Heads up cash game poker has often been described as the purest form of poker that there is. It is a real battle of wits and guts as each player is sat opposite their opponent with no other players involved in the game whatsoever. In online heads up cash games then your hands come thick and fast and so it is vital that you get into your opponents head and understand how they think and to prevent them from figuring your game out and destroying you. The core dynamics of heads up cash games are simple but brutal. If you are playing against an opponent who is technically superior to you then you are losing value. There are no other players on the table to provide you with a safety net.
Most heads up cash games are played using Texas Hold’em and mainly at no-limit. While Pot Limit Omaha and limit hold’em are also popular heads up games, they fall some way short of the popularity of heads up games in no limit Texas Hold’em. Heads up poker is simply a case of “survival of the fittest”.
In heads up play against just one opponent then the importance of reading your opponent is vital. In ring games then you can earn money from sign up bonuses, rakeback and generally just sitting and waiting for mistakes. However in heads up cash games then you simply do not have this luxury. Heads up play simply allows better players to make more money. This is for the simple reason that they are playing more hands against players who they have an edge over. In a ring game then you may not get very many opportunities to become involved in pots with your main targets but in a heads up cash game then this can happen all the time.
It is vital to be aggressive in heads up play for two key reasons. Firstly because you are in the blinds on every single hand and so your cost per hand to play poker is very high. This means that you cannot wait for strong hands and if you are not aggressive then your opponent almost certainly will be. So what this means is that almost any hand can become playable and starting hand charts almost go out of the window. You are now playing “pure poker” where you are feeling your opponent out in how they play and what state of mind they are in and even their attitude to risk. With position and enough aggression then any hand can win although this does not mean that you will play any old junk.
Any ace is a strong hand in heads up play and making pairs is more difficult with fewer opponents. So having any pair in your hand can be a good hand and it usually takes high cards and pairs to take the pots down. You do not need to make a flush or a straight to win in heads up play. When hands get checked down or have very little post flop aggression then it is often the case that the highest card wins if there is no pair.
Basic heads up strategy
In a way then heads up play isn’t much different to ring game play in that many of the same concepts apply. The main concept that applies to both types of poker game is in how position is of vital importance. So you will definitely be opening with a much wider range from the button in heads up cash games. In fact there are many professional players who actually advocate playing 100% of their hand range on the button who will then adjust based on how much aggression their opponents actually stand for.
However what needs to be pointed out here is that your range should vary widely depending on various factors. These are your table image, your opponent and how they play and also the flow of the game. Heads up play mainly revolves around adjusting to your opponent’s line of play and how they adjust to yours. So for example if you are open raising on the button and your opponent is frequently three betting you then you have to respond to that in several ways. It could be that you start four betting pre-flop, open raising less, or calling and then looking to take the pot away from your opponent on the flop or beyond the flop. You may also decide to use a combination of the above strategies.
Game selection is more important in heads up cash games than in any other form of poker. If you are –EV to a particular opponent in a ring game then you can largely avoid them. This is impossible in heads up play and so you need to make notes on your opponents before you play them. If you have any problem with tilt or you simply cannot be bothered to find beatable opponents then you have no chance at this extremely tough and demanding form of poker.
Written by: Carl “The Dean” Sampson – Poker author, writer and online poker pro