There's no way around it: You'll have to play heads-up in poker tournament, unless you’re playing a satellite at Ignition. The money jump between second and first is the biggest money jump there is – yet so few people practice playing poker heads-up. Check out this easy-to-read guide for playing heads-up MTT poker. We’ll show you how to make the right moves when it’s just you and your opponent across the table, one-on-one.

 

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Heads-Up in Online Poker Tournaments

They say heads-up is the purest form of poker. That’s true at the cash tables, but it may be even truer when you’re playing a tournament. There’s no more waiting around for other players to bust, no more ICM (Independent Chip Model) considerations to worry about: It’s all down to you and your opponent. Skill takes even more precedence over luck in these situations – maybe that’s why so many newer players avoid practicing heads-up in the first place.

Or maybe they get intimidated by how the format changes. When a tournament gets down to two players (or you’re playing a heads-up Sit-and-Go), the order of play is a little different; the player in the small blind is also the button, and will act second post-flop instead of first. The player in the big blind will act last pre-flop and first post-flop. This can take some getting used to if you’re new at the game.

Then there’s all that money waiting to be won. How often do you get to play online poker for five figures or more? Probably not as often as you’d like. The more money there is up for grabs, the more excited you’ll get, even if you’re normally a level-headed person. All that excitement can put you on tilt and make it harder for you to choose the right play. It’s all good; breathe deeply, focus on reading your opponent, and use the concepts we’ll show you in this MTT poker guide.

 

Heads-Up: Home for Aggressive Play

The biggest adjustment you’ll make heads-up will be with the number of hands you play. With six players at the table, depending on the blinds/antes, your bet size and other factors, you might open-raise about 50-60% of your hands when it folds around to you in the small blind (if you’re playing a somewhat optimal range, and never limping). And if you’re in the big blind, you might defend something like 85% of the time when the small blind opens – maybe raising 20% and calling the other 65%.

That’s not nearly enough if it’s just the two of you at the table. Taking away the other four players means there are eight cards (or 16 cards, if it’s Omaha) that were once considered fold-worthy, but are now in the deck waiting to be dealt. You and your opponent are going to have much wider ranges, and the math dictates that you’ll have to open-raise a lot more frequently from the small blind to take advantage – maybe 80% of the time. In Texas Hold’em, that includes hands as weak as Seven-Deuce suited, and Ten-Four offsuit.

 

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If you’re heads-up in the big blind, you’ll need to counter by defending nearly every single time. Instead of 3-betting the top 20% of your hands, the math suggests something closer to 30% – this will include stuff like Queen-Four suited and Ace-Eight offsuit. You’ll still be calling about 65% of the time, but that range will now be lower down the scale than it would be in a 6-max situation; even a hand as poor as Nine-Deuce offsuit should be good enough to defend heads-up.

Again, the ranges we’ve mentioned here are just ballpark figures. You’ll need to loosen or tighten up depending on the usual factors – with special attention paid to how your opponent plays. There’s a good chance they’ll fold the big blind too often heads-up, giving you incentive to open with any two cards. And if you’re a more experienced player, you might want to introduce a mix of open-raising and limping from the small blind, just to make things more complicated for your opponent.

 

Re-Think the Strength of Your Hand

For a moment, let’s return to our 6-handed Hold’em tournament scenario. Once you reach the flop, as a very rough guide, you might be willing to bet one street for value with a pair, two streets with Top Pair-Good Kicker (TPGK), and all three streets with two pair or better. Throw those benchmarks out the window when you’re playing heads-up. Because your ranges are so much wider pre-flop, you should be willing to go much further down the poker hand ranking list with your post-flop betting. A low pair with a lousy kicker might even be good enough for three streets of value.

That’s if you’re deep enough to bet all three streets. There will be many tournaments where you get heads-up with your opponent and at least one of you has a relatively small stack – because the blinds have been going up and up all this time. To better prepare yourself for these situations at the Hold’em tables, download a reliable Nash push-fold chart (as in John Nash, the math whiz portrayed by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind) off the internet and see what pre-flop ranges are recommended for the button/small blind and the big blind. These ranges will apply specifically to cash games, but you can adjust as necessary to account for the blinds/antes and all the usual caveats at a tournament.

As an example, when you’re down to 10 big blinds and you’re first to act pre-flop, the Nash chart recommends you shove about 55% of the time, with hands as low as Queen-Seven offsuit (the famous “computer hand”) and Five-Three suited. This will be a mostly linear range of your Top 55% hands, with some tweaking to include more suited connectors and offsuit Kings. If you’re in the big blind with 10bb effective (meaning either you or your opponent has just 10 bigs), the Nash chart says you should call all-in nearly 40% of the time, putting more focus on hands with high cards like King-Six offsuit and Queen-Six suited. Unless you have a good reason, don’t call these all-in shoves with low suited connectors (Six-Five or worse) until the effective stack size is closer to 5bb or less.

 

Raising vs. Calling

We can’t stress enough that these recommended ranges are based primarily on cash play, where it’s easier to do the math, and that you’ll need to tighten or loosen your ranges to fit the circumstances. This can be a bit tricky. As your opponent moves further down the poker hand ranking list with their value bets, you’ll need to defend more often – both raising and calling. But how much more of each?

As usual, it depends. But the example we gave for widening your pre-flop defending range from the big blind will help you understand how this works. In this case, you’re 3-betting a mostly linear range, which you can gradually widen by adding at the margins. Let’s say you normally raise 30% of the time, and feel the need to 3-bet more aggressively. Start by adding hands that just barely miss the 30% threshold, like baby suited Aces through Queens, and middling offsuit Aces. Then work in hands like Ace-Four offsuit and baby suited Jacks.

These were normally hands that you’d call with pre-flop, so to compensate, you’ll also widen your calling range in the same fashion, starting at the margins and working your way down from there. If you’re tightening your ranges instead of getting looser, just do the same thing in the opposite direction; dump your weakest calls first, and turn your weakest 3-bets into calling hands.

You can make the same kind of adjustments post-flop, but in this case, you also have to account for all that bluffing you and your opponent are going to do. As a general rule, the more often you value bet, the more often you should bluff as well, to disguise your intentions and keep your opponent on their toes. Again, do this from the margins; if you’re only bluff-raising with open-ended straight draws and flush draws, start mixing in some gutshot draws and backdoor straight-flush draws, where you have three cards to both a flush and a straight – preferably with two of those cards in your hand and one on the board. Save the “naked” bluffs where you don’t have any outs for last.

Hopefully by now you have an idea of how aggressive heads-up tournament poker can get. If you aren’t already, practice this very important aspect of the game by playing some heads-up Sit-and-Gos at Ignition Poker, so you can better ingrain these concepts. Not only will this give you a greater chance of success at the tournament tables, you might also find this extra aggression helpful when you’re playing any kind of poker – it’s like a baseball player swinging a weighted bat in the on-deck circle. Push the envelope, keep practicing, and don’t spend all that first-place prize money at once.

 

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