Proper heads up approach in Texas Hold’em poker

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Recently, GamingToday reader Ed Grant, a retiree who lives in Minnesota and enjoys playing hold’em as a hobby, asked my advice on playing heads-up.

He wanted information on times where all the other players have folded and now it’s just one opponent and you remaining in the pot. The winner will gain all that dead money plus subsequent bets.

Heads-up play happens so often, yet rarely is it discussed in the poker media. So, I will share my thoughts with Ed and you.

Down to two players: Most important, consider what type of player your opponent is – tight or loose, passive or aggressive, degree of aggressiveness (a maniac?), a calling-station (once he invests in a hand, he rarely folds), timid (folds to a raise unless he has a strong hand), or deceptive (could be bluffing). How skilled is he?

Reading his hand: Consider how he has been playing this hand. Then, decide what range of hands you put him on.

To illustrate, if your remaining opponent is a tight player and has been raising, he almost certainly has a good hand. Did he raise before the flop?

If so, he probably holds a made hand or a top drawing hand. If the tight player had not raised until the flop, then he has really improved his hand. Be cautious. Loose and aggressive players may hold a much wider range of hands. What hands do you regard as most likely based on his play?

Many players are loose-aggressive and deceptive. It’s almost impossible to read their hands. In that case, play your hand for its inherent strength and hope it is best.

Observations/responses: Tells can be valuable. It helps, especially, to be familiar with what Mike Caro calls “universal tells.” These are tells common to many poker players, and are based on deception that is inherent in poker.

Note also how your opponent has previously reacted to betting/raising or checking by opponents. Playing heads up, an aggressive player often will bet if you check before him – regardless of his hand’s strength. He is trying to force you out, suggesting his hand is not all that strong.

When heads-up, consider re-raising him rather than just calling. He probably will muck his cards; and you win the pot.

Be sure to have at least six outs (e.g., two over cards to the board), in case he actually has a decent hand.

That’s a good tactic with a drawing hand. But, if your hand is powerful and almost certain to be the winner, you don’t want to force him out. Your goal is to build as big a pot as possible. In that case, just call his raise on the flop (slow play and trap); hopefully, he will continue to bet – until you are ready to pounce upon him by raising for value, preferably on the turn.

Take note of how many chips your lone opponent has in front of him. If you think he is on tilt, you won’t be able to bluff him out; he will probably call if he thinks he has any chance of taking the pot. Just play your hand straight-forward, hoping you have the best of it. The same applies if he is a loose player or “chip-rich.”

Your Image: Just as you have studied his play, a skilled opponent will have formed an image of you. Knowing your own image, consider it as you plan your strategy against this opponent. A tight image permits you to successfully bluff more often. If he is not really skilled, then your image will matter little.

On the river: One piece of advice here is to bet for value when you believe your hand is best – if it is highly improbable your lone opponent has a stronger hand. On the other hand, especially when playing against a deceptive opponent, be cautious lest he check-raises you while he holds the better hand.

“The Engineer,” a noted author and teacher in Greater Los Angeles, is a member of the Seniors Poker Hall of Fame. Contact George at [email protected].

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About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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