You've navigated your way past the masses and you now find yourself just one elimination from victory or defeat. It's heads up time at the poker table and you're in a kill or be killed situation. The top prize is there, shining under the spotlight as you consider your next move.
Heads up play is, in many respects, the most important part of any poker tournament. Although you'll need to employ a host of skills to make it to this stage of an event, it's during the heads up portion of the game that things get really serious.
Unlike earlier in the game, you don't have hundreds or thousands of people to consider, you just have two: you and your opponent. Heads up is a one-on-one confrontation between the first or last two players at the table. It's also often a necessary element of most sit-and-go poker tournaments.
Playing heads up takes some adjusting to because you have to find the right balance between aggression and timing. Unlike earlier in the tournament where you could sit tight and let others do the work for you, heads up play leaves you exposed, and that means you have to make every move count. In essence, the most important concept you need to embrace is aggression. Unless you're in a heads up event, the times you'll be one-on-one with someone will be at the end of a tournament when the blinds are high and the stakes are low.
This dynamic means time isn't a luxury you can afford, and it's the reason you have to open up your range and play more hands. Fortunately, because your opponent is in the same boat, their range will also have to increase and that means the strength of their average hand will decrease. Essentially, you'll see a lot more rag hands, high cards and bluffs taking pots heads up.
Heads up poker strategy is very different from normal poker strategy as it relies almost entirely on aggression. It's a very personal form of the game, pitting two players against one another psychologically as well as physically, increasing the likelihood of tilt.
One of the most important requirements in your approach to playing heads up poker is to pay close attention to your opponent's style of play. Intend to pressure them into making rash decisions and try to remain in control throughout play. Play plenty of pre-flop raises if you're in possession of a strong hand and keep one eye on the size of your stack, as it will help in intimidating your opponent. The key to succeeding with this variant is to play aggressively.
Simply telling you to become "more aggressive" is easy, but what does that mean in reality? It pays to find a technique that's versatile. In situations like this it pays to look at game theory, specifically the work of mathematician John Nash.
Using Nash's theories, you can make moves which, theoretically, can't be exploited mathematically. The goal of every poker player is to make the most mathematically sound move in every situation – the Nash Equilibrium allows you to do this.
As stated, heads up play is characterised by short stacks. Any time you have 15 big blinds or more you can simply play solid, aggressive poker. However, once you get close to 11 big blinds you should simply employ a shove/fold strategy and use the Nash Equilibrium to guide your play. In fact, if you are against a strong player, then a Nash shove/fold is always your best option.
Basically, against strong players, you should use the Nash charts without any adjustment. Conversely, against poor players who are frequently deviating from Nash, you can use the Nash charts as a set of pivot points and then adjust them on a case-by-case basis to further exploit a poor player's mistakes.
Although using Nash's theories won't make you invincible, it will encourage you to be more aggressive heads up. It will make you a tougher opponent for strong players, dramatically increasing your long-term results.
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