmed bot that is tasked with going all-in preflop on every hand.
Player 1 Chips: 10000
Bot 1 Chips: 10000
Player 1: Qs-9h
Bot 1: ?-?
Bot 1 goes all-in, and Player 1 (from the Big Blind), is faced with a decision to either call with the remaining 9,998 chips or fold.
Since we know that Bot 1 is pre-programmed to go all-in on every hand, we can again assign a hole card range of “any two cards” to Bot 1.
So… Qs-9h is clearly winning against a range of “any two cards.” Q-7 is the “computer hand” that is typically described as the average hole card strength – and Qs-9h is superior to that hand.
Does this mean (from a poker strategy perspective) that Player 1 is going to make the call, knowing that Qs-9h is indeed a winning play against Bot 1’s range? Or is it better for Player 1 to wait (via folding) for a better situation in which the pot odds are more favorable?
Again, a human player may think that he/she feels or “divines” that folding is the correct play in this scenario, but in the end there is a mathematical solution that provides a clear answer.
How Are Pre-Programmed Scenarios Relevant to Actual Heads-up Poker Play?
These pre-programmed practice modes are relevant to illustrate (in a play-money environment) and define very clear-cut mathematical edges to a beginning player.
And subsequently, to demonstrate that these obvious scenarios will be – for lack of a better term – primarily “unavailable” in a competitive heads-up poker environment in which real money incentives exist for both human players to win.
Two poker players with the exact same heads-up ability who are competing against each other one-on-one is a wash. Add any rake into this environment and both players lose – regardless of whether they are the two best/two worst players, or anywhere in between.
Therefore, if you are genuinely interested in playing heads-up poker for a profit, you must overcome the following barriers or satisfy the following prerequisites before doing so:
- Your skill must be superior to that of your opponent’s
- Your edge must then be large enough to overcome the casino, cardroom, or home game’s rake
How Do I Find Inferior Heads-up Poker Players?
Wouldn’t we all like to know?!
For starters, heads-up private games are usually “not a thing” unless there’s a preliminary marketing effort along with a healthy amount of public interest that precedes them.
If you’re playing online poker, then your best bet may be to try out some of the various poker software programs and apps that may give you a better idea of an opponent’s heads-up poker playing ability.
These products may also be able to assist you with identifying and plugging your own leaks in heads-up play (as well as other poker formats).
Poker Heads-up Tips
The number one poker heads-up tip that I can personally think of is… don’t get cheated!
This may be easier said than done in certain scenarios, but is a risk/possibility that all heads-up poker players should remain acutely aware of.
READ MORE: Poker Cheat Sheets
The real money consequences of getting cheated in a heads-up poker game can present odds equally as devastating as the “play money bot” scenarios I’ve mentioned above.
- If an opponent knows one or more of your hole cards, and/or
- If an opponent knows the eventual community card/hole card/door card board runout
… then you’re already defeated, doomed, and the proverbial “fish” at the table regardless of how well you play the game of poker in a fair playing environment.
And while a lot of publicity exists in terms of being wary when playing high-stakes heads-up poker, the same risk of getting cheated can also exist at low-stakes games. As you might hear some poker players say, “it’s all relative.”
So, assuming you’re not getting cheated, the next two tips I can provide are to:
- Gain experience through actually playing heads-up poker
- Join a poker study group and/or get coached specifically on heads-up poker play
Heads-up Hold’em Strategy
If you are a beginning and/or low-skilled heads-up poker player who is playing as a means to improve, experience real-time training, and limit your losses – then you’ll want to play for the lowest stakes possible.
While $0.01/$0.02 online poker heads-up Hold’em games might become a tad boring or tedious, you’re probably better off using the micro stakes poker games to learn as you go (instead of jumping in to higher stakes games that may expose your poker bankroll to a higher “risk of ruin”).
Contrary to popular belief, higher stakes games may not be easier to master than lower stakes games – whether in a live setting or online.
Aside from this, my advice would be to enjoy the experience!
If you’re willing to engage with heads-up poker or heads-up Hold’em strategy in a way in which the journey is personally rewarding, that may represent enough incentive for you to actually improve upon your skills.
Don’t put your poker bankroll under excessive pressure; don’t toss away the experience and knowledge you’re gaining; and don’t get cheated. That’s about it as far as basic heads-up poker strategy tips go!
Starting Your Poker Experience Through Heads-up Play
Loosely speaking, heads-up poker play may be a great place for you to begin your poker journey.
Think of it as being similar to chess… if you start out training with fewer pieces (fewer variables), then perhaps you can learn from and avoid bad strategy habits before they manifest themselves in more complex scenarios.
By definition, you only have one opponent to concern yourself with when playing heads-up poker. Once a game attracts more players, you’ll be faced with more variables to consider.
If you’re in the mood for shot-taking, then there are seasonal live heads-up shootout events that take place during major tournament series, or you can enter an online heads-up tournament and try your luck.
There are also plenty of heads-up poker Sit & Gos online where you can attempt to defeat a random opponent in a mini-tournament that typically concludes in less than 15 minutes. Or try out a Hyper Turbo blind format that will reduce the skill edge enjoyed by a superior opponent.
Enjoy heads-up poker with friends, online, or in a major live tournament and learn from experience about the potential real money edges that can make you a long-term winner at the tables!